Hasna Assaf

Produced by: Sharq.Org
Part of the Curated Collection: Syrian Histories,
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Interview Location: Lebanon
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“At a time when life was nothing but humiliation and subjugation for women, I preferred to remain single. I used my mother’s illness as an excuse, saying I couldn’t bear to go off and leave her alone.”

Hasna Assaf recalls some of the customs and traditions practiced by the Turkmen in the village of Talf in rural Hama, where there was a mix of Arabs and Turkmen living side by side.

When it came to marriage, Turkmen girls were expected to learn a lot of things before their weddings, such as making saj and tannour bread, as well as planting, cooking, and shepherding livestock. Marriage to a relative was exceedingly common in the Turkmen community, and girls were often married to their first cousins or someone else from the family.

“On the day before the wedding,” says Hasna, “the women of the groom’s family would invite the women from the bride’s family to the hammam at the souk. They would spend almost the entire day there at the hammam, and food and drinks would be served. The women would sing and the atmosphere was joyous. The next day, the bride would prepare herself for the celebration by getting decorative henna designs on her hands and legs. She would put on her wedding dress and tie a red belt around her waist to symbolize her virginity. During the wedding celebration, usually held in a large tent, you could tell the single girls apart because they would also be wearing red belts. People danced a Turkmen-style dabke to our traditional music, and great dishes of mansaf—spiced rice topped with cuts of meat—would be served. The largest dish of mansaf was always placed on the table where the Agha, the richest and most important man in the community, sat. The groom would carry a shoufiya, which was a straw basket decorated with fabric and flowers, and pass by all the houses in the village, collecting gifts of money. Each family would put an amount according to their abilities in order to help with the costs of the wedding. At the end of the celebration, the bride would go to her married home on a horse, and the people would follow her in a procession, chanting songs and popular sayings traditional for such an occasion.”

Turkmen girls were usually married off at an early age, sometimes even before puberty. Hasna says that women were generally maltreated and oppressed, and the village witnessed the death of a number of girls on their wedding nights, as a direct result of being too young to withstand their husband’s assaults on their bodies.

“If the Agha took a fancy to a girl,” says Hasna, “he could ask for her hand in marriage even if she was a child. No one could say no to him or refuse him any request. During weddings I always tried to hide as far away from the Agha as I possibly could so he wouldn’t catch sight of me and ask to take me as his bride.”

If a woman bore a daughter, no one would would offer congratulations nor express any joy about the birth. Whereas when she bore a son, there would be a celebration which all the village’s women helped prepare for. When the boy turned twelve and was circumcised, it merited a celebration that last three whole days. The boy would wear white and a Gypsy woman would be brought in to dance at the party.

When a woman’s husband died in the Turkmen community, the widow was expected to wear black for the rest of her life. She would never marry again unless her dead husband’s brother stepped forward to do so. When someone in the family died, it was forbidden for any of the relatives to clean their homes for three years as an expression of their deep sadness.

“When my grandfather died,” recalls Hasna, “we didn’t sweep or mop our house for three years. We couldn’t clean it at all, and it turned into a pigsty.”

One Turkmen tradition was called Egg Thursday, when people would gather large numbers of eggs and assemble somewhere in a natural setting to dye the eggs by boiling them in a cauldron with red onions. They would eat the resulting red eggs in a celebratory atmosphere. Another commonly celebrated occasion was when a cow gave birth to a new calf. Women would prepare shamandour, made using the milk a cow expresses during the first three days after giving birth. They would use that milk to make different sweets, such as kunefeh, katayef and other cream-filled pastries, and they would offer those treats to everyone in the neighborhood to celebrate the occasion.

“There were some huge differences between the Turkmen community and Syrian society,” says Hasna, “such as the fact that Turkmen girls were completely deprived of their rights. Syrian girls could go to school and move about with much more freedom, and they were allowed to choose who they wanted to spend their lives with. Some customs and traditions, however, were carried over from the Syrians because of our integration in the community. For example, Turkmen weddings used to be mixed, with men and women celebrating together. As time went on, they were influenced by Arab customs, and weddings became segregated, with women attending one celebration and men attending another.”

Hasna chose not to marry because of the humiliation and pressure women were subjugated to.

At a time when life was nothing but humiliation and subjugation for women, I preferred to remain single,” says Hasna. “I used my mother’s illness as an excuse, saying I had to take care of her and couldn’t bear to go off and leave her alone. I was deeply affected by seeing those young girls being married off by force. I’ve never once regretted my choice not to marry. I feel free and relaxed today to live life on my own terms, without anyone forcing their will upon me.”