How 1930s Syria “Solved” Its Drought Problem

People need water to survive. For Syria, though, that’s been a problem more than once — according to one study, there have been six significant droughts from 1900 to 2005, and then another major one from 2006 to 2011. The causes of those droughts were wide-ranging, and each time, the governments tried to intervene, with similarly varied success. Many such interventions make a lot of scientific sense, but others… not so much. Desperate times call for desperate measures, as the saying goes.

But in 1933, Syria didn’t just use that adage as a basis for their drought policies. They also employed another one — “what goes up, must come down.” Kind of.

A lack of rain is a proximate cause for many droughts, and rain, as you almost certainly know, falls down from the sky. In late 1932, Syria experienced a significant lack of rainfall, and the results were dramatic. As the New York Times reported in January of 1933, the drought “killed their cattle because grazing lands were ruined,” putting families and the economy at large at risk. The best way to end the drought was to get rain to fall, but that’s difficult at best. All ideas were welcome, and religious leaders had a theory: yo-yos. Yes, the toy.

As Time magazine reported at the time, a handful of Muslim priests believed that the start of the drought coincided with the introduction of the yo-yo into Syrian society, or at least, with the newfound popularity of the toy in Syrian communities. (It’s not exactly clear when the yo-yo first came to Syria, but according to the CBC, there’s evidence that the Greeks used them as early as 500 BCE, so they probably weren’t brand new to Syria at the time.) So, as Time Magazine reported at the time, the priests approached the government and argued that “the up-and-down movement of these infidel tops counteracts the prayers of the pious for rain. [ . . .]  Rain will never fall again in Syria while the wicked play with yo-yos.” 

That plea ultimately reached Prime Minister Haqqi al-Azm who agreed to take action. The next day, al-Azm banned yo-yos throughout Syria — and not just by signing a piece of paper to the effect. According to a news clipping republished on (yes, there’s a Yo-Yo news site), after al-Azm issued his edict, “the police paraded [through] the streets and confiscated yo-yos from everyone they saw playing with them.” 

And it worked — well, coincidentally, perhaps. Per the above-linked New York Times article, al-Azm “issued his decree against the tops and it rained the very next day.” The drought was over.

It’s unclear when Syria lifted the ban on yo-yos, or if the country ever officially did. But if you’re in Syria right now — its decade-plus long civil war notwithstanding — you can probably use a yo-yo without fear of recrimination.

Bonus fact: Perhaps the most basic yo-yo trick is the “sleeper” — the user throws the yo-yo down toward the ground and it just kind of hangs there, spinning, at the bottom of the rope, hanging over the floor. It’s a great trick — but it doesn’t work aboard the International Space Station, because you need a lot more gravity than space can provide. We know this because NASA tested it. The good news, though, is that you can do a lot of other yo-yo tricks in microgravity; here’s a 6-minute video featuring astronaut Don Pettit on the ISS, showing off his yo-yo tricks, if you need proof.

From the Archives: Spies in the Toy Box?: Why the United States National Security Agency (the NSA) banned a popular children’s toy from its offices.