Sunday, October 14, 2007

Syria and The Family

The funniest, most memorable thing Emily said was about religion, something hard to evade in the Middle East. Reflecting in general on the madness of the world, she noted how bizarre it would be if Christians had their own variant of the muezzin's call to prayer, publically, loudly broadcasted:

'Drink the Blood of Christ! You must drink the blood of Christ to be saved!' shouted out five times a day

Imagining such a spectacle floating over a city full of people going about their business made me chortle and wonder at how eeirie, alarming and strange that would be.

Certainly the Islamic version seems less freaky. Undoubtedly, its content is less dramatic and extreme. Or maybe I only say that becasue I don't speak Arabic or hear it everyday. Church bells, our version of the call to prayer, don't mean anything. They're just a reminder that we ought to be up on the hill. If there must be a public chivvying (must there? Really?) I definitely prefer things this way, to say nothing specific about God, at least in public. Another advantage is that bells are less inclined to ring out at 5 in the morning.

It was fascinating to get a glimpse of the nature of Syrian family life, hearing about the Christian family Emily's living with. The Christians are just as religious as the Muslims and have similar attitudes towards family, courtship and marriage. Apart from obvious theological differences, then, the only existential differences are in the Christians' attire (no headscarves) and their belief in the sinlessness of alcohol, if drunk moderately of course. In practice, both Muslims and Christians drink in Syria, only Christians less of a guilty conscience.

As a Westerner from the progressive realms of family dysfunction and disintegration, I've been programmed to appreciate the all-surpassing supremacy of the individual in matters of familial politics. In the West, to an ever increasing degree, the extent to which families stay together and the shape of that togetherness when they do, is determined by the free individual decisions and commitments made by each of the members involved. Templates of formal duty and obligation being oh so droll and pre-sixties, it's now up to us in our own ways to determine if and how the nuclear, let alone extended, family survives.

Personally, I want to have my cake and eat it. Ultimately I feel I should be able to. Why else have the cake, or even make it? I want there to be no formal regimen dictating how families should be structured or interact. Yet I want that they cohere, survive and blossom into ever intensifying domains of happiness, wherein an intensity of personal freedom and authenticity combines with an intensity of rootedness, connectedness, and love. I fear, nevertheless, that as so often in life this is easier said than done, especially given our current Western spiritlessness and the moral disorientation we experience; on account of which we wrestle to make sense of the right accommodation to make between the claims of self and other.

Having lost to secular materialism a reliable mooring or anchor for a vocabulary of duty and obligation, it's difficult, and can sound hollow and trite, to tell people how they should behave. The only potent basis to do so seems to be the appeal to victimhood, as a tactic for securing self-advancement or compensation for real or imagined slights. This essentially punitive dynamic keeps alive the ghost of an overarching moral firmament. But it's a firmament that makes no demands on us and asks nothing from us, to deflect us from our freedom; until, that is, it rubs its nose in our faces when, as a result of its moral silence, we end up pissing each other off, often mightily. Its mode of operation, therefore, is passive not active. Morality reigns, but in a reactive, not proactive way.
One gets the impression, from our what is said by our media, art, teachers, even from our religious leaders, that little interferes with or questions this individual freedom. And yet ours, nonetheless, is an astonishingly litigious and punitive society; ruled by fears of petty officialdom, permeated with the strangulating self-righteousness of the aggrieved. That paradox is a central conundrum of our time. Through society's impositions and restrictions, we are daily reminded that we are not islands and must live together, despite the fact that our ideology is one of atomised individuality, enjoining loyalties to none higher than the self.

