This article 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.
Social relations within the Shwam [Damascus citizens or Damascenes] community—and likewise between them and their fellow Syrians—are marred by rising tensions based on class, religion, regionalism and gender.
These tensions may be politically driven, although to what extent is debatable. However, the practices and the distorted image of this privileged group that alleges to be treated unjustly among Syrians are worth exploring. Perhaps the short story of a Sunni Damascene girl’s life would help make things clearer.
Amid the Shwam but not really among them, I grew up in Old Baghdad Street—a place crowded with “lesser” Shwam (residing beyond the Old City walls), who are not taken seriously by the “authentic” families of Damascus who trace their heritage to the heart of the city (within its historic perimeter). This story suggests some Damascenes are more Damascene than others, depending on where they were registered. Registration began in the Ottoman days, and in light of it, we can know who are the real veteran citizens of the Syrian capital. This is the cornerstone of the Shwam narrative.
Founded in 3,000 BC, Damascus is one of the most ancient continuously inhabited cities of the Middle East and foreigners have flocked to it throughout history. Anything new trended to trigger resentment, although there wasn’t one single reason to take pride in what had been. Standing the test of time was ground enough for Damascenes to take pride. The city had persevered and survived. Other Syrians labelled the Shwam bastards (banadeeq), the fruit of invaders’ rape. The nickname implied manipulation, deception and selfishness.
Living nearby, in new buildings, you found mostly middle-class and well-off Damascenes, as well as Syrians from other regions. Usually, they worked in state institutions. But from the point of view of the Shwam, all outsiders were peasants, no matter what they did for a living or where they came from. They were their exact opposites, constantly on the move and migrating. No one took personal issue with the profession of farming per se, but they were bothered by its rural connotations. Shwam believed people from rural areas were crass, lacking in manners and even religious knowledge. The Shwam would label this type of others whatever they pleased. I remember a proverb that goes, “A peasant living in Damascus is like a donkey hanging from a tree” [neither would know what to do/peasants in Damascus are like fish out of water]. They used the term peasant and Horanis [originating from the town of Horan in southern Syria] interchangeably. Ever since I can remember, I would hear insults such as “like peasants” or “peasantly.”
Growing up, many people from the Qalamoun Mountains [northeast of the capital] lived in my neighborhood. They would return to their villages every summer, something that struck me as odd at the time. In my mind a village was simply an oasis suitable for promenades. I was surprised anybody even lived there! Shwam only knew the heart of their city and ignored its surroundings. The Damascenes controlled commerce. The countryside was a place to store and manufacture items or to shop and spend the summer—end of story. The Shwam did not bother to familiarize themselves with the rural areas in the outskirts of the capital until the poorest of them had no choice but to live in the [suburban area of] Ghouta because real estate prices had soared in the capital as a consequence of the conflict. The heirs of the big Damascene house [houses in Damascus were traditionally big] moved to the countryside and all of their children, for the price of a house in the city, were able to buy their own flats in either Eastern or Western Ghouta.
At first glance, the Shwam of Ghouta seemed to be indeed more open, as they liked to claim, especially when it came to women and their freedom of movement in public roads. But by changing wedding celebrations from mixed occasions into gender-segregated events, with a religious baptism for men and a strip fest for the women so they can show off their beauty [veiled women do not have the occasion to show their beauty except on such occasions, so their clothing turns out to be rather garish and even obscene], imitating the snobbiest of Damascenes who reserve special banquet halls and venues for such occasions rather than celebrating in public squares, they revealed a certain level of oppression and social apostasy. Their sense of urban superiority was blatantly reflected in their insistence on turning the hijab into a symbol of how civilized one is; in their effort to bring Damascene’s standards of the veil and the manteau [long overcoat Muslim women wear] closer to Western fashion; and their tendency to mock whoever wears this attire differently or traditionally.
Since my parents are poor, and women in my family wear a hijab and a manteau, unveiled women from non-Sunni religious backgrounds both shocked and impressed me. I thought they looked like the actresses on television or in magazine photos. In other words, they looked like exotic foreigners, and by consequence prettier than me. I was torn between this personal opinion and the perspective of my surrounding environment which viewed them as crass because they were not Damascene, hence peasants. I consequently came up with my first social conclusion, which I blurted out on every family occasion, “Many peasants dress better than us.” Naturally, my mother and aunts chided me for liking the idea of removing the veil. I did not know that I should not base my taste on clothing. My family had no clue that there were other Shwam living differently in the [money neighborhood of] Malki and going out in clothes that were daring by our standards. Just like the poor of the city, this type of others claimed that we were not as Damascene as them.
Wearing the veil, gender segregation and taking shoes off at the door to preserve the purity of the house were all seen as indicators of the backwardness of Shwam, at least the poor class among them. It is a murky type of racism that not many Damascenes are familiar with. Shwam do not know how much others abhor them for exploiting everything, from the power [government] they hate to the immigrants they despise, and everything else. They think all others are driven by a feeling of jealousy toward the Shwam, except for those who show interest and admiration.
Perhaps they considered the lives of Christians similar to that of westerners. But they ignore this image because Christians only hail from the villages beyond the walls of the city (except for the Christians of Al-Midan neighborhood, who were descendants of the Christians who fled the Old City after the 1860 massacre). Shwam are so zealous in their Sunnism that it prevents them from comparing realistically between the ways of life they see.
Shwam Sunnism is a form of bullying practiced by a cultural majority. Different ways of living are seen as inferior. This dominant majority has even been able to impose changes to the Baath regime which was not willing to Sunnify society to begin with. It has succeeded in obtaining near-exclusive privileges. Proof of this can be seen in the sheer number of private schools and Islamic institutes that were established across Damascus. In Damascus, money, prejudice and the feeling of divine power can challenge the incoming military, compelling even its head of state to acknowledge its ways, to flatter it, favour it and appease it on every occasion of Eid prayer.
