When I first arrived in Damascus, I greeted anyone I’d meet with the most common utterance in the Muslim world: As-salam auleykum -- peace be upon you. It is said from Albania to Indonesia. The words come from the Qur’an, but in most Arab countries, they are used so often they take on the function of “hello.” Even among Christians in Egypt -- home to the largest Christian population in the region, with roughly 10 million -- and in Palestine, the birthplace of Christianity, the greeting is exchanged on streets and in shops, Christian or otherwise, without a second thought. Not in Syria.
I was met with puzzled stares and bemusement when I pronounced the words in the Christian quarter of Damascus’ old city. An American friend said she cringed when she heard me say them. It is only used among Muslims here, my friend said, and even then, only among the most observant. The greeting is seldom heard among younger Syrians, no matter the religion. Instead, people exchange the more neutral, “marhaba,” which effectively translates to, “hello.”
Syria’s government is secular, and, despite recent incidents that might indicate otherwise, so are a good many of its people. Or, if not secular, then moderately religious. A very unscientific survey of women’s sartorial choices -- my occasional counting of the backs of heads on Damascus city busses -- reveals only about half of Damascene women wear the Muslim headscarf called the hijab. (A small number also wear the niqab, the black veil which covers all but the eyes, and a smaller number wear the burka.) That puts Damascus on par with pre-war Baghdad, at the time the most secular Arab capital.
Still, I do hear “as-salam auleykum” in more conservative Muslim areas of Damascus, particularly as one climbs higher on the side of the mountain, where the houses are more slap-dash and the people poorer. I use it there, too. It’s also a sign of respect for Islam, whether or not one happens to be Muslim. I’ll open the door to a mini-bus, quickly size up the crowd, and, as I’m climbing in, start with, “as-salam auleykum.” The response always come back: “Wa aleykum as-salam.” And upon you, peace.