Oral Culture and Identity in Syria

15 May 2018

Muhammad Dibo

Current editor-in-chief of SyriaUntold (Arabic). He is a Syrian poet, writer and researcher interested in Syrian culture and economy. Dibo's latest work is an autobiographical book, "Like He Who Witnesses His Own Death," about his experience in prison during the early days of the Syrian uprising. He is a regular contributor in many Arab and international newspapers.

Translated by: Yaaser Azzayyaat

This article by Mohammad Dibo introduces 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.

Countless and complex questions are being raised by the issue of open sectarianism ripping across the Arab Mashreq, maybe even the entire Middle East. We are faced with a tremendous resurgence of religious, sectarian, doctrinal, and ethnic currents that have overwhelmed the political and military landscape not only in Syria but also beyond. Political discourses are now replete with sectarian language and terminologies which had, up until two decades ago – and perhaps even less than that,– been considered too retrograde to be posed seriously. They are now presented as an inescapable reality and, as such, many are proposing consociational solutions premised on the “"hair of the dog”" logic.

Undoubtedly, the question of sectarianism has been extensively studied, analyzed and researched from both intellectual and political perspectives. We have seen over the past seven years so many studies and books on that question. Yet ambiguity continues to prevail and reality still surprises us, day after day, with instances of wild violence, unapologetic expressions and unrestrained actions that bring us back to square one. We are confronted by the same question time and time again: Where did all this sectarianism come from? Where was this sectarian consciousness hiding? Was it really hiding, or it is rather the "“Arab mind”" that had covered it up in favor of dreams and fantasies about a forthcoming future borne on the wings of modernity and progress?

Furthermore, it was not only the sectarian question that has risen from the ashes of the war in Syria. In addition, the (supra)national question has been also renewed in “passeistic” manners that seek nation-building in narrow ideological forms, though the nation-state ideal of modernity has long been outdated. When nationalism is not combined with democracy, along with the whole set of modernity (citizenship, human rights, alternation of power, etc.,) the former becomes a mere instrument of arbitrary rule. This has been the case in many countries still governed by this model, and Ba’'athist Syria serves as one of the most unsavoury examples.

Ethnic consciousness, nevertheless, has had a widespread presence among many communities, including the Kurds and the Arabs. Instead of building bridges and searching for new horizons or ways of co-existence that have humanity – before citizenship – at their core, hate is being reciprocally declared and fueled between ethnic groups. This, too, raises questions about the origin and background of such types of consciousness. Were they born overnight, or had they been nestled somewhere, waiting for the right moment to explode in our faces?

In addition to sectarianism and ethnicity, there is tribalism, regionalism (the coast and the interior) and rural-urban tensions (Ghouta and Damascus).

All of this gives shapes to the following question: Is there an “awareness” of these issues; a consciousness absorbed from the family and the community; an oral, unwritten consciousness instilled in the subconscious since early childhood? Is it that individuals grow up torn between two types of consciousness? One received from the immediate communal milieu and the other from school, university and life. Do they express and experience the former within their spheres of comfort familiarity, and wear the mask of the latter in front of strangers? If that is the case, how are the two types of consciousness manifested throughout the trajectory of an individual? How do they express themselves? And how do people reconcile between the two, especially given their contradictory nature: one clinging to the past and its myths, the other clinging to more modern expressions? Which one prevails over the other, and why, when a choice has to be made?

In an attempt to answer these questions, we launch this series, open in its first stage to writings conveying, clearly and transparently, this latent collective consciousness. How do different Syrian groups (sects, ethnicities, regions, tribes) gossip about one another? By way of example, how do the Alawites speak of the Sunnis, the Druze and the Christians in the exclusivity of their own private spheres? Likewise, how the Sunnis speak of the Alawites, the Druze and the Christians within theirs? And how do each of these religious communities talk about their respective others? The same question can be asked with regards to ethnic and tribal groups, as well as rural and urban population segments.

This form of writing requires transparency, clarity and integrity.It can only be carried out by those who believe in its use and significance. Moreover, it requires dissociating oneself from sects, ethnic groups, and tribes, and to even dissatisfy them in favor of humanity. Therefore, this series welcomes whoever shares that belief, and finds themselves willing to open up and break the taboo, to search inside themselves and ourselves, in order to expose that “consciousness” with which we were raised and which significantly shaped our worldview. It is an attempt to try and question ourselves: Has this consciousness played a role in what has been happening in Syria? Has any of what we have taken in from our early milieus – that we thought was behind us – provided the basis for our actions and attitudes towards what is happening in Syria? Have we sought to take refuge in our tribes and sects and communities?

In the second stage of this series, these testimonies will be placed before specialized researchers who will review this body of work from an intellectual and analytical point of view. They will attempt to find the link between these testimonies and what has happened in Syria and the region at large, assuming that such a link exists – for we do not wish to prejudice the conclusions these researchers and specialists will arrive at based on these testimonies and others. Finally, this series will explore the role (positive or negative) played by this oral culture in constructing, or obstructing, the building of a new Syrian identity after the end of the conflict.

This work is under a Creative Commons license. Attribution: Non commercial - ShareAlike 4.0. International license

Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad