This article by Omar Kaddour is 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.
Our neighbor who lived closest to us in Homs was Christian. In Damascus, our neighbors were a combination of outsiders and locals. In Afrin, most of our neighbors were evidently Kurds. What I am trying to say is, as a child, I led a nomadic life.
Although I moved around, I never really noticed these differences, and they seemed normal to me. During one of our moves, we happened to have a Shiite neighbor who would approach me nicely and call me Ali every time she saw me. I would correct her, but she would make the same mistake again. I understood, much later, that she was avoiding saying my name!
After long years of university friendships, I also discovered, by coincidence, that one of our friends in the group was a member of the Alawite community [the secretive minority Shiite sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs.] That meant nothing to me at the time. My university friends came from diverse ethnicities and backgrounds—Ismaili [Shiites], Kurds, villagers and city-dwellers.
Sectarian talk in the sense that I discovered later in life was not common in my social environments. Even so, things were not always that pure and simple. When I was in high school, our football coach gathered us—Arab students—and asked us to watch our peers, monitor who was absent to celebrate Nowruz [Kurdish New Year] and give him their names. After he left the hall, we all agreed not to oblige because his order was insulting to us and to our peers who were celebrating their holiday.
During the same period, a Kurdish classmate angered me, because during mathematics class, she looked at me “as I was unusually silent,” and she said in Kurdish, “Why is our tongue-tied friend so quiet?” Our classmates laughed, and I was furious despite her subsequent apology. I was somewhat appeased when I remembered that Arabs called non-Arabs “foreign mumblers” (Ajamis) in the past, to indicate they have trouble speaking properly.
My own sense of culture, developed by reading religiously from an early age, was to a large extent the product of Western texts translated into Arabic. Sectarian issues and stories were consequently alien to me. I was a stranger to the world of religions that drives people to differentiate between sects and persuades them that their set of beliefs are correct relative to those of others. It was certainly a “rosy” world view and did not reflect the realities I came to comprehend later.
At university, I spent almost two years reading about religion and mythology to bridge the social and cultural gap that I felt. I wanted to be familiar with my social environment, which was predominantly Sunni. One cannot understand a sect within Islam without knowing the other main ones and the history of enmity between them.
I read books by Husayn Muruwwa and Mahdi Amel as well as one of Adonis’ iconic texts, ‘The Static and the Dynamic: A Research into the Creative and the Imitative of Arabs.’ At the time, a wave of authors revisiting inherited ideas emerged, and their works culminated with the books of Moroccan philosopher Mohammed Abed al-Jabri, an expert in Islamic thought best known for his work ‘A critique of the Arab Mind.’ To them, we can add Tayyeb Tizini who wrote ‘From Heritage to Revolution.’ Most of these authors, with the exception of Adonis, were leftists. They shared a critical perspective of Sunni Islam, given that it was the historically prevalent power, but they did not spare the other sects that had ruled in the region.
This thought-wave shaped me to some extent. My friend, the poet Abdul Latif Khattab, drew me deeper into the readings and fanned my interest in them. During one of our discussion sessions, he argued that Haydar Haydar, the Syrian novelist, was sectarian and so was his novel, ‘Walimah li A'ashab al-Bahr’ (A Banquet for Seaweeds), which made a splash when it was released. Abdul Latif claimed that Haydar intentionally picked the name “Yazid” for the evil antagonist in the book [in reference to Yazid ibn Mu’awiya, the second caliph of the Umayyad Muslim dynasty], while the loved protagonist was called “Mahdi Jawad” [in apparent reference to Imam Mahdi, a religious leader who, Shiites believe, vanished 1,100 years and will return in the future to defeat evil in the world].
I defended Haydar at the time and argued that one’s upbringing might leave such residues lingering their unconscious mind without their awareness, like seeing the name Yazid or Omar as the ultimate evil. Therefore, one must be more careful to avoid blunders like the one of our Shiite neighbor who repeatedly insisted on calling me Ali! [The name Ali is particularly popular among Shiite Muslims for historical reasons relating to the split between Sunni and Shi’a Islam]
What I mean to say is that ethnic and sectarian alignments tarnished the cultural and political landscape more than simple everyday life, although these divisions did surface in deliberately twisted due to various dynamics relating to repression. This duality—the contrast between the values that people pretend to embrace versus what they actually think, vestiges of the past suppressed due to government pressure and self-censorship—has created a state of collective schizophrenia.
