I have been singing at weddings since I was 12 years old,” says Munira Al-Halabi, a woman in her sixties who flashed back to an innocent childhood with a smile as she reminisced her distant past in the village of Jaba’adin.“We had no sound speakers or anything of the sort in the village. This was back in the seventies.”
Munira was born in the village of Jaba’adin in 1960. At the age of three, she moved with her family to Damascus, where her father worked. Munira mentions that all her family members are fluent in the Syriac language. She says: “My grandfather was a very strict man. He didn’t approve of education—especially girls’ education. For this reason, he prevented me from going to school in the early years of my life, so I learned Arabic from my neighbours in the Samana neighbourhood in Damascus. As for Syriac, it is the inherited language and the spoken dialect that mothers are keen on teaching to their children while they grow up.”
To see photos of Jaba’adin in our gallery, click here.
Munira continues her talk about the Dalouna songs that she learned as a child in the Syriac language, which is the ancient language spoken in the village of Jaba’adin , located 60 kilometres from Damascus and known as al-Faj (mountain pass), because it is located between two mountains near the village of Al-Qutayfa in the Al-Qalamoun region.
photo: Jabʿadin, the rock wall at Sinnir mountain, © Museum für Islamische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
In the past, children would sing these Syriac songs all the time. They would pick them up from weddings or from their grandmothers and sing them while playing, because of their simple lyrics and catchy tunes. The most famous of them is the Messiah song in which a dialogue takes place between a young man and a young lady. The young man says in Syriac (Arabic translation):
I’m coming from the wilderness in the evening
O my soul, do not talk to me.
The story is over, and I am tired.
The young lady replies:
Why would I talk to you?
What would I want from you?
I swear if your mother knows, she will think of me as indecent.
al-Massiya (Ar: the evening) in the form of Dalouna
Munira explains that these songs bear the same characteristics as the Arabic Dalouna, and that the people of Jaba’adin used the same melody to recreate the songs in the Syriac language in order to preserve their mother tongue. “All the people of Jaba’adin are fluent in Syriac to this day, because it was originally a Christian village. People in the village used to speak to each other in the language of Jesus Christ. I’ve even heard my grandparents saying that a big church adorned with a golden bell used to be there in the town. These days, however, Jaba’adin is the town of the seven minarets”.
Munira explains the uniqueness of the language spoken in her village, saying: “Although there is a slight difference between the Syriac dialects spoken in the villages of the Al-Qalamoun region, you will find that our dialect is still close to the ancient Syriac language. That’s because the adults made it their duty to pass it down to their children as they learned it from their grandparents.” It is worth mentioning that an institute for teaching Syriac was established years ago in Maaloula with the aim of preserving this language, which was on the verge of extinction. Despite this, Munira points out that the secret to preserving any spoken language doesn’t only lie in education, but it has to do with the people, the households and the environment itself.
Once again, Munira looks back on the folk songs that she used to sing in her childhood and remembers that these songs recounted details of the surrounding environment and the folk costumes. In the song ‘Akhma Amrellesh’, the girl is described as “the one in the red skirt” or Samkouna, which means Sumac in Syriac—one of the plants grown in abundance in the village of Jaba’adin.
How often have I told you? Oh, how often
To that neighbourhood, you must never go.
You’ve shattered my heart. May God shatter yours.
O, the one in the red skirt
Traditional dress in Jaba’adin:
When she mentioned the red skirt, I was curious to know what the traditional dress looks like in Jaba’adin. I asked her if it is still worn today and how interested women are in preserving it.
“The costume in Jaba’adin was constantly changing with new fabrics coming into fashion, such as Smocking and Lycra, unlike other villages in the countryside of Damascus and As-Suwayda, where women were more adherent to the cultural identity associated with their local costumes and where embroidery was an essential part of it. Our costume was very simple, but elderly women used to wear the Shamlah—a head covering made of glitter threads and black silk. I wore it on my wedding day with a wreath of roses over it. Some women would wear ostrich feathers, silver bracelets or gold-coin chains known as the Makhozat. Additionally, there is the Natour (the guardian)—the blue bead that the bride covers her forehead with to ward off the curse of the evil eye. People in the village would borrow the Natour from each other because it was an expensive stone that only some of village women owned.”
The Wedding Play:
One of the old customs of local weddings, which is almost abandoned now, is the court play. These plays were performed on wedding days fifty years ago, and all the people in the village, whether young of old, would participate. The children would play the roles of sheep, while the shepherd would come from the village to play his real-life role, and this is where the play starts. One of the villagers is then introduced as a Bedouin who steals sheep from the shepherd. Next, the shepherd rushes to the judge, who must make a fair judgment, defend the shepherd’s rights and return his stolen sheep. Munira says that “during the period of the French mandate, some French officers visited the village and attended this play. At the time, the judge jokingly decided to impose a sentence on one of the French officers instead of the Bedouin, who was the real thief.” The play usually ends with the thief being sentenced to death in the arena, and here the demands are raised for his pardon in exchange for a tribute that he has to pay. “To cancel his execution, the judge this time ordered the French man to pay 5 liras, which he did!” Munira said while laughing. “At this point, all the happy villagers went to the centre of the square to celebrate the free man and the newlyweds.”
At the end of our talk, I asked Munira about the importance of these Syriac songs in the collective memory of this generation and whether they are also at risk of being abandoned just like the court play.
She replied: “Of course not. This language and songs are linked to the people, to their homes and to their household habits. We teach our children the Syriac language first because it is the heritage of the region, and because it makes it easier for them to learn Arabic later when they start school. The most important role of preserving this language is that of women—the grandmother first and then the mother, especially since the elderly refuse to speak Arabic”.