Memory of generations: time, narrative and kinship in Damascus, Syria
Honeysett, Bethany Eleanor
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‘Bless you, may you bury me’ is a common refrain among older people in the Syrian capital Damascus, directed especially towards children and young adults when they help with daily tasks or provide joy by their play or achievements. The sentiment expresses the hope that the old may die before the young and be mourned by them. It makes explicit the interlocking of life-cycles, through aging and mortality, and presumes an understanding of ideal kinship temporality where successive generations succeed one another in their proper order. It also hints that there is no certainty in this process. Sustaining these ideals is contingent on persistent material and symbolic work, a tempering of hope with memory and experience. These types of daily reckoning of personal and kinship time through mortality and life courses are rarely explored in the literature on Middle Eastern kinship. But how do these formations of time and generation sustain and transform? Anthropological theorising on the ‘Arab Family’ models it as cyclically reproducing roles, while socio-historical discussions of regional ‘transformations’ in politics and society understand them as lineal and successive. Both contain implicit speculations about the perceptions of time and the role of generations. Neither model, however, fully addresses the instrumentality of the types of temporality and generation they presume. What is it about the unfolding of familial and social generations and the temporality they imbue that is so integral to the models of kinship and society used to understand the region? And what is happening when historical change and familial generations interact? Based on 18 months of fieldwork, this thesis explores the interrelationships of Damascene life courses and their reciprocity with the historical context in which processes of birth, maturation, procreation and death take place. It describes subjective dispositions manifested at specific points in the life course and the manner in which individuals relate to past, present and potential selves, through memory, narrative and historicity, and through the unfolding sensual experience of time, place and objects. These inter-generational relationships illustrate not a recycling, but rather an historical and historicising process through transformative exchange and reciprocity. By tracing the shifts in the narratives of kinship in and through time, I consider Damascene history and time as emergent properties of inter- and intragenerational dynamics within a supple kinship system. I assert that however much kinship activities such as eating together, transmitting property, marrying, bringing up children and giving them names may be concerned with maintaining order and propriety, they are also contentious creative forces whose tensions and joys are paramount to Syrian social transformation.