Shwam Sunnism is on display everywhere from school classrooms to the media, where all other sects are blacked out. It propagates what it likes about other groups, solely mindful of itself, proud and satisfied with its blissful ignorance. The Shwam are so proud of themselves that they see whatever practices they inherit from their parents as the norm, as the right way of doings things. When it comes to food, fashion and how to speak, their way is always the right way. Most astonishing is their belief that their accent is the sole manner of speaking. They mock all other accents as if some accents are actually better than others!
Their sense of authority and self-preservation resulted in a chaotic environment and promoted a caste system, creating a divide between urban and rural, Sunni majority and other minorities. This divide was evident in many fields including the government and the army. The Shwam Sunni identity grew ever more reclusive, intolerant, backwards and attached to all that is ancient to the full extent of primitive hostility. It did not just adhere to that shameful position, but grew in short sightedness, as many of its members allied with the ruling regime, furthering their interests through it with blatant pragmatism and almost denying their own values. They had a sense of superiority and dominance, glaring in its provocativeness and stupidity.
During middle school, I met my first Alawite and Shiite classmates. From our conversations emerged a different picture, one that challenged the elitist image of the Shwam that I had previously accepted. My Alawite friend informed me that we were Sunnis. Until that point, I had thought we were simply Muslims, living in blissful ignorance of everybody else. She also said that we had “murdered” the Alawites. Faced with such accusations, I went to my father, who was at the time my source of information about the world, for a reality check. How could I believe anything bad being said about us? My father replied, “All Alawite women are whores,” and he chose to keep silent about the long history of oppression perpetrated against the Alawites dating back to the Ottoman Era. Likewise, he downplayed the Sunni’s long-term exploitation of people from the countryside, which basically created a caste system, by criminalizing the victims. Unfortunately, I did not have opinions other than those of my family until I joined university. There I had access to other sources who could inform me on the issues that my milieu chose to ignore.
Impudence was also the driving force of a formative interaction with a Shiite friend. I read off her notebook the sentence “No Man Is Like Ali And No Sword Is Like Zulfiqar.” Underneath that she had written the two Muslim declarations of faith. I reacted rather loudly, preaching that she should change the position of the two sentences and start with the declarations of faith. But, she retorted, “We write it that way.” I objected, “Who are you, are you not Muslims?” feeling a sense of righteousness and insisting that she was wrong. A friend clarified that our classmate was Shiite. This resulted in her undeclared exclusion, suspicions over whether she was really fasting during Ramadan, and multiple rumors relating the blasphemy of the Shiites and their worship of Ali above God. Other similar untruths were spoken about other sects, such as the Ismailis and their worship of the vagina, the Druze and their worship of the calf, and the Murshidiyah and their dark night ritual, during which siblings supposedly commit incest without their knowledge.
When I joined university, I became secular. I met Kurdish people and was shocked by my parents’ reaction on them. They equated Kurds, especially those who came from the Jazeera region or the north, with beggars and waiters at restaurants or cafes. But the Kurdish people I met were poets and political activists who were far more educated than any member of my family. My family also believed Kurds from Damascus to be drug addicts and arms dealers. But the Kurdish families I met from the neighborhood of Rukneddine far surpassed my family in every aspect, from education to wealth, if I considered such qualities as a sound basis for comparison. I also met Palestinians who had a reputation for being the embodiment of hooliganism itself, only to find that they were closer to the city’s poor in many ways. I could not understand why I should feel inferior for liking any of them rather than my fellow poor Shwam! My peers comfortably insulted Palestinians by calling them names like Palestizi [instead of saying Palestinian, where tizi is an Arabic word meaning buttocks, and is meant to insult Palestinians], a nickname that stems from their pure misanthropy.
Discrimination in the markets is of a different nature altogether. Merchants indulged in covertly asserting their superiority, describing Alawites as Germans—the underlying meaning being that they are born from an adulterous relationship between French men and their mothers. They call Druze calves also. All this is a continuation of an utter rejection of other religions and an attempt to dehumanize them. They make a collective reference to whom they despise with the term “government of lentils” to say that the government employees are poor Alawite, Druze and Ismaili peasants. Nevertheless, Shwam do not miss an opportunity to use the spoken accent of those communities they despise whenever they please to benefit or call in the wielding power of government, which they so much loathe!
Ancient history, as well as political and demographic changes, shaped the relationship between the Shwam and other communities, as well as between the poor and rich Shwam. They squandered the chance of meeting other cultures that had arrived at their doorstep and made their city more civilized, because they chose to regard all newcomers as occupiers. Ironically, they opted instead for developing their interests with the real occupiers and enforcing their oppressive practices instead of giving due consideration to positive outcomes. They exercise their superiority while ever being the losers and without having any purpose than survival and succession—their existence being defined as the partners of an exploitive regime.
“This country is not ours”, is a sentence one often hears from the lips of Shwam. These words are uttered with an intense sense of injustice, caused by the hardship that their capital city is the ultimate center of services and work opportunities, a city where competition over job and accommodation is rife. But this false sense of oppression is due to the extent that this segment of society eulogizes itself and recognizes no merit in others. It is not capable of changing its destiny, nor does it experience a healthy relationship with the other and just settles for its feelings of hate. The Shwam have become a minority in their own city and have become a reflection of distortion and denial. On the one hand, they see themselves as a superior cast and class, considering all other Syrians as inferior. On the other hand, they succumb to oppression although they fear it and want to change it. All this because they are not willing to pay the price of change.