The three codes of Troy

Sami Moubayed

I might be old-fashioned, but I am someone who is still very much impressed by good manners. I still smile when a young boy addresses me as Sir, or “hadirtak” as they say in Arabic, or looks me in the eye when talking, connecting his sentences with useful phrases like, “thank you,” “please,” and “may I?” I personally still do all of the above when addressing someone my senior, in addition to other creative terminology pulled right out of a bygone dictionary.

I still let them walk out a room or into one before me, and stand up to give them a seat at any particular gathering. A long time ago when I was a child, my father walked into the room from a hard day at work, while I was watching television, slumped on the living room couch. I smiled and innocently waved hello, and while red-in-the face, he ordered me to stand up and greet him properly. We had to repeat the entire scene; he walked out of the room then back into it, and I had to stand up and greet him with respect. I then watched him over the years stand to greet anyone who walked up to him, regardless of their age or social status, and have since, copied that behavior in my professional and personal life. As customarily done in Arab tradition, I used to kiss his right hand when walking into a particular gathering. As old-fashioned as this may sound to a Western audience, this is customarily practiced throughout the Arab world, by men of all ages, to this day.

My father loved to tell us the story of Badr al-Din al-Shallah, the veteran president of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce (DCC) who always addressed his Oxford-trained son and successor Dr Rateb as “child” and ordered him, although the man was a grandfather in his own right, to carry out household chores, like fetching him his slippers or bringing him a glass of water. I grew up hearing these stories, over-and-over again, and so did many who were told of the fascinating relationship between Bader al-Din Shallah and his son, Rateb al-Shallah. Today, father-to-son relations are no longer like that, although a few cases still stand out in Damascene society.

To show just how different this world is becoming; a 40-year old cousin of mine still refuses to smoke a Turkish pipe – let alone a cigarette – before his octogenarian father. Good manners are taught at home and at school, and should be celebrated and nourished in society and public life. It applies to how we drive, where we park our cars, how (and where) we answer our cellular phone, and how we behave at restaurants. It includes how we conduct any particular conversation, the tone of our voice in public, how we speak of our ministers, elected officials, and community leaders – and in turn, how they speak of us, ordinary citizens.

50-years ago, private Syrian individuals and NGOs launched a series of campaigns aimed at raising public awareness in Syria. One was to combat the copying of ideas and trends from the West: Al-hamla al-wataniya li mukafahet al-takleed. One was to eradicate cheating at schools and university, and another aimed at eliminating apple-polishing (or tamalouk & nifak in Arabic) from all sectors of Syrian public life. These were creative initiatives, coming at the heels of more direct and traditional campaigns, like ones to combat violence against women, illiteracy, and child labor.

It wouldn’t be such a bad idea then, to start a campaign to promote good manners and good citizenship in Syria. When toying with the idea of such a campaign, I couldn’t but recall the words of Hector, the brave Trojan warrior in Homer’s epic: “All my life I’ve lived by a code and the code is simple: honor the gods, love your woman and defend your country!” We need to promote similar codes in Syria – which if applied while building on Syrian traditions and customs would make this country a better place for all of us.

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5 Responses

  1. Bless you for all the good manners you mentionned and bless Dr Rateb Shallah.
    As for the Troyan words, let me state that these words were taken up by some relatively neo-facist or right wing parties. Take for instance the lebanese ‘Kataeb’ with their similar slogan ‘Allah, Al Watan, wa-al 3aila’ .
    So let’s look together for other non-Troyan words that can do the job.

  2. Good manners come with good ancestry, and we do have a lot of it in our beautiful Syria!

  3. I personally find the hand-kissing a little over the top. Although I still do it myself, I wouldn’t want my children to do it. However, I’m all for showing respect to elders, something that seems to have vanished in the well-to-do circles of Damascene society.

  4. Great post Sami. I cherish my Mom, and I owe her that. On my uncle’s blog http://www.middleastforum.com a great argument has raged on about being proud of Syria, or not. Please go to the comments and post one. It would be good manners to do so, and I think you will all enjoy the discussion. I sure have.

  5. Thank you Sami for raising such an important issue! I support you with the opinion that a campaign to return to basics is becoming more necessary than ever before it is too late. It is sad that our younger generation is picking up bad habits thinking it is ‘modern society’. There is plenty in our Arab Wisdom though to go by instead of Troy which would otherwise justify for our kids to go West for ideas and that is part of the issue we have!

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