Toufic Mohamad recalls his childhood in his village in rural Hassake, how he would play in the fields with the other children while their fathers worked the land.
“We children were tasked with pulling up weeds,” says Toufic, “and helping our parents with simple things. All the members of the family worked in the fields together, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, planting wheat, barley, cotton, cereals, and other harvests.”
By the time Toufic was fifteen years old, he was completely proficient in agricultural work and knew everything there was to know, from sowing to harvesting and fertilization to irrigation, and his father began depending on him more and more and entrusting him with more specific responsibilities.
Toufic’s family owned the land on which they worked. During harvest season, they depended on the shaweesh, a sort of foreman who assigned laborers to different landowners, finding them workers who would help them with the harvest in exchange for a day rate.
Residents were dependent on agriculture and their livestock herds—sheep, goats and cows—as their main sources of income. In times of drought, they were more dependent on the income they could get from their livestock.
“There were some who owned land and livestock,” says Toufic, “and others who owned nothing. There were some young people from the villages in Hassake who moved to the city to look for work or other sources of income, especially after water grew more scarce and the cost of agricultural materials and veterinary services increased.”
Most of the harvest produced by farmers went to government holdings. “We would turn our cotton harvest over to the government,” says Toufic, “and about a month or two later, they would pay us for it, after they had deducted the costs of the fertilizers and irrigation services that they provided famers with in advance.”
Toufic recalls that they worked longer hours during the summer than during the winter. In the summer, they could plant three different seasonal harvests, such as cotton, certain vegetables and corn, while in the winter, they could only plant wheat or barley.
At the end of the winter season, some families would go out into the surrounding pastures, where grasses and plants quickly appear after the rainy season, and set up small makeshift barns to feed and milk their livestock. During leisure time, friends and relatives would get together in the evenings in halls that were specially set up to receive visitors, exchanging stories as they drank tea and Arabic coffee.
Women worked the land side by side with men, says Toufic, but according to tribal law, they inherited nothing in their own names. If the head of a landowning family died, the land would be divided amongst his male heirs only.
To decide on the measures and matters relating to agriculture, each village elected a representative to communicate with different agricultural organizations and government institutions on behalf of their farms. This representative negotiated the purchase of seeds and the necessary agricultural materials, and helped figure out the distribution of harvests and everything else related to the workings of the farms.
Toufic describes the way of life in rural areas: “We went to the city to buy necessary foodstuffs, clothes and other things, or we tried to get them through the smaller weekly markets in a certain village or area. We fed ourselves from the things we had preserved or canned, produced from our land or livestock: vegetables and dairy products from ghee to cheeses and other things, eating from the stockpiles year round. Our area was famous for its mansaf, a rice pilaf topped with cuts of meat, drizzled with yogurt sauce and sprinkled with bits of saj or tannour flatbread, a dish we eat with our hands.”
Toufic said that there was a mutually cooperative relationship between the people of the countryside and those of the city. Those from rural areas went to urban areas to sell their produce and dairy products, during which time they would also shop or buy agricultural materials for themselves.
Toufic says that farmers have an essential and strong relationship to the land. “My father taught me good manners and values,” he says, “such as gallantry, generosity and love of the land. None of us would consent to sell their land except in the direst of situations. Under ordinary circumstances, you would rarely find anyone willing to part with their land.”