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Culture Syria

The cultural differences between Europe and Syria are so big that you could write a book about them. The following hints will help you avoid the biggest misunderstandings.

Hospitality: This is a cornerstone of Arabic life. It is normal for families (especially Bedouin) to welcome foreigners into their houses. This tradition was born out of the hardship of desert life; scarce food, water and shelter meant that most desert travellers would not survive without help along the way. Wherever you are in Syria, you will be invited frequently into locals’ houses for a cup of tea or something to eat.

Haggling: Haggling is the normal way to buy things at the souq (market) or in souvenir shops. The souqs in Damascus and Aleppo are ideal places to buy nice items, such as cloths, shawls, jewellery, woodwork, rugs, traditional clothing and herbs. If you get in a taxi which does not have a meter or has one that does not work, agree a price with the driver before you travel.

Gestures: Syrians use many gestures during their conversations which in many cases differ strongly from ours. Examples of this are that people say ‘no’ by raising their eyebrows and tilting their head back slightly, sometimes accompanied by a ‘tsk-tsk’ sound. You can say a polite ‘no, thank you’ by placing your right hand on your heart. If you do not want any more tea or coffee, lay your hand over your cup and say ‘shukran’ (thank you). Bedouin folk rotate their cup a couple of times to indicate the same thing. If somebody does not understand something, he will shake his head (like our ‘no’). Men who ask for directions should not be surprised if he is grabbed by the arm, as he will then be led to his destination in this manner. It is normal for men to walk hand in hand with each other here, although think twice if you are female and a local man wishes to walk with you in such a way! Here, the left hand is used to clean one’s backside after visiting the toilet, and is seen as unclean for this reason. Therefore, if you wish to gesture or touch something, use your right hand.

Art: Visual art in the Arabic world is usually only manifested in architecture, mainly due to the fact that Islam forbids depiction of living creatures. Spectacular monuments and excavations are common. In Syria, the Mari excavations from the early Bronze Age and the Ugarit site from the late Bronze Age are the most famous. Ancient Roman cities like Palmyra and Bosra are popular sites, as are the Christian monasteries in Malula, Saydnaya and the famous Simeon monastery to the north of Aleppo. The castle Crac des Chevaliers and the Aleppo citadel date back to the Crusades, and Damascus, Aleppo and many other cities are homes to elegant mosques. In Aleppo, Deir Ez Zor and Damascus there are many extremely interesting museums to be discovered, where many cultural treasures are found. Aside from the architecture, there are also stunning examples of calligraphy, another reputed form of Islamic art.

Public baths: A visit to a Hammam (public bath) is a special experience. In Syria, visiting a public bath is a normal part of everyday custom. The baths have fixed opening hours, and there are separate times and rooms for women. You must undress a couple of hours before going in. The Arabs take their bathing customs from the Romans. In the hammam there are warm baths, hot baths and saunas. There are no cold baths. You scoop up a ladleful of water out of one of the buckets and pour it over your body. Massages cost extra, but are extremely thorough. Afterwards you can relax and enjoy a cup of tea in the relaxation room. Men must make sure they keep their bottom halves clothed, although women are less prudish amongst themselves. Towels are handed out in the baths.

In general
Always remember that you are a guest in a country where other conventions are observed. They are not behaving strangely, you are.

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