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Ancient Kurdish rain ritual revived in Syria as drought continues

Kurdish farmers in the countryside of Qamishli revive an ancient ritual called Ziwa, or the Bride of the Rain, to invoke rain after seasons of drought.
Syrian Kurds parade a doll, made of wood and colorful fabric, as they perform the "Bride of the Rain" ritual in the northeast city of Qamishli on Nov. 19, 2021.

QAMISHLI, Syria — Following successive droughts, residents of al-Malikiyah and Qamishli in northeastern Syria are reviving an ancient ritual called Ziwa, or Bride of the Rain, to ward off any further rain delays.

And their efforts may have paid off. On Jan. 2, rain showered the Syrian city of Qamishli and its surrounding towns. Shihab Abdo, 70, who owns a plot of agricultural land in the village of Shorck in the countryside of Qamishli, told Al-Monitor, he performed the ancient "Bride of the Rain" ritual on Jan. 1 along with other residents of the village to ward off drought. "God answered our prayers and it rained the next day. We are happy with the rain that will save our seasons from drought," he said.

The village of Derona in Qamishli revived the rituals on Dec. 14. Abu Shafwan, a farmer from Derona, told Al-Monitor, “Children make a doll out of wood and dress it up in colorful clothes. They carry the wooden doll, the Ziwa, which in Kurdish means 'rain doll,' and roam the village, knocking on doors, praying for rain and asking for some wheat. The villagers sprinkle water on the wooden doll and give the children wheat, meat and sweets.”

Ahmad Hani, 49, from the village of Tal Khanzir in al-Malikiyah's countryside, practiced this ritual as a child and is now teaching it to his grandchildren because of the drought.

“I practiced the Ziwa ritual 43 years ago. Our mothers used to make wooden dolls for us, and we used to knock on all the doors; housewives would give us wheat and sprinkle water on the Bride of the Rain. We would then wish them a long life and rainy seasons,” Hani told Al-Monitor.

“We would move from house to house, collecting sweets and clothes, chanting a well-known weather chant, asking God to grant the owners of the house better seasons. Today, the majority of those who celebrate Ziwa only offer different types of food to children,” he added.

Shirwan Ghareeb, 60, a farmer from the village of Hilweh in the Qamishli countryside whose children and grandchildren participated in the Ziwa ritual in his village on Dec. 16, explained to Al-Monitor the reasons for reviving the ancient ritual in the Kurdish community: “We ask the heavens for mercy and to bless us with rain, as our fields have dried up due to rain delay and we are worried about losing our crops this season, which could harm our animal wealth. We are farmers who live off agriculture and livestock, so we pray to God to bless us with rain so that we do not face the threat of famine.”

He said the Ziwa ritual has gained great importance, especially since the record drop in rainfall.

Ghareeb, like other farmers, suffered severe losses over the past harvesting seasons. “Last year I planted wheat and barley, and because of rain delay, I had nothing to harvest. We also suffered from drought the year before, as our fields burned and the fire consumed all our livelihoods. We are afraid of going hungry if rain delay persists.”

International humanitarian organizations have warned of the worsening food insecurity throughout Syria and a possible famine threatening the country, calling for quick action to save the livelihoods of Syrians amid the lasting drought.

A recent study by the Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies published on Dec. 10 called for saving Syrians from famine and developing quick solutions to prevent them from slipping into extreme poverty. The study revealed that an unprecedented crisis of poverty and hunger will knock on the doors of various Syrian regions amid the ever-deteriorating economic crisis, the repercussions of the Caesar Act and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Farmer Sarbest Ali from the village of Hilweh told Al-Monitor that a real catastrophe is facing agriculture in Syria, as most of the agricultural areas depend on rainfall. “We are facing the worst drought, and Syria is an agricultural society that depends for its livelihood on agriculture and livestock breeding. The rain delay and scarcity of seasonal rains will negatively affect our livelihood with the outrageously high prices and the spread of COVID-19, which is exhausting the country.”

The latest report issued by the UN World Food Program (WFP) revealed that 60% of the population in Syria, about 12.4 million people, suffer from food insecurity.

Estimates of the Food Security and Livelihoods Assessments published in February 2021, which the WFP presented in cooperation with its partners, revealed that the number of people facing acute food insecurity has doubled, and they are unable to live without food aid.

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