The Dibs Company Workers

The United Arab Industrial Company, also known as the Dibs Company after its former owners, is a large textile factory located in a rural area south of Damascus. It was founded in 1955 and nationalized in 1964. In 1980, it had 1,660 employees, nearly 200 of whom were administrative personnel. The following portraits of Dibs Company workers are drawn from interviews conducted in March 1980.

Muhammad F. B. was born in Damascus in 1945. His father was an ice cream vendor. Muhammad completed the second grade and quit school at the age of 10. He worked for several years in a bakery, two years as an apprentice blacksmith, a short stint in a garage, and then spent 12 years working as a carpenter in various small shops. In 1960 he began work as a carpenter with Dibs. He was transferred to one of the weaving sections of the factory in 1968. As of early 1980, with 20 years’ seniority, he earns about 1,125 pounds per month, bonuses included. Sometimes he works outside the factory when he needs money — for instance, to pay medical bills. He has five children, ranging in age from two-and-a-half to 12 years. He lives in the Midan, a working-class section of southern Damascus, in a three-room house he has shared for 20 years with his father, a married brother and his three children, and two unmarried brothers. They built the house themselves on a piece of land they bought on excellent terms under the land reform program during the period of union with Egypt. Muhammad’s 15-year-old brother works in a private-sector hosiery mill in the Hariqa area in the center of Damascus, earning 300 pounds per month. His 17-year-old brother works in a garage and makes 400 pounds. The married brother bought a small Suzuki van three months ago and works as an independent transporter. He now makes about 500 pounds per month.

Khurayyim T. was born in 1943 to a family of bedouin shepherds who migrated between Damascus and Jordan. His father did not have a flock of his own and worked as a herder for others. Under the agrarian reform and land redistribution of 1959 during the period of union with Egypt, he acquired a little plot of land on which he built himself a house. Khurayyim is a robust, good-humored man. He has never been to school. He once took a literacy course, but he still cannot read, which does not bother him at all. As a youth he worked as a shepherd with his father. In 1968 he started at the Dibs Company. He now earns 1,100 pounds per month, including benefits. He says he is satisfied. After work he goes home and drinks coffee. His sole means of transportation is a bicycle. His wife is also the daughter of bedouin nomads, born at Jukhadir, near Qunaytra. He has “six daughters and only one child” (i.e., only one son). Khurayyim inherited his father’s house, and lives there with his family.

Hanna A. was born in 1935 in Ma’rouna, a village in the Ghouta district. His wife is from the same village. He is the son of a land-owning peasant, but has never been to school. He began work as an agricultural laborer; in 1964 he started at Dibs, and now earns about 1,000 pounds. Ten years ago he began to moonlight. He worked in a restaurant for a year, earning 180 pounds a month. Then he got a job polishing backgammon sets. He made two to four per day and was paid 4 pounds per set. He quit this work two years ago when he fell ill. He has seven children, including one married daughter. For three years now he has been living in a house he bought on credit at 400 pounds per month for eight years. Before that he had rented. His married daughter, her husband and their little daughter live with the family. His wife and daughter knit men’s wool pullovers for a tradesman who sells them in the Soviet Union. They have been doing this for eight years, earning between 15 and 25 pounds per day, which allows the family to subsist, since Hanna’s salary is not enough to live on. They have two knitting machines, which cost 2,000 and 2,300 pounds. He gave his daughter her machine as a wedding present.

Bushra M. was born in 1962 in Shuqayf, near Qunaytra. Her father was a peasant who owned his own land, but their village was occupied by Israel in 1967. She attended school up to the sixth grade, and quit at the age of 14. She worked as an agricultural laborer for two years, earning between 8 and 15 pounds per day. Then she worked in several different factories, including a sugar refinery, returned to agricultural labor, and finally began work at Dibs six months ago. A company representative recruiting women workers had come to Shab‘a, where she lives. In February 1980, she earned 700 pounds, including bonuses (her base pay is 300 pounds per month). Bushra lives with her family in a house they built for themselves in Shab‘a. She has four brothers and five sisters; three brothers and two sisters still live with the family. Bushra is the only member of the family who is employed. Her father is disabled. He receives 300 pounds per month as a refugee. The family also rents out two rooms in their house to the families of two soldiers.

Hasib A. was born in 1941 in Jaramana, in the Ghouta district. His father was a peasant who owned his land. Hasib spent two years in school and quit at the age of nine. He worked with his father until he was 17. He started work at Dibs in 1959, “with the help of Abu Salim ’Arnous Bey,” a local notable. Currently he earns 900 pounds per month. He has five children, the eldest of whom is 11. He still lives in his father’s house which he shares with his widowed mother, five unmarried sisters and four brothers, two of whom are married. One of his married brothers has a daughter and the other has two. A total of 22 people are living in the house. Hasib still works his father’s land, growing vegetables, apricots and almonds “for family consumption.” One of his brothers works as a potter in a small studio, earning 800 to 900 pounds per month. Another brother works for a spinning and weaving company in Qaboun, a suburb northeast of Damascus, where he earns 750 pounds per month. His unmarried 24-year-old brother has owned a small grocery for four years and makes an average of 1,000 pounds per month. Another brother owns a small car and works as a transporter. The fourth brother is still in school.

A Woman Worker

“I used to live in the village, far from the city, but with the water shortage many peasants began to migrate toward the city in search of work. People said you could have everything there — salaries, bonuses, benefits and services — thanks to factory work, even if you didn’t have a diploma. I urged my father to move to the city. Finally we all went. We were happy in the capital. Our house was beautiful. We lived among villagers like ourselves with the same customs and traditions. Everyone worked in the local factories. I was fortunate enough to get a job in the same textile factory as my father. My oldest brother was in the army and my little sisters went to school.

Time went by and I grew up. I met a young man in our neighborhood. We liked each other. Four years later we got engaged and then we married. It took us a long time to find a place to live. We finally found one with four families. But thank God, the important thing is that we get along with each other! After the festivities were over we had to think ahead and plan our life. Should we have children right away or wait? At that time the government issued a decree requiring child care facilities in factories with more than 100 women workers. Other social services were supposed to be guaranteed, too.

We lived in this dream until fate sent us a child. I wasn’t given the 20 days prenatal leave that’s allowed under Labor Law 91 of 1959. I put up with it because one shouldn’t complain. After my maternity leave my sister-in-law took care of my baby so I could keep my job. I left him with her at 6 am and I was allowed to leave work at 2 pm because I was nursing, but I never got home before 3:15 pm because of the transportation problem.

A year went by. Fate was against me and our house was torn down as a health hazard. I took it all in stride and we found another place. I had another child and our problems increased. I decided to quit my job, not knowing a cabinet decree forbade it. Three months later I was summoned to court and ordered to pay 3,000 pounds and serve two years in prison, or else return to work immediately. I couldn’t do either. The management gave me six months administrative leave without pay until I could find a solution.”

How to cite this article:

Elisabeth Longuenesse "Portraits of Syrian Workers," Middle East Report 134 (July/ August 1985).

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