“The pharmacist who needs ten years to establish a life for himself in a rural area can achieve the same result in only one or two years in the city.”
Moustafa Ahmad studied Pharmacology at Damascus University. Upon graduation, he returned to his village in rural Deraa to open his own pharmacy, where he worked for about four years.
“Because health services are so poor and the economic situation is so tight in the villages,” says Moustafa, “and because people have so many children and those children have so many diseases, pharmacists are considered sort of replacement doctors. Families prefer to go see their local pharmacist as it saves them money.”
He continues: “Village women can generally be described as shy. And so women would often refuse treatment at the hands of a man unless it was an emergency situation, even if it meant they had to travel to a distant village to receive treatment from a female pharmacist. Questions about women’s health were so rare, and they were always asked with a great deal of embarrassment. Men, on the other hand, were embarrassed to ask for medicine that concerned their sexual health or for sexual aides, fearing that the news might spread in the village.”
Moustafa had a relationship with a girl from rural Hama while he was studying at university, which developed over time and continued when he moved to work in the pharmacy. He finally decided to become engaged to her.
“I spent my university years in the companionship of the woman I loved,” says Moustafa, “who was liberal in the way she dressed and thought. From her I learned some of the ways of the city, trying to free myself from the customs of Hourani society, which dictated that men should marry a cousin or relative. As the relationship deepened between us, I traveled to Hama to ask for her hand in marriage.”
The girl’s family, however, refused Moustafa’s request, first because he was Sunni and they were from the Ismaili sect, and second; because of the distance between Deraa and Hama. They did not wish to have their daughter living so far from them.
Moustafa decided to sell his pharmacy in Deraa and moved to work in Damascus, which was much closer to Hama. He wanted to prove his level of commitment to his girlfriend’s family, to prove that he deserved their confidence and that he would work alongside her in the city. He wanted them to know that she would be able to go visit them any time she pleased, and he also wanted to earn more money, as income from the pharmacy in the rural area was not sufficient to allow him to build the kind of life he wished to build.
“The pharmacist who needs ten years to establish a life for himself in a rural area,” says Moustafa, “can achieve the same result in only one or two years in the city.”
Moustafa continued to be in touch with the woman he loved until her family finally acquiesced and agreed to their engagement. They had a simple wedding, out of courtesy for her family, who feared a social backlash because their daughter was marrying someone from another sect. Moustafa’s family, in the meantime, had no objections to the marriage on sectarian grounds, but expressed reservations that the bride was too liberal and didn’t wear a hijab. This proved to be a problem during the early years of their married life, as Moustafa’s wife was not warmly welcomed in her husband’s home until she agreed to abide by their customs, avoiding sitting near or shaking hands with men and covering her hair.
Moustafa and his wife settled in the town of Sahnaya, about 12km away from Damascus city center. “Sahnaya has a lot of Druze families,” says Moustafa, “who are known to be quite insular as a community. They would only frequent those pharmacies that belonged to people from their own sect, even when they had to travel far to do so. However, because of my experience dealing with people from other sects thanks to my wife, and my life in the city, I was able to gain their trust and regard. My wife also helped a lot by gaining women’s trust and allowing us to attract female customers who were in certain cases more comfortable dealing with a woman in order to avoid embarrassment.”
Moustafa suffered somewhat from the competition that existed between different pharmacists, as some lowered their prices on different medications and caused some customers to question him. It was also difficult to decipher the handwriting of doctors on the prescriptions they issued as there were no directives or laws forcing doctors to issue computer printouts for their prescriptions. This was dangerous to patients, who were at risk of potentially suffering severe consequences if a pharmacist wasn’t able to properly make out the name of a medication, especially as so many of them were quite similar. In the absence of sufficient oversight, nurses were employed in some pharmacies, which also posed a danger to patients as the nurses didn't have sufficient training in pharmaceutical studies.