Worth More Than Gold


Some Syrians may well remember when bananas were a rare and highly coveted fruit. Eating this yellow delight in the 1980s was a subtle status symbol How about now? What's the deal with bananas in Syria today?

16 November 2018

© SyriaUntold
Alice Al-Shami

Alice Al-Shami (pseudonym) is a Syrian writer.

Translated by: Naziha Baassiri

This story is the outcome of cooperation between Radio Souriali and SyriaUntold. Our readers are invited to listen to this story in Arabic.

Ammar, a 35-year-old Damascene, vividly remembers the day his mother came back home carrying a kilogram of bananas. She had bought them for a meagerly 30 Syrian pounds, and he could hear the fruit seller on his megaphone in the background: “You’ve lost your worth, oh precious one!”

That was in that late 1990s, when the sight of a car loaded with bananas was quite unfamiliar, but it indicated a deep and positive change in the lives of Syrians who lived through the 1980s economic sanctions. Caused by the rising tensions between Syria and Israel at the time, many world powers had cut off economic ties with the regime.

During the 1980s, Ammar would queue with his parents for many hours at the co-op market to get a little bit of flour, or margarine, or a box of tissues. He was only four or five, but he recalls the stifling heat, the unbearable crowds, the pushing and the shoving, and the overpowering smell of sweat and bad breath. He also remembers his parents’ triumphant look – often mangled by fatigue – as they managed to get some of the things they wanted. At the end of the day, walking out with a bag filled with one’s basic needs didn’t seem to be worth all the effort one put into securing it. Ammar could sense that paradox even at his young age, but no one would listen to him or even realize he had an opinion on the matter.

At that time, most Syrian homes looked alike: they all featured the same blankets, the same cups and plates, the same forks and knives, the same match boxes, tissue boxes, and baby diapers, and – if one was able to secure any – the same tea biscuits. That was normal: they were all bought from the same source at the co-op markets that were subsidized by the government to make up for the severe lack of foodstuffs and necessary products.

Similarly, everyone shared what was unavailable: sometimes, it was tomatoes; others, it was lemons. However, bananas remained the hardest to acquire by middle class and lower class Syrians. Only those lucky enough would have bananas once or twice a year, as it was smuggled into the country and was too expensive for those with limited income.

The salaries of government employees at the time would never exceed 2,000 Syrian pounds (around $400). The price of a kilo of bananas could easily reach 150 Syrian pounds (around $15), depending on the source and availability. However, Ammar’s father – a government employee who worked at the General Organization for Insurance and Pensions – never missed an opportunity to buy bananas for his kids, Ammar, Hania, and Hassan. Ammar would often give up his share to his siblings. He never really liked bananas and couldn’t fathom why securing them was harder than getting potatoes, which he adored whichever way they were cooked: fried, baked, or boiled. It baffled him even more why bananas were so expensive. He preferred cucumbers, which, to him, offered a more refreshing and enjoyable culinary experience. Meanwhile, his family would save bananas for important occasions and would have them in secrecy so as not to stoke the envy of the neighbors and their kids and bring about unwelcomed surprise visits.

In fact, that was exactly what happened: Once, Hassan had been standing by the window as he peeled his banana. Spotted by one of neighbors, the woman in question and her four children called in on Ammar’s mother for a quick cup of coffee. The children soon disappeared only to be discovered on the kitchen floor after they had eaten all of the bananas.

That day, Ammar saw his father’s face turn black, tears in his eyes as if he had lost a mountain of gold. Perhaps it was Ammar’s difficult relationship with bananas that prevented him from seeing the link between the significance of the fruit and the degrading and intense tribulations one went through to acquire it. These hardships, in fact, were enough to kill any sense of satisfaction or joy one derived from eating bananas.

Ironically, because Ammar’s family rarely had access to bananas – ripe bananas that is – they often had hard, unripe ones. Their taste only made the experience even more disappointing, but Ammar’s mother always spoke highly of the high nutrition value of bananas, insisting that eating them was beneficial on many levels, and not merely to satisfy an urge. 

Ammar also remembers a conversation his mother had with one of the neighbors about bananas being one of the fruits of paradise. The argument quickly got heated with the neighbor saying there was no religious evidence to what Ammar’s mother claimed. But his mother always insisted that if paradise didn’t have bananas, then it would be lacking. Another neighbor came forth with a more amicable explanation, saying bananas must be available in paradise since believers desired it, and Heaven holds whatever believers desire.

