This article by Dellair Youssef 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.
“Am I son of Aisha?”
Usually, the answer would be, “No, you are the son of the Arab Khadija.” Then everybody present would laugh their hearts out at the naiveté of the little boy (me). I would ask that question without knowing its meaning. In my Kurdish entourage, that saying was popular. For example, if tea glasses were distributed to everyone except for one person, that person would ask out loud, “Why didn’t I get tea? Am I the son of the Arab Aisha?” At the origin of this saying is an Arab woman called Aisha who worked for a Kurdish agha [honorific title in the Ottoman days], and her children did not get the same treatment as the agha’s kids.
My siblings and I, just like everyone else, would repeat that sentence, but the answer was always certain. Our mother was in fact Arab, and her name was Khadija. So, we were not surprised to hear that answer all the time. Speaking of my Arab mother, I would sometimes get advice from older Kurds not to trust Arabs, except for my mother because she is sweet and reliable, unlike other Arabs!
In any case, my family life was built on respect for others. But, if we delve into the basics of interaction and behavior of families and individuals in our entourage, including my family, we realize that the foundations are nationalistic, sectarian and tribal to a large extent. Respect for others is a delicate cover stripped of its essence, when push comes to shove.
If you would like, dear readers, you can ponder on the expressions we use in our daily lives without realizing their true meaning — expressions that are beyond sectarian.
How many times have we heard or repeated expressions like, “God damn you, darkie”, “Birds a feather should always flock together,” and “Trust a Jew with your dinner, but trust a Christian/Druze with your life.” Another expression which also applies to Ismailis says, “Murshidis worship the vagina and hold orgies as a sacred ritual. A person can sleep with his sister or mother for all he knows in such celebrations because the lights are off.”
Each time I spoke Kurdish in a non-Kurdish environment, I would get stares filled with contempt and condemnation. Almost daily, people would ask me, “Why are you speaking a language other than Arabic? What are you saying? Are you insulting us? Why don’t you return to your country?” and so on and so forth.
Let me tell you some short stories. At my primary school in Qamishli, which was in a Kurdish neighborhood of the Kurdish-majority city in northern Syria, even though most teachers and students were Kurds, students were not allowed to speak Kurdish. Some children did not know any other language, and they were punished whenever they spoke Kurdish. In secondary school in Damascus, I would hear students whispering while pointing at me and saying, “He is Kurdish. We should be scared.”
When one of my uncles had to complete his compulsory military service on the occupied Golan borders, he met a person coming from a village in Al-Ghab Plain. That person was afraid of Kurds. When asked about the reason, he replied that whenever they wanted to scare children in his village, they would say, “The Kurd is coming to get you.”
My mother is Iraqi. She came to Syria in 1987. After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003 and in the wake of the Iraqi displacement waves into Syria, prices of real estate soared, as did prices of commodities because Iraqis flooded the country. It was then that rumors about Iraqi prostitutes in Syria spread like wildfire.
When a friend wanted to insult me, whether jokingly or seriously, he would call me “son of the Iraqi woman” to say “son of a bitch.” That was the start of a series of endless problems about my mother’s Iraqi descent.
I was once strolling through the streets of Rotterdam with a Kurdish woman, and a man of color walked into us. The woman said reflexively, “God damn this black man covered in shit.” I was shocked at this insulting description from a woman like her, whose family almost killed her because she loved an African guy and wanted to marry him. She ultimately gave in and married a Kurdish man she did not love. I cut ties with that woman after this incident.
I heard jokes about Kurds hundreds of times along the lines, “A Kurdish fell from the tenth floor but did not die because he fell on his head.” The joke is told to indicate the stubbornness of Kurds. It was also claimed that when a Kurd dies, God sends 72 angels—two to punish him for his deeds and 70 to convince him that he is dead. This joke intends to reflect the idiocy of Kurds.
Each time a story about Kurds spreads on social media, we read comments like, “Well, what do you know—shoe-shiners and shisha boys now want their own state!” This refers to the jobs of some Kurdish men in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.
Until today, each time we enter a restaurant, some of my Syrian friends jokingly address me saying, “Do you want to bet that all the staff in this restaurant are Kurds?”
My mother is Iraqi-Shiite-Arab and my father is Syrian-Sunni-Kurdish. I grew up in a secular environment at home, which was a melting pot for jokes and insults against all religions and ethnicities. One day, we would criticize Sunnis, another day we would mock Shiites. A friend would tell us a joke about Christians. In 2005, there was a running joke about Sunnis in Iraq, and my brother brought it home when he visited his Iraqi aunt.
The joke goes like this, “A Shiite kid felt a toothache and called his mother, ‘Mama, mama, my tooth [sinni in Arabic] is decaying.’ She answered, ‘Is there any Sunni who is not corrupt?’” [the play here is on the Arabic word sinni for “my tooth” and the Sunni sect due to the similar pronunciation.]
Sometimes, it was said jokingly or seriously when describing a woman, “A woman is like a carpet that needs dusting off every once in a while.” This is to say that a woman should be beaten to be set straight again, just like a carpet is beaten with a stick to clean it. In Damascus, the line went as such, “Women are like sponges. If you don’t step on them, they puff up.” This is to say that if you do not keep a woman subdued, she will be freer.
I have hundreds of similar sexist, sectarian and racist stories. Some are personal ones that I witnessed or lived, and others are people’s tales.
Some happened in Syrian cities, while others took place in the diaspora and asylum countries. Some words and acts were spoken or committed respectively by the rich and some by the poor. The social class, sect, economic situation or national affiliation do not matter when mocking others is concerned. All sects mock other sects, and all ethnicities joke about other ethnicities. Most people think they are better than most people.
This reminds me of a famous saying that artists and intellectuals repeat after telling a racist, sectarian or sexual jokes.
“The funniest jokes are either sectarian, racist or sexual. Humor is lost on other topics,” the person joking would say, then he would add that he does not mean anything bad and that all was said for the sake of having a good laugh.