In laying the foundation of a Syrian village system and order are not consulted, and no streets are planned. In order to know how the roads run in villages and towns in Syria one should consider a village as a page in a book and try to run his pencil between the words from the bottom of the page to the top. The line one makes represents a Syrian road.
In these stony, narrow passages water runs in torrents in Winter, and makes walking most disagreeable.
The houses, excepting in some parts of Damascus State, are built of stone. After a building has been walled up the roof is constructed. Poles like telegraph poles are laid parallel from one wall to the other of the building and about eighteen inches apart; across these poles heavy sticks are laid, the spaces between which are very small. Across these sticks reeds are laid which are closely tied together; over the reeds leaves and thistles are spread, and the whole is covered with about twelve to fourteen inches of earth.
This earth is kept hard by rolling over it a heavy stone roller, which the man of the house must do almost ever day in Winter in order to keep the water running off his roof and escape the "dropping." This "dropping" is so disagreeable that Solomon likened it to a contentious woman.
On these roofs in Summer the provisions of Winter are dried in the warm, bright sun of Syria. When snow comes, which usually falls heavy on the slopes of old Lebanon, the villagers may be seen with their roughly made wooden shovels shoveling the snow off their houses to prevent it from weighing heavily on the wooden roofs and injuring them or causing them to fall.
During the winter the villagers have very little or nothing to do, and their time is spent most unprofitably. The different sects do not generally intermingle at their social gatherings, because the women of one sect do not appear before the men of another excepting when their faces are covered, and this, of course, is not very enjoyable to either sex. For this reason Christians spend their happy hours together and other sects do the same.
When the company arrives at a house in "the first watch of the night" the oldest man leads by virtue of age, and before entering the door he calls the host by name or makes such an utterance as "Where are you?" or "Oh, good people," or something like that, as a warning to the family.
The host has built a fire of wood or charcoal in the house early enough so the greater part of the smoke will escape from the door (for he has no chimney) before his company has arrived. The door in Syria is always open, Summer and Winter, excepting when people go to bed; then the door is closed. And because it is the custom in Syria to leave the door always open this utterance of warning is given in place of the rapping at the door, which by force of circumstances Syrians could never learn.
As soon as the hardy mountaineer hears the call of his visitors he answers from within:
"Welcome, welcome! Honor me by coming in."
Then he rushes to the door to meet them with a smile on his rough face. They enter, and, leaving their shoes at the door, are seated on the floor, according to rank and age, the chief being in the corner, near which the ditch of fire is situated.
The tobacco plate is first passed around and the visitors make cigarettes; a little later the coffee is passed around in those famous small Turkish cups. The visitors, unconsciously obey St. Paul's command, "prefer one another in honor," and when the brass tray on which the small cups of coffee are carried is passed to the oldest man present, he as a matter of politeness refuses to take coffee first, and turns the carrier to another dignitary present, who, not willing to have any one excel him in courtesy, refuses in strong and positive terms to take coffee before the rest, especially before "Uncle Simoan," the oldest man present. In Syria, when you call a man uncle you mean that you respect him as you do your father.
So the carrier of the "tray" is sent back and forth from one guest to the other until at last the patriarch of the company, urged by the rest "in the name of God," and other characteristic utterances, takes the cup, saying to the rest, "Pardon me."
After this the coffee is passed around a little faster until every one of the company has taken a cup. As soon as a visitor has drunk his coffee the tray is brought back to him. He puts the empty cup back, and, turning to his host, he places his right hand on his breast and lifts it up again to his head with a genuine Oriental bow, saying:
"May we always drink coffee in this home, and may we drink it again in wedding festivities and fetes of joy."
After all the guests have drunk and complimented the host, he drinks his cup and says: "Ye have honored me and my home by your visit," to which they all bow and say, "We have been honored."
There are various ways in which the evening is spent. Card playing is very general in Winter, but it frequently causes quarrels among the mountaineers. Heroic tales usually occupy the evening, and each tale is made a little larger than the one preceding it.
One says: "My grandfather with one blow of his 'yatican' [some sort of a claymore] cut of the head of a gigantic highwayman."
The other says: "Listen; may God prolong your days; there is greater than that. My greatgrandfather once struck a great highwayman with his yatican on the crown of his head, and, passing through the backbone, cut the spinal cord exactly in two, and passed between the feet of the doomed man. The blow was so swift that the man, not feeling it, stepped forward toward my greatgrandfather and fell in two pieces."
"Ah!" emit the listeners. "That is great, but I know of some greater deeds," says another.
Sometimes they spend the evening singing their tribal, chivalrous songs and talking on divers domestic subjects. About 10 o'clock the coffee pot is put in the ditch and the second coffee prepared and passed, after which the guests take their leave.
The gatherings of villagers at funerals are very large. The entire population of the village above the age of fifteen is expected to attend. At such gatherings men and women do not mingle together. There are always two places provided, one for each sex. The women surround the corpse, and do most of the mourning and wailing, and the men spend the time discussing subjects pertaining to life and death.
As soon as a person dies the news is communicated to the villagers with all swiftness. Women hurry first to the bereaved home, and men come in large companies a little later.
When the relatives see a number of men coming they stand in line to receive them. It is not good manners to say "good morning" to the bereaved before expressing one's sympathy to them. So when people come they stand in line facing the relatives of the dead, and all together say: "Our mind is with you in this bereavement; may you be kept safe; may the dead be a sacrifice for the prolongation of your lives; it is extremely grievous to us, but it is the will of God."
This is the shortest form of expressing sympathy at a funeral, said with the right hands flying from their breasts to their heads and back in quick succession, and answered in the same manner by the relatives of the dead. After this they say "Good morning" all together and exchange "How are you?" &c.
Undertakers are not found in Syria excepting in the large cities. The neighbors with the nearest relatives take charge of the corpse, and there is no embalming. When a person dies a carpenter is called to take the measure of the corpse and make a "taboot"--a kind of casket.
The law requires that the dead be buried after twenty-four hours from the time of death, and not sooner, but this law is seldom obeyed. A few days ago a woman died in this village early in the morning, and was buried at noon of the same day.
They bury in vaults in this part of the country.
VISITING IN SYRIA
A Peronal Account of Social Customs in Syria
at the Close of the Nineteenth Century
The New York Times, May 28, 1899