Syria - Culture
You're unlikely to hear traditional Arab tunes on the streets of Damascus, but you will find an interesting hybrid of Arab-style singers backed up by orchestras of western and traditional instruments everywhere you go. Some of the favourite artists are Mayada al-Hanawi and Asala Nasri. The Bedouin are still hanging on to their musical traditions, with groups of men singing trance-like chants to accompany a lone belly dancer.
Visual art in the Arab world often means architecture, largely because Islam forbids the depiction of living things. Throughout Syria you will find some spectacular ancient and classical sites, with relics left by the Muslim caliphs, the Romans and the Byzantines. There are also plenty of religious works left behind by the Crusaders. The Qur'an is one of the finest examples of classical Arabic writing; the Al-Mu'allaqaat is an even older collection of Arab poetry. Toward the end of the 10th century, Syria was the focal point of one last great flash of Arab poetry - the most notable works of this era were penned by Al-Mutanabbi (who considered himself a prophet) and Abu Firas al-Hamdani. One of the best known works of Arab literature is Alf Layla wa Layla (A Thousand and One Nights), a collection of tales from several centuries and countries. Bedouin artworks include silver jewellery, colourful textiles and a wide range of knives.
Hospitality is a cornerstone of Arab life. It is commonplace for Syrian families, particularly desert dwellers, to welcome strangers into their home. The tradition developed from the harshness of desert life - without food, water and shelter provided by strangers, most desert travellers would die. Wherever you go in Syria, you are likely to hear the word, tafaddal (loosely translated as welcome) and you will frequently be invited into people's homes for food or a cup of tea.
Islam is the predominant religion in Syria. A monotheistic religion, Islam's holy book is the Qur'an, and Friday is its sabbath day. Every day, five times a day, Muslims are called to prayer from the minarets of mosques that dot the country. Islam derives from the same monotheistic roots as Judaism and Christianity, and Muslims generally regard Christians and Jews with respect - in Islam, Jesus is regarded as one of the Prophets of Allah, and Jews and Christians are considered fellow 'people of the Book'. Mohammed was the last Prophet, and it was to him that Allah dictated the Qur'an. Most Syrian Muslims belong to the Sunni sect of Islam, but there are sizeable Shi'ite, Druze and Alawite minorities. The Druze mostly live around the border with Jordan, and their beliefs are shrouded in secrecy. The Alawites, mostly found around Lattakia and Hama-Homs, are extreme Shi'ites.
Islamic law forbids eating pork and drinking alcohol, and this law is followed to a greater or lesser (generally lesser) extent throughout Syria. Islam also has a tendency to divide the sexes, and you might find that many eating establishments only welcome men. Most of these will, if asked, show you to the 'family room', an area set aside for women. When Syrians eat out, they will usually order group meals - a selection of mezzeh, or starters, followed by main meals to share. Arabic unleavened bread, or khobz, is eaten with almost everything. The other staples are felafel, deep-fried chickpea balls; shwarma, spit-cooked sliced lamb; and fuul, a paste of fava beans, garlic and lemon. Mensaf is a Bedouin speciality - a whole lamb, head included, on a bed of rice and pine nuts.