This article by Abdullah Amin Al-Hallaq forms part of a special series focused on Oral Culture and Identity in Syria.
It is the outcome of an ongoing partnership between SyriaUntold and openDemocracy’s North Africa West Asia in a bid to untangle the roots of sectarian, ethnic and other divides in Syria.
For better or for worse, I am not sure which exactly, I was born in the city of Salamiya, located in the heart of Syria to the east of Hama. I am Ismaili by birth (Ismailism is a branch of Shia Islam). Both my parents belong to the Ismaili faith but I am irreligious by conviction. I follow secular tactics in my day-to-day life and apply secular “strategies” to live in the world. I respect the right of any person to believe—as well as not to believe—in any religion or doctrine (although most believers do not respect or recognize our rights to not believe). I respect that right provided they do not see their sect or religion as the end of all righteousness, based on supernatural and shamanistic ideologies firmly rooted in environments still mired in superstitions.
Holding one’s own sect in high regard was not shown publically in Syria, perhaps due to the “Syrian mosaic” and “coexistence” propaganda, which we experienced so clearly after the revolution! However, one could notice some of the significant remarks that were flourishing among the least educated in this or that community, remarks denigrating to others. Denigrating others based on their religion, sect, race or color is to a certain extent a pretension to superiority based on one’s own sectarian or religious affiliation. There is no need to dwell on the obvious here: the need to not label an entire group with one defining feature, and to be careful not to attribute to the “whole” what only “some” of its members might gossip about. For the purpose of this article, however, there are some “rare” verbal narratives that are rather narrowly circulated among “sectarian activists” in Syria worth mentioning. These are precisely the type of narratives we need to be looking into and writing about.
Salamiya is a city in Syria where the Ismaili minority constitutes a majority of its population. Six Shia imams, from Ali down to Ja’far al-Sadiq, are the common denominator between “Sevener” Ismailis and the largest branch of Shiite Islam, known as Twelvers. In a country like Baathist and Assadist Syria, people were prohibited from discussing politics as well as manifesting any sound or healthy interest in fellow Syrians. Members of majority and minority religious groups developed their own parochial oral histories vis-a-vis other sects. These were often promoted by unfathomable anecdotes of paranormal events and reinforced by walls or security barriers which prevented Syrians from getting to know each other
The more educated classes, which regularly encountered other sections of the Syrian populations, did not care about the “morning sermons” passed down verbally by some “elders” who have long been insulated within the confines of their sects and regions. But we often heard these elders chatter about the Sunnis, the Alawites and the Druze in ways that resembled the anecdotes one hears in Arabian Nights. I remember that the first folk proverb to be invoked in moments of great injustice inflicted upon someone is “like a Nusayris [an Alawite] beaten down in market.”
In fact, I do not yet know the source or the original story of this widespread saying in the Ismaili community, nor the location of the market in which the above-mentioned “Nusayri” was dealt that “beatdown.” Is it the Salamiya market? Hama market? Al-Hamidiyah market?! The market is a variable that is open to speculations, but what is constant is that an Alawite person was once subjected to a physical assault so horrible that it became remarkably proverbial, a “spiteful” remembrance that is nevertheless invoked to ease the pain of someone being wronged.
Mockery and ridicule
There are additional sayings used by Ismailis, Sunnis and many others to mock and ridicule the Alawites. One such saying is silk bi-laban [chard with yogurt], which is a rural dish made even in non-Alawite villages, but has been associated with the Alawites when poking fun at their lives and traditions. Another is shu’aybiya wa kazuza [custard in filo and soft drink], which refers to a poor Alawite descending from his village, enjoying a shu’aybiya with a soft drink and considering that his utmost “model of luxury.” These are only two examples of countless forms of mockery. While the Ismailis and the Sunnis share a similar view toward the Alawites, the Ismailis are also viewed as a “one stereotypical whole,” most famously as “the sect that worships vaginas.” This is another widespread conviction among “Sunni” marginalized rural groups, which rely on communal anecdotes and hereditary myths to learn about the sectarian or religious other, which is in this case the Ismailis.
This allegation of an Ismaili cult serves a twofold purpose. On the one hand, it obscures the fact that Ismailis worship Allah, just like other Muslims. On the other, it is used to vilify the Ismaili faith and reduce it to “vaginas,” at which point infidelity, atheism or paganism become too nice a “charge” when compared with the above-mentioned worship. Perhaps the most astute response to this charge was that of the poet Ali al-Jundi, which is often repeated by activists and young people from Salamiya. “Is it true that the Ismailis worship vaginas?” the late poet was once asked, rather jokingly, on the sidelines of a press interview. “Frankly, I have no clue if the dignified sect worships it, but personally I do,” al-Jundi replied.
Furthermore, within the Ismaili “sphere,” there is another anti-Ismaili slander propagated by Alawites, especially those who have reached extreme old age. This is the term kalb el fayy [dog of shadows], which is grounded in the stereotyping notion that Ismailis are too lazy and passive. “An Ismaili man rests in the shadow, loosens his balls, and watches whoever comes by. If he ever works a few minutes, he takes a three-hour break, whereas a villager is a hard-working early riser.” It goes without saying that many Ismailis are villagers and peasants as well.
Myth-making and narrative wars
The same smear tactic is used by other sects towards the Murshidi [members of a religious community that split from the Alawite tribes], such as the popularized rumor that they meet in a special ritualistic evening to have an animalistic orgy between their men and women. Indeed, sex has been and remains a primary myth-making tool in this sectarian “war or narratives.”
In the minds of the most ignorant and backward groups, for instance, Sunnis are Bakris. Bakrism here is not an affiliation with the tribe of Bakr or any other Arab tribe. It is simply a “charge” against the Sunnis who believe in Abu Bakr’s entitlement to the first caliph coronation, which is in the Alawite and Ismaili tradition an entitlement of [the fourth caliph] Ali. In the same context, another expression concerning major Sunni figures is Aisha alhamra. This invokes the description by Prophet Muhammad of [his youngest wife] Aisha Bint Abu Bakr as humayraa [rosy-complexed], which is now used by Aisha’s haters, who are entrenched Ali’s camp, to describe any “bitchy” woman as Aisha alhamra.
One could elaborate and research endlessly into this subject, which is not the purpose of this article. Such hostile speech remained confined to very narrow spaces, barely extending beyond its original communities. But it bears witness to what might be the case in politically impoverished environments, where societies invoke their distant historical heritage to wreak havoc in such historical moments as the breakout of the Syrian revolution – albeit in a different language from what I have described here.
In many aspects, the Syrian conflict today has turned into a military war and given way to sectarian and national strife. Many have drawn on the historical heritage: a Sunni-Shiite divide as Iran intervened in support of the regime, and an over-Islamization and sectarianization of the conflict. If this historical heritage is transient then it can either be overcome by cumulative political action and under modern or reformist systems; or it can be perpetuated by discriminatory sectarian regimes. A regime such as the Assad regime will only produce hideous outcomes of the sort we are witnessing nowadays. The “Sunni market” epitomizes this hideosity!
I said at first that I am affiliated with an irreligious minority that is ostracized by whoever defines themselves by their sect, who are indeed so many. However, having read what I wrote above, and contemplated what I could write and narrate in this file, I think I have to alter my said affiliation as I conclude this article. It is too early to discuss “freedom to not believe” within the constitutional framework. So, it suffices to say: “I descend from a rural peasant family. I might not be a good person, but at least I'm not kalb el fayy [dog of shadows].”