Syria Series: Wasta

Don't let looks deceive you--those blondes are only mannequins made up to look oh-so-Arab for the museum.

The Syrians were big on appeals to authority even though many recognized the inherent fallacies. Most individuals we associated with had bachelor’s or master’s degrees—education was free at the University of Damascus. Taxi drivers and housewives were proud to say they were engineers and doctors. 

At first I thought this was pretty cool. But when I started talking with students about their university experience, I realized it didn’t mean much. Students would typically buy books for their classes, but few actually read the books, and fewer still attended classes. Most of the people I spoke with would simply sign up for a class, shoot the breeze with their friends all semester at the coffee shop, cram for the final exam, and mostly cheat to get the grade they wanted. 

So in a country that abounded in well-educated professionals, sound municipal infrastructure, well-designed buildings, and good medical care were exceedingly scarce. Domestically produced goods generally had the veneer but not the substance of quality. 

Although culture was to blame for the cheating, you couldn’t really be mad about it. It was kind of an admirable fault: people valued their friendships so highly that the smart students would much rather share an answer sheet than turn down a friend’s request during a test. For them, honesty was not the best policy; loyalty to friends and family was the best policy. 

I think Westerners find this concept of tribe loyalty very difficult to understand. But we see it all over our dear Old Testament. Abraham and many after him didn’t hesitate to lie to their neighbors to protect their families’ interests. To God they would not lie, but they were under no illusions that their neighbors would reward them for their honesty. Trickery was the name of the game for them—you were loyal to those who would be loyal to you. 

To a starry-eyed, idealistic girl from on-my-honor Brigham Young University, ubiquitous cheating was bewildering. The ninth-grade English class I taught was filled with children of the elite. They were, on the whole, wonderful kids, and I honestly liked them. But their cheating killed me. 

One particular literature quiz (which was obviously not intended for non-native English speakers) asked, “What desires did the main character have after hearing the orchestra.” Heba, who spoke English like a native, quickly scribbled a correct answer: “desire to be a famous person.” Heba’s handwriting was not the best, so the kids who sat next to her copied various versions of her answer: “desipe to be famous” and, worse, “obstile fobe.”

“Sara,” I said, “Obstile fobe? What does that even mean?” Sara’s face went white. She stuttered. I gave her a zero. 

But not to worry—Sara’s mom just had a little talk with the principal, and the principal saw to it that Sara’s grade was raised to a level more befitting someone who has connections. That’s what Syrians call “wasta.” Now you know.