Abdelsalam Hamdan

Produced by: Sharq.Org
Part of the Curated Collection: Syrian Histories,
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Interview Location: Lebanon
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“In our society, polygamy is seen as something completely normal. There are some who marry up to four wives, but most of them are people who are financially quite comfortable, who own land.”

Abdelsalam Hamdan is from Deir Ez-Zor Province. A lack of general education in the area along with local customs that promoted early marriage, resulted in his marriage at eighteen years old; to a girl almost 4 years younger than him.

At the time, Abdelsalam was still entirely financially dependent on his family. His marriage lasted for about three years, and was beset by all the problems and conflicts typical of a couple that had married without either the requisite maturity or love for one another to ensure a good union.

“According to our customs,” says Abdelsalam, “when we have problems in our marriages we don’t go to the official courts but to a council that includes members of both spouses’ families to try and mediate the conflict or to decide on a divorce. If the wife asks for a divorce, she has to pay back the entire bride price that was paid for her. If it’s the husband who asks for the divorce, then the bride gets to keep the entire amount. In our case, the council ruled that only part of the bride price, which included cash, gold and clothing, had to be returned, after which our union was dissolved and we were officially divorced.

“In our societies,” he continues, “men seek to get married early in order to have children at a younger age, so that they can eventually, after the age of forty, retire from work and depend on their children to support them. Men also take great pride in the number of children they are able to add to their tribes, and the more men a tribe has, the more it is able to intimidate its enemies.”

At twenty years of age, after he had completed his obligatory military service, Abdelsalam was married again, this time to one of his relatives. After over thirteen years of a marriage that was again plagued with problems and conflicts, he decided he would take another wife, but then circumstances turned against him.

“In our society,” he says, “polygamy is seen as something completely normal. There are some who marry up to four wives, but most of them are people who are financially quite comfortable, who own land.”

Abdelsalam lived in one house with both his wives, in an atmosphere rife with quarreling and jealousy between the two wives, attempting in vain to reconcile between them. The situation led to an increase of the number of children in the house as well—eight from his first wife and three from his second, which of course multiplied the number of expenses.

“All my marriages were traditional,” said Abdelsalam, “with no love established between us prior to marriage. Successful marriages should be first and foremost built on love and affection.

“I won’t allow my children to get married until they’ve secured themselves financially,” he continues, “and until they’re at an age when they can truly tell right from wrong. I’ve regretted my own experiences terribly.”

In recent years, many young people in the region have begun avoiding the practice of marrying relatives as their forefathers did, as education about possible birth defects resulting from inbreeding have begun to spread. Young men will still follow their families’ advice about marrying particular girls known to them, and will stay away from pursuing relationships with girls from other areas.

Abdelsalam says that among those of his tribe, marriages are traditionally carried out through a contract in the presence of witnesses, without either civil or religious authorities present. Some will go on to register those marriages officially in court, while others will not. There are even some who marry directly at the court, though the traditional form of marriage remains the most prevalent.

The bride price can take many different forms, but is usually a mixture of cash, gold and clothing. The father of the bride will specify a particular price, as is custom amongst nearly everyone in the area, though there are cases in which a groom will be exempted from paying it, or will split the cost between himself and the bride, or will outfit his bride with a trousseau equal to the value of the required bride price.

In the past, weddings would be carried out with much pomp and ceremony, from preparing the feast, signing the Islamic marriage contract, cooking the banquet, slaughtering the animals that would be cooked for the guests, to celebratory gunfire and dabke dancing. Lately, however, all of these rituals have been cut back drastically in order to avoid any conflicts breaking out between the local young men, and because the living conditions and the general religious mentality of the area have changed. People have become more conservative and, as a result, have begun to frown upon some of these rituals. In addition, many are no longer able to afford a lot of the costs associated with them.