Miryam Boushi was born in the town of Binnish in Idlib province, and began working in the fields, planting the crops and harvesting them from the age of seven.
There were no schools in Binnish at the time. Children received a fifth grade education in one of the local homes, where the owner would set aside a room or two to give lessons to the children. Maryam, however, never attended any of these classes, because most girls of her generation weren’t allowed to attend school. She remained illiterate as a result, never learning how to read or write.
“Girls couldn’t go far from their homes unless they were accompanied by someone,” says Maryam. I would just go to the neighbor’s house to visit my friends there during my leisure time, and we would do some embroidery and needlework in order to occupy ourselves.
“In the past,” continues Maryam, “no one wanted to have a girl. Some families in Binnish even buried their infant girls alive. This happened during the French mandate era or maybe before, when the country was under Ottoman rule.”
Maryam recalls when a huge fire engulfed the agricultural fields and destroyed most of the crops. “In 1955,” says Maryam, “a huge fire broke out that almost burnt down the whole town. No one knew how it happened. The civil defense teams came from Idlib and Aleppo and other cities to put out the fire. I remember my father shutting me up in his shop and closing the big metal door to try and keep me safe.”
There were no health services or vaccinations available at the time. When a child got sick, the parents would boil some herbs, such as aniseed and cumin, into an infusion for the child to drink, and rub their body down with olive oil. This is how Maryam’s brother died when he was in his first year of life. Her sister, who ate some dirt from in front of the house, also fell ill and suffered for forty days before dying at just three years of age.
Maryam recalls how difficult it was to farm the land when she was a child, because they didn’t have any modern tools or machinery to help either plant or harvest. “We had some lands of our own, but my father sold them,” says Maryam. “I worked on the neighbor’s land then, planting some crops such as wheat and lentils and sesame. We would harvest the wheat by hand, using a scythe, as we had no modern tools available to us. We would use pack animals to transport the harvests. It was exhausting work, and farmers worked on harvesting crops for about three months of the year, and both men and women worked side by side.”
Maryam married at the age of fifteen in the traditional way, without knowing the groom beforehand.
“At the time, a girl didn’t even have the opportunity to meet her groom before being married off to him,” says Maryam. “Unions were made in the traditional way, that is, the groom’s parents would ask the girl’s parents for her hand in marriage, and then the groom would go to the well to catch a glimpse of his bride from afar as she fetched water.”
There were particular rituals for weddings in Binnish. “The bride would go to the hammam with her friends for three consecutive days before the ceremony,” says Maryam, “from twelve noon until 5pm. Each day her friends would gather to celebrate her with songs and dancing and they’d make a sha’iriya dish by hand. On the third day, one of the women would draw henna designs on the bride’s hands, and then the day after that, the groom’s parents would come and accompany her to her new husband’s home. On the bride’s first morning in her new home, the groom’s parents would prepare a meal, slaughtering animals to welcome guests, who would come bearing gifts for the bride and groom, usually bags of rice or sugar or gifts of money. During this whole time, the bride would be sitting down with the groom’s family to welcome the well-wishers.”
A woman’s farming responsibilities didn’t change much after marriage, says Maryam, who labored on the cotton harvest while she was pregnant with her first child.
She recalls the day her husband bought them their first television set in 1977. Their home became a gathering place for neighbors and friends, who came over to watch programs in their spare time.
Maryam bore five girls and three boys, and while none of them worked in agriculture, Maryam continued to do so while her husband worked in one of the local schools. Some of her children finished middle schools, others went on to secondary school, and some didn’t complete any schooling at all.
“Our life was very simple then, not like it is today,” says Maryam. “Girls were married early and never got to live out their teenage years. Today girls can study and go out and see the world around them. Once, when I was playing on the swing set in front of my aunt’s front door, my mother came and yelled at me in front of everyone because I was still playing like a child, even though I was engaged to be married.”