As the days went by, the children grew up and Ammar’s father retired. The economic situation in Syria improved. Bananas were now available to everyone: different kinds from Lebanon and Somalia came with stickers brandishing weird names. People with varying purchasing powers were able to get bananas, which could be bought for as low as 15 or 30 Syrian pounds. As a result, Syrian families, including Ammar’s, flocked to buy them. Soon, banana peels were strewn in the streets and overflowing in trash bins.

Through it all, Ammar still found it hard to enjoy bananas except when they were part of fruit cocktails and juice smoothies, which he would have before going to the gym. Bananas were forever itched in his memory as part of a deprivation era his family had to endure for a long time.

In 2006, Ammar finished his compulsory military service after which he enrolled in university and graduated with a business degree in 2010. His younger brother, Hassan, hadn’t been conscripted when the Syrian revolution kicked off in 2011. At the time, Hassan was 21. He tried to avoid serving in the army by repeatedly failing his classes in English Literature. In 2014, and after he could no longer present flunking as an excuse, Hassan fled to Turkey over land. He was there for a while before Ammar was able to join him. Ammar was on the reserve list but managed after a long, perilous journey to cross the border and get into Turkey.

There, the two brothers were able to find jobs at a bakery. During that time, Ammar learned Turkish before going through a series of jobs that ended up with him working as an accountant at a translation office. Luckily, his boss was generous and sympathetic to the Syrian cause, so he offered Hassan a simple office job. With their two incomes, Ammar and Hassan managed to pay rent, cover their expenses, and send some money back to their parents in Syria to pay off the debts they racked up when their sons were smuggled out of the country.

The two young men were doing exceptionally well compared to what they would’ve had to endure had they stayed in Syria. Even for Syrian refugees, their economic status was acceptable. They had an amicable work environment, and the locals in Istanbul were both friendly and helpful.

However, the one thing that baffled Ammar was the kind of questions he was bombarded with from Turks as well as non-Syrian Arabs residing in Turkey. Strangely, these questions had nothing to do with the war or how life in Syria was affected by it. General yet extremely bizarre questions often popped up: Do you have electricity? Do you have phones? Do you have cars? The questions never revolved around areas of conflict, or which neighborhoods no longer received any kind of services, making life there impossible. The naïve and ignorant wanted to know if Syrians knew what electricity was, if they had carriages on wheels, or if they had known other simple forms of civilization. To them, it was as if Syria was on a different planet or was somewhere in the depths of an undiscovered continent. It was as if they had no idea that Syria was just south of the border, and that, not too long ago, the two countries shared strong political and economic ties.

But the question that really shocked Ammar came up when he and his brother were invited over for a meal. After the meal was over, the host brought out a fruit bowl before turning to Ammar and saying: “These are bananas. Do you know bananas? I don’t think you had it in Syria. They’re very delicious.”

Ammar laughed, saying, “I know them but I don’t like them very much.” Hassan hastily introjected, “We weren’t hungry in our country. We very well know what bananas are – and other [fruits] as well.”

Realizing that tensions were rising, Ammar stepped in to circumvent the host’s obvious embarrassment. “In the 1980s, bananas were unavailable. But after that, we could buy them.”

To his dismay, Ammar’s comment only piqued the host’s interest, who went on to ask many more questions relating to the 1980s sanctions, the political stances of the Syrian government, Israel, the USA, Zionism, the resistance, the revolution, and compulsory conscription in Syria. At that point, Ammar wished he had agreed that he had never seen bananas in his life and just called it a day.

The questions relating to bananas came up time and again with Ammar and his brother. So much so that Ammar was no longer sure if it was a mere coincidence or if there had been rumors circulating around Syrians and bananas.

On another occasion, Ammar was visiting a fellow Syrian, and among the guests was a Jordanian who worked for an aid organization that provided services to Syrian refugees in Al-Zaatari Camp.

As they chatted, the Jordanian complained about how demanding the Syrians were: The organization gave out chicken meals with one banana to every person in the camp. A month into this endeavor, and after giving out the same meal over and over again, the Syrians expressed boredom with having the same kind of food. The aid worker, seemingly frustrated, said, “I don’t understand how Syrians could complain about bananas. They never tasted [bananas] before in their lives and were deprived of them in Syria!”

Ammar looked at the Jordanian guest, and then said in his utmost serious voice: “You are right. I never knew what bananas were before I came to Turkey. Bananas are more precious than gold in Syria, and here you are, giving Syrians a banana a day when they wouldn’t even dream of having it. If that isn’t heaven, then I don’t know what is.”

After five minutes of uncomfortable silence, all the Syrians in the room burst out laughing. Ammar, crying with laughter, coughed until he almost choked. The Jordanian, on the other hand, smiled confusedly before frowning, unbeknownst to him of the joke that just flew over his head.

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