Wheat Fields Promise Abundant Harvest in NE Syria

A Syrian farmer in a wheat field in Afrin on Wednesday. (Getty Images)
A Syrian farmer in a wheat field in Afrin on Wednesday. (Getty Images)

Wheat Fields Promise Abundant Harvest in NE Syria

A Syrian farmer in a wheat field in Afrin on Wednesday. (Getty Images)
A Syrian farmer in a wheat field in Afrin on Wednesday. (Getty Images)

Stretching as far as the eye can see in the town of Darbasiyah, nestled within the province of Al-Hasakah in northeastern Syria, are expansive fields of wheat.

Alongside these golden swaths of grain, promising a season of abundant yield, stand sprawling barley fields, their presence serving as a hopeful testament to the recovery from years of devastating drought that had plagued the region.

Renowned for its cultivation of superior wheat and premium-grade barley, this territory has already entered the harvest season.

“The majority of farmers and peasants have incurred debts to cover the cost of seeds and production expenses, hoping that this season will surpass the previous years,” said Dara Suleiman, a farmer hailing from the village of Salam Aleik in the eastern part of Darbasiyah.

Suleiman, who owns approximately 80 hectares of land cultivated with irrigated wheat using underground wells, mentioned that farmers are selling their agricultural produce to the authorities of Kurdish Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which offers competitive prices compared to the Syrian government.

“The pricing set by the Damascus government was shocking, as it did not cover a significant portion of the production costs. The pricing offered by the Administration was superior to it,” Suleiman told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Suleiman shares his plight with thousands of farmers from the region who rely on wheat fields as a vital part of their livelihoods, along with the cultivation of barley and yellow corn.

The cultivated areas in the countryside of Darbasiyah stretch approximately 280,000 irrigated dunums, while unirrigated yielding lands stretch 110,000 dunums, according to the agriculture authority affiliated with the Administration.

Farmer Ashraf Abdi, who is from the village of Karbshak in western Darbasiyah, asserted that the wheat pricing set by Damascus for this year (2,800 Syrian pounds, equivalent to 30 US cents) will not cover the initial production costs and expenses.

The cost of irrigating a single dunum of land alone exceeds $150.

Standing by his wheat field, covered in golden yellow stalks that promised a bountiful harvest, he said the current price per kilogram, if sold at less than half a dollar (equivalent to 4,200 Syrian pounds) “would not compensate for the effort and sweat he spent for an entire year.”

“Even the pricing by the Administration is unfair, and I would rather store the crop than sell it at a loss,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

The Administration and its military forces control the province of Al-Hasakah and its countryside, the cities of Raqqa, Kobani and Manbij, the town of Tabqa, the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor and eastern countryside of the Aleppo province.

The areas serve as Syria’s wheat reservoir and its food basket. The cultivated areas for wheat and barley this year amount to approximately 1.9 million hectares, including 300,000 hectares of irrigated wheat using underground wells.

It goes without saying that the Administration attaches great importance to the strategic wheat crop, setting the purchase price for a kilogram of wheat this season at 43 US cents.

Administration Authorities, as well as some local experts, anticipate a production exceeding one million tons this season.

The Kurdish authorities prohibit farmers and traders from selling their wheat crop to the Syrian government, as the Administration provides sufficient fuel quantities for agriculture at competitive prices. Additionally, they distribute sterilized seeds at lower prices than those set by the government.

In turn, the government in Damascus has set the purchase price for wheat for the current season at 2,800 Syrian pounds (approximately 30 US cents) per kilogram, while the pricing for barley has been set at 2,200 pounds (25 cents).

These prices, compared to production costs, shipping expenses, and agricultural inputs, appear to be “shocking,” as described by farmers and cultivators.

Residents of northeastern Syria, like their compatriots across the country, have had to grapple with a sharp rise in prices in recent months, following a sharp depreciation of the pound against foreign currencies. The price hikes have affected sugar, food items, fuel derivatives, electricity and gas.

A packet of bread is sold from private bakeries for 2,500 pounds, while a loaf of traditional stone bread (in the eastern part of the country) is sold for 1,000 Syrian pounds.

Farmers in the region fear further deterioration in the value of their currency, which would result in significant losses during the wheat season that has already cost them a great deal of money and effort.

“We have sacrificed our blood and heart for it (the harvest season),” said farmers Suleiman and Abdi in conclusion to their conversation with Asharq Al-Awsat.

For Palestinian Athletes, the Olympics is About More than Sports

Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)
Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)

For Palestinian Athletes, the Olympics is About More than Sports

Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)
Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)

Most of the athletes representing the Palestinian territories at the Paris Olympics were born elsewhere — Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Germany, Chile and the United States — yet they care deeply about the politics of their parents’ and grandparents’ homeland.