Needless to say, it's not like this in Syria, or the Middle East generally, where life constitutes a different kind of bed of thorns. Here the moral universe is still proactive, sometimes very. But with that same love of imbalance that we share - only differently expressed, the Islamic world makes certain to render its interpretation of proactive morality extreme and one-sided.
So much that our own 'Enlightened', democratic, individualised instincts tell us was wrong about the life of our own ancestors is still very much alive in the Middle East. By which I mean the imposition on individuals by the community to which they belong of an iron-fisted, inflexible order or schemata of how to live their lives. Young women, even Christian ones, must be home early in the evening and can't do what they want, or marry whom they want, unless their desires happen to co-incide with their parents'. As for young men, these too suffer, since unless they are to be secretive or indulge in gay adventures, they can't enjoy romantic love, let alone sex, until they're married, something which itself requires not only their parents' agreement but the satisfaction of their girlfriend's parents that they are respectable and, more importantly, sufficiently rich.

Much of this I already knew. What I was interested to hear from Emily, though, who has spent a long time talking to young Syrians and other Middle Easterners both in English and her rapidly improving Arabic, is what young people themselves feel about family life.

As I knew, loyalty to family is fundamental. Such a loyalty is nothing strange anywhere in the world except in the west to an increasing extent. In Syria, family is so often an economic necessity in any case, even before higher emotional or ideological considerations of love of family are considered. Young people will stay at home before they marry not only for reasons of propriety or mutual affection but economics, since parents, one hopes, make for cheap or even free landlords. Similarly, in an age of limited welfare, and unreliable employment and pension provision, to be old and without a family is not wise. So old people will often stay with their children until they die, and condition the young to look after the old, reminding them that they too will one day look and feel as unimpressive as they do. But beyond that it's clear Syrians hold the Family in a very high regard and consider their attachments to other family members to be more important than any other.

This is not so strange from a Western point of view, though it may increasingly be from a Western European point of view. In Slovakia, for example, young people have similar economic relations to their family. In addition, young Slovaks will also talk about their families, and visit their parents, in a way that clearly shows a very high esteem for the institution. How much of that esteem is heartfelt, how much routinised habit and convention, however, I was never that sure. A certain suspicion of taboo collects around talking negatively about ones family relations. Of that I was sure. Given the prevalence of domestic violence in Slovakia, yet the fact that I've personally heard about none, suggests to me at least that carpets must bulge in Slovakia, having had much swept under them.

Regarding Syria, I wouldn't want to speculate about the prevalence of domestic violence in the family. I'm not sure what kind of figures exist, or how data could be collected? I would suspect that the presumption is that all is harmonious in the family; that if it isn't, insubordination from children and wife is usually is to blame; that redresses made against the more tender elements of the family against that insubordination are justified, and that ultimately all this is the business of the head of the household, the man. One suspects Syrians, like most Middle Easterners, will basically be thinking – mind your own business, oh Western man of inferior religiosity and disintegrating culture. My family is private, it is not even a domain for other Muslims, let alone you.

Anyway, I'm just trying to map out the reality of the matter. If I am mistaken, I apologise, especially if I have offended, which I'm obviously not trying to do. I never try to cause offense. Offense as an emotion closes the mind and retards discourse. I do not seek boring, stilted or defensive interaction. Still, if one does find what I write offensive, join the club. I find much offensive about the world, including the idea that people might find me offensive when I'm not trying to be offensive:) Oh well, the world is an offensive place. That is no new revelation.

I didn't ask Emily about domestic violence. I just asked what Syrians had said about the normal restrictions of family life. She found they weren't always that happy about them but considered them so normal that nothing much could be done about them. Speaking out about the regulations or defying them is rare.

No doubt Syrians see family quite differently than I. You think normal what you know. It's hard for outsiders to understand or judge different forms of cultural life. Usually if you try you either idolise them as excessively superior to your own, or else desperately inferior if not evil.

Personally I wouldn't like to live in restrictive families that tell their adult members what to do, or how to live. I didn't like restrictiveness even when I was a child. I'd like it even less as an adult. But hey that's just me.

I'm impressed, anyway, that their families are so strong and cohere, unlike ours. Its just that, for me, I'd like a family that could combine that with radical freedom. A difficult concoction for sure. A challenge.

No comments: