Kheiro Hammoud Khasem learned the basics of farming from his father and older brother, and began working the land when he was only 8 years old. When he was old enough to go to school, he began, just like his brothers, to split his time between studying and helping out his family in the fields.
Kheiro’s family depended on their winter crops of greens and vegetables. Chard, spinach and radishes yielded the highest profits, selling for far higher than they cost to plant and upkeep.
Kheiro remembers what it was like to farm in the winter, working under the rain as they harvested crops on Sunday in order to take them down to the market on Monday. Still, he managed to keep his schooling a priority, helping out with the crops only on weekends, holidays and after school. He labored tirelessly, considering his work on the farm his leisure time.
Most of the houses in his village of Abu al-Duhur in Idlib province, he says, were built of mud, and concrete houses were quite rare. Kheiro eventually built himself a simple concrete home composed of three rooms, like most of the other homes in the village. Multi-story homes were confined to the rich, and it was forbidden to build any structure more than three stories high.
Kheiro was deeply affected seeing his father endlessly working and suffering in order to be able to buy a plot of land, selling fuel from a mobile cart in order to be able to provide for his family. He was also saddened when he compared his family’s difficult financial situation to that of his neighbors and relatives, and this drove him to think carefully about how he could help improve life for his family.
When he turned 20, Kheiro saw that it would be more beneficial to find a job outside agriculture to help his father out, and so, along with one of his neighbors, he began working in construction during the summers, earning the equivalent of 75 Syrian pounds a day. During the winters, when construction work halted, Kheiro went back to working the land.
During his first year of junior school, Kheiro decided to leave his studies, as he didn’t see a future for himself there. Employees earned so little—about 3,000 Syrian pounds a month—and none of his brothers had continued their education, save for two who made it to secondary school. He thus had more time to pursue work as a construction laborer. As he gained more experience, he was soon promoted to the status of foreman, supervising private construction sites. He began earning more money and was able to help out with the household expenses, and continued to do so until his obligatory military service started in 1991.
After military service, Kheiro moved to Lebanon to continue working, as opportunities in his area were scarce. He worked there for a year and a half, during which time he was able to save enough money to help him finish building a house. At that point, he was ready to be married, and he went to his cousin’s house, accompanied by his father, to ask for her hand in marriage.
“In an area where tribal systems prevail,” says Kheiro, “young men are expected to marry their cousins according to a number of different beliefs, that such pairings will help expand the tribe, strengthen affiliations, help carry its history and increase the reputation of its members. More recently, however, young people have been given the freedom to choose wives from outside the family.”
Until the birth of their eldest daughter, Kheiro and his wife lived with his parents. After that, they moved to their own house, adjacent to the houses and lands of his siblings, who had also moved out to their own homes. Everyone helped farm their father’s land, though each of them made their own profits from what they harvested and sold, expanding the crop rotation to include cotton, barley and wheat. Some of his brothers left agriculture altogether and moved on to work in construction when a new project in Abu al-Duhur broke ground, but Kheiro preferred to keep dividing his time between construction and farming.
Kheiro was blessed with five children and avoided taking on any more wives, even though the practice was common in his social circles, especially among the older generation, who saw polygamy as a way to increase one’s number of children, considered assets to both the family and the tribe at large. But Kheiro wished to spare his children the suffering he had undergone, feeling always that he and his siblings from different mothers were treated unequally.
Kheiro describes some of the predominant customs and traditions practiced in his area: how during weddings and special occasions, all the neighbors would come forward with special offerings, from animal sacrifices to vegetables and other things. When a conflict arose between people from the area, the two parties would present themselves before a council of elders from the tribe who would help resolve the dispute peacefully. As ways of raising children have changed, Kheiro says that a new generation of troublemakers has emerged, which has frayed the ties between families. People now keep to themselves more, trying to avoid the sorts of conflicts that have sometimes led to killings between the two opposing clans. At the same time, there has emerged a new, educated class of people: doctors, engineers and lawyers, thanks to an increased awareness of the importance of education and the fact that people are having less children and a general improvement of the economic situation.
“Idlib’s people are peaceful,” says Kheiro, “and have only goodwill toward others. We are hardworking and conscientious. I didn’t even know of the existence of different sects until I traveled to Lebanon. In my country we lived as brothers and equals. When you were hungry all you had to do was knock on any door to receive the warmest welcome, the most generous hospitality and appreciation.”