Ousama* was born in 1967 in the Bab Hud neighborhood of Homs to a middle-income well-known ancient family. Bab Hud is one of the ancient neighborhoods located near the Citadel of Homs and the Old Clock Square. It was named after the tomb of Prophet Hud at the old gate of the ancient wall of Homs. The city also has other gates, such as Bab al-Turkmen and Bab al-Sebaa.
The people of the Old City of Homs share the same customs and traditions since they have lived in the area for hundreds of years. Most of them are Sunni Muslims, except in the al-Hamidiyah and Bustan al-Diwan neighborhoods, where Christians are in the majority and live in full harmony with their Muslim neighbors.
“Muslim and Christian residents share cordial and friendly relations. I have Christian friends in the Old City of Homs and several other regions. I still have the deepest respect and appreciation for them,” says Ousama. “In my high school, a quarter of the students in my class were Christians. Together, we made beautiful memories and lived unforgettable days.”
“The Alawites, coming from the coast and the countryside of Hama, have arrived in Homs over the past 60 years and have settled in certain neighborhoods, especially in the east of the city,” he adds.
Ousama talks about some of the social customs and rituals of the Old City of Homs. On Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, people stay up late shopping and preparing for Eid celebrations.
Most families used to make Eid sweets at home, but women recently started buying ready-made sweets, such as Ma'amoul and Akras, from the market.
As for weddings, each region celebrates according to its customs and traditions. In Bab Hud, the marriage is preceded by the wedding ceremony and attended only by men. There is also the performing band (al-Arada), which is similar to those found in Damascus and Aleppo, except for the uniform.
As for the Holy Month of Ramadan, it holds a special place in Ousama’s heart and memory. During Iftar, his family would gather to hear the Ramadan cannon and Maghrib prayer, then head to pray the Taraweeh and have dinner in one of the ancient mosques nearby.
Ousama describes the women of Homs as excellent housewives and the Homsi cuisine as superior to that of Damascus and Aleppo. Among its most popular foods are Makloubeh, stuffed vegetable (Mahashi), and various types of the Homsi-style Kibbeh.
After graduating from high school, Ousama went to Aleppo to study at the Intermediate Institute for Engineering to become an electrician. During his studies at the institute, his family moved to al-Inshaat neighborhood of Homs. "The new neighborhoods, such as al-Inshaat, al-Ghouta and al-Mahatta, received some residents from old neighborhoods who shared similar customs and traditions. However, communication between residents was completely different to how it was in old neighborhoods. It was limited to neighbors saying hello to each other as a courtesy, whereas in older neighborhoods relations were characterized by affinity, mutual trust and safety. There was also a difference in the urban development of both districts, whereby modern neighborhoods were characterized by buildings and apartments, and older ones by their Arabian-style houses with an opening in the ceiling called "the square". A two-story house would also be called "a palace,” he says.
Homs maintained this demographic until 1963. At that time, Alawites were no more than 1% of the population. Minorities were also known by everyone, especially in Old Homs. However, the situation changed after the military coup d’état of the Ba’ath Socialist Party. New groups started coming in, such as the Bedouins, villagers and Alawites arriving from the countryside of Lattakia, Hama, Homs and Tartous in particular. Although this movement was witnessed in most of the Syrian governorates, Homs had the largest share of new arrivals. These groups were distributed in specific neighborhoods, including al-Zahraa and al-Nozha, which had previously been agricultural land owned by the native people of Homs. By 2011, Alawites constituted 25% of the population of Homs.
“Newcomers started taking over state jobs in the city. There was a general preference for Alawites, who now held more than 75% of the jobs, despite their incompetence,” says Ousama. “Bribery and public corruption, which had previously been uncommon, began to spread, forcing the original inhabitants to opt for manual trades and independent crafts, such as carpentry, blacksmithing etc.”
In 2007, the governor of Homs, Iyad Ghazal, developed a dangerous project called "The Dream of Homs", through which he intended to demolish the center of the city with its old and modern neighborhoods and markets, and build fancy towers instead. The main aim behind this project was to drive out the native people of Homs as this area only contained Sunni Muslims and Christians. This led the city people and merchants to meet with President Bashar al-Assad to convince him to abandon the project, and so it was paused.
Ousama worked as an electrician in the government sector for 22 years starting in 1990. During that period, he socialized with colleagues and friends from all sects and regions in an atmosphere of brotherhood. The only disruption was the discrimination and favoritism in appointing and promoting employees and increasing their salaries, which was done based on their sectarian affiliations. He became aware that all rumors about economic openness spread after 2000 were nothing more than false propaganda, since state employees’ financial conditions remained difficult and their salaries were not sufficient to cover the costs of food and drink. This led most employees to work overtime in the private sector.
*A pseudonym was used for the narrator at his request.