Sunday, 8 September 2013

"Where there are no people, there is hell": a look at Syrian folklore


We now know that America will be launching a violent attack on Syria, whose regime has decayed to deadly turmoil in recent years as a result of the Arab Spring.

It's easy to see the harrowing scenes on the news and view Syria as another war-torn nation, one that you can only sympathise with. You never see the vitality, the colourful vibrancy of Syrian culture - their customs and folk beliefs. To many Syria will just become another Middle Eastern nation doomed under a brutish regime and one that must be saved by the west.

Song and dance play a large role in Syrian culture, especially at parties and celebrations where the dabke (or dabkeh) dance is commonly performed. This line dance is accompanied by a drum called a tabla or a band. Movements feature rhythmic stomping which is said to originate from house builders having to compact the dirt and straw of the roof in a uniform way. The song Ala Dalouna (translated to Let's Go and Help) spawned from the dance in order to make labouring more light-hearted.

The Syrians' love for elaborate celebration can also be seen in their plethora of vibrant and energetic festivals that run throughout the year. Take the Desert Festival for example, designed to keep alive the traditions of the Badiya (Syrian desert) in Palmyra. There's also the Latakia Memory Festival, which revives the ancient traditions and culture of Latakia over three days, complete with carnivals, a wind surfing competition and the Phoenecian boats contest. These, along with other celebrations like the Damascus Flower Show, Syrian Song Festival and Jasmine Festival makes for an exciting cultural calender bursting with national pride.

And if one is talking about Syrian folklore it would be remiss to leave out the rich tapestry that is Syrian mythology. Looking back at pre-Islamic Syria, we find deities like Atargatis - The Great Mistress of the Northern Syrian Lands, known commonly as the 'mermaid goddess' for her fish body. To Atargatis doves and fish were sacred, with doves being emblematic of love and fish being symbolic of water fertility. It is said that Syrian men would castrate themselves in honour of her. There is also Manuzi, the weather god, whose consort was Liluri, goddess of mountains, and who were said to be appeased by the sacrifice of bulls.

Under the spectre of war it's difficult for people to see past the armed troops marching through dusty streets and the bodies strewn on the ground, victims of heinous chemical attacks. But don't for one second reduce Syria to a new desert wasteland in your mind. These people have incredible, beautiful traditions that have stayed in their hearts for generations.