They are eager to compete but say their presence at the Games isn’t only, or even primarily, about sports. With Israel and Hamas locked in a brutal war that has killed tens of thousands in Gaza, these eight athletes — two of whom hail from the West Bank — carry heavier burdens.

Yazan Al Bawwab, a 24-year-old swimmer who was born in Saudi Arabia and lives in Dubai, said he doesn't expect recognition for his performance in the pool. He uses swimming, he said, as a "tool for Palestine.”

“Unfortunately, nobody has ever asked me about my races. Nobody cares,” said al Bawwab, whose parents come from Jerusalem and Lod, a city that today is in central Israel. “I’m going to be plain and honest: France does not recognize Palestine as a country. But I’m over there, raising my flag. That’s my role.”

Omar Ismail, who was born in Dubai to parents who come from the West Bank town of Jenin, has loftier athletic ambitions. Shortly after earning his spot on the team at a taekwondo qualification tournament in China, the 18-year-old said he aims to win a gold medal in Paris.

But even if he does not earn a medal, Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself, The AP reported.

“I represent the identity of the people in Palestine, their steadfastness,” Ismail said. “I’d like to inspire the children of Palestine, show them that each of them can achieve their goals, give them hope.”

Even under the best of circumstances, it is difficult to maintain a vibrant Olympics training program in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Nine months of war between Israel and Hamas has made that challenge next to impossible.

Much of the country’s sporting infrastructure, clubs and institutions have been demolished, said Nader Jayousi, the technical director at the Palestine Olympic Committee.

“Do you know how many approved pools there are in Palestine? Zero,” said al Bawaab, who noted that the Palestinian economy is too small and fragile to consistently support the development of elite athletes. “There is no sports in Palestine. We are a country right now that does not have enough food or shelter, and we are trying to figure out how to stay alive. We are not a sports country yet.”

The Palestinian diaspora has always played an important role at the Olympics and other international competitions, Jayousi said.

Jayousi said it’s not the first time that most of the athletes representing the POC come from abroad. He said the Palestinian diaspora is always represented at any big international sporting competition and Olympics.

More than 38,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the war between Israel and Hamas began, according to local health officials. Among those who died were about 300 athletes, referees, coaches and others working in Gaza's sports sector, according to Jayousi.

Perhaps the most prominent Palestinian athlete to die in the war was long-distance runner Majed Abu Maraheel, who in 1996 in Atlanta became the first Palestinian to compete in the Olympics. He died of kidney failure earlier this year after he was unable to be treated in Gaza and could not be evacuated to Egypt, Palestinian officials said.

Only one Palestinian athlete, Ismail, qualified for the Paris Games in his own right. The seven others gained their spots under a wild-card system delivered as part of the universality quota places.. Backed by the International Olympic Committee, it allows athletes who represent poorer nations with less-established sports programs to compete, even though they did not meet the sporting criteria.

“We had very high hopes that we would go to Paris 2024 with qualified athletes,” Jayousi, the team's technical director, said. “We lost lots of these chances because of the complete stoppage of every single activity in the country.”

Palestinian athletes will compete in boxing, judo, swimming, shooting, track and field and taekwondo.

There is a chance Palestinian athletes could compete against Israelis in Paris. The Israel Olympic Committee said it is sending 88 athletes to Paris, and that they would compete against athletes from anywhere.

Jayousi declined to say whether clear guidelines have been issued to Palestinian athletes about whether they would be expected — as a form of protest against the war in Gaza — to drop out of competition rather than face Israelis.

“Let's see what the draws will put our athletes against," he said. “We know what we want to do, but we don't have to say everything that we want to do.”

One Olympic hopeful who did not make the cut was Gaza-born weightlifter Mohammed Hamada, a flag bearer at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. When the war began, Hamada moved to Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah and trained there for 25 days. But because of the shortage of food, Hamada — who competed in the 102 kilograms (225 pounds) weight class — gradually lost about 18 kilograms (40 pounds).

Hamada eventually secured a visa to leave Gaza and moved to Qatar to continue his training. But, Jayousi said, he just couldn't get his body back to Olympic-level condition.

Jayousi said winning medals is not the top priority for the athletes who made it to Paris. (No Palestinian athlete has ever won an Olympic medal).

“We are going here to show our Palestinianism,” he said. “We are focused on fighting until the last second, which we have been doing as a nation for the last 80 years.”

Al Bawaab said he wants to empower the next generation of Palestinian athletes, in part by providing them with greater financial resources. He founded the Palestinian Olympians Association to help athletes prepare for sports and life beyond, including by providing them with mental-health support.

"We don’t have that sports culture yet,” al Bawaab said. “When I’m done swimming, we’ll hopefully get that rolling in the country. But you have to be safe first.”