Yehya Ghiryani grew up in the Qaterji neighborhood in Aleppo, a working-class neighborhood where most of the inhabitants came from rural areas, though there were also people from many different Syrian Provinces, representing various religions and sects.
“An atmosphere of harmony and co-existence always prevailed between the different people of our neighborhood,” says Yehya, “Arabs, Kurds and Armenians, as well as Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Druze and Alawites. We shared so many of the same customs and habits, even though certain groups preserved their particularities.
“My grandfather married a Christian woman,” he continues, “who was his second wife after my Muslim grandmother. This happened with his father’s consent and without any objection from the family. His new wife soon came to follow the customs and traditions of the family, and then she converted to Islam, accompanying my grandfather on the Hajj pilgrimage. She did this out of her own free will, without any pressure from anyone. My mother is of Kurdish origin, and all my uncles are fluent in Kurdish.”
Neighbors often leaned on one another during times of mourning, offering solace to the families of the deceased as well as financial aid, helping with arrangements for the funeral and preparing food. They were always sensitive to the feelings of the mourners, maintaining an air of calm in the neighborhood and refraining from playing music or showing signs of joy during the mourning period. Just as neighbors leaned on one another during times of sadness, they also celebrated their joyous occasions together too, coming together for weddings and celebrations and offering whatever help they could.
Yehya remembers the way weddings were celebrated in the area. The groom would go to the hammam (Turkish baths) at the souk, accompanied by his friends and relatives, and each one would assume part of the cost for the wedding, which included paying for the wedding band, the decorations, the food and sweets and the animals that would be slaughtered to mark the occasion.
People also offered gifts of money, a tradition called the shoubash, whereby everyone would pledge an amount according to what they could afford, and this would be marked down by someone in the groom’s family, so that the groom could then appropriately return the gesture when the occasion arose. The women would gather to cook communally and to undertake the special wedding preparations for women. Weddings were usually segregated by gender, with one room for the women’s festivities and another for the men.
Some groups in the neighborhood had their own particular wedding rituals. The Kurds, for example, hand out gifts with each wedding invitation, which can be a length of fabric for men, or shawls for women, while families from Homs usually bring a gift during their first visit to the house of the young woman they are seeking to match with their son. If the young man finds himself attracted to his potential bride, he is the one that presents her with the gift, while if it doesn’t look like a match, he will hold the gift back.
“There are some really beautiful customs among the other sects,” says Yehya, “and we would adopt them ourselves because we admired them. If we found them incompatible with our own customs and values then we wouldn’t pursue them, such as the practice of having mixed weddings among some groups.”
Yehya himself got married in 1987, at the age of eighteen. He settled in his parents’ home so he could help raise his siblings, assisting them with their studies until they found suitable spouses. He didn’t move out on his own until the youngest of his siblings had finally gotten married.
Yehya worked at a number of jobs until he finished his studies at an electrical institute. He specialized as a cellular phone repairman and opened his own repair shop. He worked there for about twelve years, earning himself a good reputation and becoming quite popular among the people in the neighborhood.
Yehya talks about the commercial traffic in his neighborhood and Aleppo at large. “The Qaterji neighborhood had a number of commercial shops, as well as pharmacies, clinics and places selling construction goods,” says Yehya. “All these places catered to the people in the neighborhood, though some of them would head to the larger central Aleppo souks when they wanted more specialized things, such as handicrafts or industrial goods that weren’t found in our neighborhood souk.”
“Some of the Aleppo souks were quite famous for their handicrafts, where skills were passed down through generations,” says Yehya. “Skills such as carpentry, furniture engraving, traditional tailoring, copper work and loom weaving. My grandmother had a loom in the nearby Dahra Awad neighborhood, and my mother was very skilled at it, though as time went on, this family craft turned from a profession into more of a hobby.”