The effects of the changes of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s on the structure of village society are not entirely clear. The urban absentee landlord has been a figure of considerable importance in the life of some villages, and the redistribution of land among the peasants has undoubtedly altered social relations.
It is not possible to generalize about Syrian villages because ecological, ethnic, and other conditions vary. On the one hand, on the coast, where rainfall is regular, small farmers can operate successfully. In the interior, on the other hand, water supply is much less reliable; there, the small owner can easily be ruined by drought, and only large enterprises stand a reasonable chance of succeeding. For this reason, the peasant of the interior depends on financing from the cities in place of advances for crops and equipment previously supplied by urban absentee landlords.
The Syrian village traditionally was not a self-sufficient economic or social unit, but was dependent on the nearest town or city for various services. This dependency increased in the 1970s and 1980s. With the development of a modern system of public transportation, peasants could visit the city with increasing frequency for reasons such as marketing, medical care, and entertainment. In addition, an increasing number of village youth attended urban secondary schools and in that manner gained a foothold in urban society, with many remaining in the town after graduation. Increased migration to the city has to some extent lessened the isolation of the villagers from urban life, as many now have relatives or friends living in towns. Nevertheless, the village should remain a significant component of society.
The relatively homogeneous occupational structure of the village includes fewer status positions than exist in towns with less distinction between the positions. With one or two exceptions, every capable adult works in agriculture. There is a very general division of labor on the basis of sex--men doing the jobs connected with planting, harvesting, and processing of crops and women caring for young children, keeping house, preparing meals, and doing the more menial tasks connected with crops and the care of animals. Only two or three nonagricultural specialists are likely to be found in a village--a small storekeeper, a coffeehouse proprietor, and a barber--and they provide goods and services needed daily by the villagers. Such specialists, with the exception of the barber, are likely to be retired or part-time cultivators. Their occupations give them a degree of social distinction.
Villages are organized around families and their extensions. Often, a village consists of several lineages, or groups of descendants of the same ancestor; the lineages frequently form residential neighborhoods and political blocs within the village. An individual's primary social identity is as a member of a given lineage. The leaders of the various lineages, usually respected middle-aged and older men informally chosen and recognized, maintain stability and make necessary decisions on an informal basis. These leaders keep themselves informed of opinion within their own lineages and formulate policy in discussions with other leaders in the village coffeehouse or the guesthouse of a leading citizen. Those families not related to a lineage usually align themselves with the one in whose ward they live.
Whatever a man's economic situation, he reaches its full social status when he can abstain from direct agricultural labor. For the ordinary peasant, this abstention occurs when he is old enough to have sons to take over his work, allowing him to devote himself to religious matters, family, and village affairs.
Traditionally, the nominal headman of the village was the mukhtar, who was not necessarily the man of highest prestige in the village. He was often chosen merely for his ability to read and write Arabic to the degree necessary to perform the functions of the office. If the mukhtar had a high standing in the community, it was because of his family background and personal qualities rather than his office. The mukhtar served primarily as a channel of communication from higher administrative officials.
In many, if not most, villages, ultimate power and status rested in the owners of village land, who frequently lived in town, although they might maintain a house in or near the village. In some cases, villages were mixed, in that a segment of a pastoral tribe had settled there. The head of such a segment (or of the tribe as a whole) had a good deal of status and authority in the village. This stemmed in part from a certain prestige accorded tribal Arabs but also occurred because such tribal heads had acquired large quantities of land.
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