Monday, January 13, 2014

Dumpsters and Death Notices


 While I was studying International Relations in college, one of my professors had the opportunity to spend a year in Syria. He came back brimming with enthusiasm and a new depth of understanding for Middle Eastern Politics, one of his passions. As it happened we went through lecture material for his class at a fast clip the term after his return, so he excitedly put together an informative slide show of his time in Syria to spark class discussion.

He had a particular sequence of slides where he shared a dilemma he’d encountered. He showed a dumpster on an Aleppo street. In the picture, the dumpster appeared relatively empty but it was surrounded by bags of trash. The professor then showed another slide depicting postings pasted onto the entryway of a building. He told us the postings informed the public that the dumpsters were for trash collection and only worked properly if people put their trash inside the dumpsters. My professor seemed to feel the government had a very hard job making the people of Syria understand how to use a dumpster.

I did a very selfish thing that day. I kept my mouth shut. Inside, I was laughing, though I should have been crying. At the time I didn’t think of the long range indications my professor’s lack of understanding and its spread would mean for my people. I was close to graduating and wasn’t about to rain of a professor’s parade.

Here’s the information my professor, an expert in Middle Eastern Politics was lacking:

In Syria, whenever something momentous happens, a notice gets pasted up, EVERYWHERE. This is mostly used for death notices, since Muslims must bury their dead by the sun down after a death takes place. A death notice is basically an obituary with a brief history of the deceased, information about the time and location the funeral, and who will host the condolences. Death notices are plastered everywhere they might be seen. I’m not kidding when I say, if a bus stays still long enough, it will get pasted with a death notice! I saw it happen, when Damascus had buses.

The boys – yes, child labor - who were hired to do the pasting up were not educated and were paid to get the job done quickly. Once the government put up signs saying “no posting here” and within the day, the signs were covered in postings, prompting my father to comment that he doubted the boys doing the posting could read enough to understand the signs.

Damascenes once had kiosks where death notices were posted, but the government got rid of them because they were ragged eye sores. No one ever removed a posting, they just added layer after layer of pasty, papery mess. Now that the kiosks were gone every other surface had become fair game or not so fair game: front doors, walls, steps, banisters, trash cans, dumpsters, park benches, guard rails. Though everyone relied on the death notices, they also hated the postings being everywhere. The postings were viewed as litter. Imagine your front door being pasted all over with newspapers, a new layer almost everyday. Thankfully doors and windows seemed to be exempt, but shutters were not.

My father once spent an afternoon using a pressure washer to get all the postings off of our front porch. He proudly hollered into the house for us to come see how beautiful the porch was. We’d never seen it without any postings littering it up before, and we’d lived in that house for six or seven years by then. We went outside and admired the clean porch with father, then returned to making dinner. A few minutes later my father entered the kitchen red faced and grumbling. He’d gone back out to dry off the porch, only to find a crew already pasting notices on the walls! The porch had been clean for less than ten minutes. So, when you say, “litter,” postings encrusting the walls of your building is one of the top five things urban Syrians will think of.

A shop in 2010 with the remnants of notices surrounding the entry. This is miraculously clean compared to some buildings.

As for dumpsters, Syrians have a heavy duty cultural imperative against them: charity. For reasons of sanitation trash is put out after dark but before ten pm. After dark, street sweepers come by. I don’t mean one of those gigantic machines, I mean men in tattered clothing, with brooms made from twigs pushing little trash cans and dust pans on a makeshift cart. These are some of the poorest men in Syrian society. There are probably beggars who are paid better. Many don’t even have proper shoes. I’m not exaggerating about this. I’ve seen them with my own eyes. These men, will slit open trash bags as they go, and scavenge for anything they can use or sell. Even if you leave useful items to one side of the trash bag (shoes), they will still open the bag to investigate for themselves. Later in the night, the trash collectors come by and scoop what is left up into the garbage truck (a real one).

The dumpsters rarely have a lot in them, so they often get skipped, especially since most of them are damaged and won’t fit on the garbage truck’s lift anyway. In fact, I seem to recall that the dumpsters and trucks were purchased from separate companies and some were not even compatible with one another. So if a home owner was so ungenerous as to skip the road side charity, placing their trash in a dumpster, their garbage might be left to stink up the neighborhood for days. Even if that were not the case, the idea of forcing a street sweeper to dumpster dive was considered repulsive.

So, my professor had been given a euphemistic version of the situation. In the minds of government officials and foreigners, the populace were being backward and uncooperative. In the minds of the populace, the government had replaced one problem with another. They had taken away kiosks and given the city trash littered walls, they had then not only added smelly dumpsters, but posted more litter on people’s walls in an effort to persuade them to use the smelly dumpsters, all while ignoring the basic needs of their poorest citizens: street sweepers.

As the events in Syria unfold, now, it is tempting for westerners to believe that the west holds answers that Syrians haven’t thought of on their own. Please keep in mind that people from the west really don’t know all about Syria or it’s people. Syrians have to find their own solutions or they won’t work.

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