On status and youth
What's the best way to pick up girls in Damascus? "Drive a cab," 25-year-old Khaled tells London's Al-Hayat. "True, that's not enough. You have to use a few lines to start talking to them. Like, 'Love is the fire that burns a man's heart so that a woman can eat it.' A few good lines from books by George Bernard Shaw or other writers are best. It's not enough to have the money to buy a cab - you have to be educated, too."
According to Khaled, a cab is a status symbol. It indicates that its owner is a good earner, has initiative, and is free of the shackles imposed by a typical university education: a waiting period of unemployment before one finds the appropriate government job, where one is "stuck for life."
Owning a cab is also proof that one has the money to buy it. When the average car in Syria costs $10,000 and the average salary is $400 to $500 a month, purchasing a cab becomes a life-long pursuit. Of course, the catch is that you have to buy the cab rather than doing what many teachers, students and even retired judges do: lease the right to transport passengers from a cab owner in order to supplement one's income.
Among the middle class - not only in Syria - cab ownership and education are accompanied by a new status symbol: intimate connections with a bank. If anything has created a new middle class, it is attractive bank loans. One young Egyptian blogger wrote that he could not wait to earn enough money to purchase a home or something as "minor" as a laptop computer.
"I had to get out of the stifling atmosphere at home, and I didn't want to lean on my parents for help. They also barely finish the month without debt. [His father is a university lecturer and his mother is a department head at a government institution. - Z.B.] The only way out was to go to the bank and start paying installments."
"Paying installments" has become such a ubiquitous term that one Arabic headline read, "Style in installments, your look in installments." The article described how one could take out a multi-year loan on easy terms to purchase trendy products and join the middle class. The price is known from the onset: About a fourth of one's monthly salary goes to payments. For those not supporting a family, the rest of the salary is divided between the cell phone bill, clothes and restaurants.
A young Syrian woman said that because she was recently employed by a marketing firm, she had to upgrade her wardrobe immediately.
"I also take a cab instead of public transportation. I have to protect my status," she said. But by the end of the month, "I secretly borrow some money from my mother to keep the monthly ship afloat."
The graduate's trap
This new status befalls university graduates, who frequently lack steady employment. They are trapped between their image, of a university graduate possessing numerous opportunities, and reality, where these opportunities fail to be realized.
Some of these 25- to 35-year-olds create unique lifestyles to help them overcome this frustration. A 26-year-old graduate of a Ukrainian dental school has been waiting two years to receive a dental license from the Syrian Ministry of Health, which is required to establish a private clinic. The reasons for the delay are unclear.
To pass the time, he and a few friends purchased an aging 4-by-4 pick-up truck for trips into the Syrian desert. "We simply 'steal' food and other staples from home. We buy only meat, with our own money, and go on these treks on the weekend." They travel between Bedouin encampments, sleep in caves and experience Syrian nature up close. The travel group has gradually grown, and they consider this a way to escape the irritation of daily life.
But they must still earn a living to cover basic needs, and even educated Syrians are now willing to accept jobs that were once considered inappropriate for the educated. A Syrian woman named Feriel says that when she studied in Berlin, she saw that other students her age were willing to accept any job.
"The student employment office sent architecture students to fix roofs. Agriculture students got jobs on farms cleaning dairy barns. And design students cleaned houses. I thought, 'If it's good enough for students in Germany, why can't I bring this custom to Syria?'"
Despite her friends' teasing and her family's pressure, Feriel decided to clean houses, "for a tenth of the accepted salary in Germany," and even enlisted some friends to join her.
"If we succeed in making this work fashionable, we will free ourselves of social pressure and provide our own alternatives to jobs that the government can't give us."
Saudi Arabian newspapers publish similar stories on new terms in the national lexicon, like "tightening one's belt," "unemployment" and "poverty," which were foreign to these pages until a few years ago. In addition, they run stories about young Saudis willing to work as cashiers in supermarkets, sell produce in the market and renovate houses. One young cashier said that until a few years ago, he hid among the shelves every time one of his relatives entered.
"Who would want to marry a cashier?" he asked his interviewers. Now he has no problem. "If a girl doesn't want a cashier, she can go find the millionaire who will throw her out after two months."
These phenomena are still exceptional in Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Persian Gulf nations, particularly among Saudi students. But reports from Dubai indicate that students were seeking positions as vendors at the city's International Trade Fair in order to earn money for the year. Thus, young Yemenites arrived to hawk "rare Yemenite honey," and young Egyptians peddled bottles of "an elixir that enhances sexual function." Students also sold less exotic merchandise like scarves, traditional crafts and a variety of food products in slapdash booths, next to the elegant stores.
Violence, no work
But Lebanese students who participated in the political violence last week have nearly no status problems. A Lebanese student explained to me by e-mail that these are not merely clashes between Sunnis and Shi'ites. Nor are they purely political.
"The opposition supporters of Hezbollah and Michele Aoun close roads. They blocked off the center of Beirut. We can't get to cafes, restaurants or clothing stores in the center of town. We can't live this way."
Is recreation the problem?
"Not recreation, but work. Most of us are waiters, sell clothes or work in cafes, and we can't get to work.
"Some of the restaurant owners closed their businesses because there are no customers or tourists in this violent situation, and we don't have work. I am fortunate because my parents pay my tuition, but if I want to go to a bar or a concert, I have to work."
He indicates that he does not consider working as a waiter to be a problem, and that he is willing to continue in this occupation even after completing a number of years of education as long as it provides an income.
Not so in Egypt: A young university graduate I met in a cafe nearly apologized for working as a waiter. "I am only waiting for an answer from a government office, where I will be working as a deputy department director." He has been waiting for three years.
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