One of my relatives had an Ismaili business partner and friend. When he and his friend were crossing Syrian regime checkpoints, the soldier verifying their papers wondered what an Alawite and an Ismaili could possibly have in common. When they were telling me the story in 2012, I thought the question was normal, and I noted the deep-rooted enmity between Alawites and Ismailis dating back to the days of Sheikh Saleh al-Ali [a prominent Syrian Alawite leader who commanded the Syrian Revolt of 1919 against the French].
It was then that my relative from [the northwestern city of] Masyaf remembered the painful incident when Ali attacked his hometown, besieged its citizens and tortured them. Textbooks and modern television series portray Ali as a hero who fought colonialism. Ismailis saw a completely different side of Ali. The counter-story claims that Ali clashed with the French because they tried to deter his aggression against Ismailis, as the French government was authorized to implement the law. His revolution was not driven by national motives initially.
In the summer of 2012, I myself underwent a significant experience. My wife, our friend and I were headed to the Latakia City from Slinfah [a mountainous resort in the Alawite heartland]. Asaad’s forces had seized Al-Haffah [a district within Latakia Governorate], forcibly displacing its inhabitants. At the first checkpoint, as soon as the soldier who was standing took my identity card from the window of the car, he handed it to his superior and reached out to search me while I was still in the car. Meanwhile, the officer in charge at the checkpoint held the identity card and said, in a local accent, “Omar! From Aleppo! What are you doing here?”
Luckily, the driver whom we did not know answered quickly, saying he drove us from the farm of brigadier general “So-and-so,” who is famous in that region. The officer in charge asked immediately, “What are you doing at the brigadier general’s place? Do you work for him?” I said that I was visiting him. Of course, I did not know the aforementioned brigadier general, and the officer’s face looked confused and unconvinced. How could a person called Omar [a name typically given to Sunni Muslims for historic and religious reasons] be a guest at the brigadier general’s place while he should be a worker or servant on his farm?
After that incident, rather because of it, I got a fake identity card under the name Ammar that showed [the Mediterranean city of] Tartus [where Alawites are believed to be in the majority] as the place of registration [origin]. None of Assad’s thugs would suspect a guy from Tartus to be wanted by the intelligence! This fake ID is the only souvenir left of my Syrian papers.
On a direct political level, a perceptive observer of the Syrian partisan experience could easily see the sectarian and regionalist fault-lines cutting across the country. For a long time, the Nasserist current was described as a reflection of Sunni Arabism, as opposed to the Baathist Arabism that represented minorities.
One inevitably remembers the word “Ads” that was used as an acronym to refer to the minority alliance seeking to expel Sunnis from the Baath party and from key positions in the army. [In Arabic, Ads mean lentils, which are cheap. The word was used to degrade Alawites, Druzes and Smaoulis/Ismailis].
Even though the Muslim Brotherhood was the only party openly professing a sectarian ideology, the remaining parties in general also had an ethnic, sectarian or regionalist character. Despite their slogans, leftist claims or alleged secularism, the bottom line is that they were marred by fanaticism on grounds that are not more important than ideology but that certainly have a bigger impact.
Mutual stereotyping between different societies and regions is undoubtedly present in varying degrees among the people of the world. But, what sets us Syrians apart from others is that our stereotyping is not limited to social boundaries, neither does it disappear with the passage of time. Stereotyping here is a project of the government. It is a project of silent wars and the more recently declared ones now waged in the open.
The claws of stereotyping can be seen in the public sector. It is among the most influential factors, if not to say the most influential of all. This does not mean that Syrians are obsessed with sectarianism day and night. Yet one cannot deny that they were deprived of democratic practices that would have guaranteed their individuality with time and that would have helped them make peace with the past—once that page had been turned.
The truth is that, contrary to the patriotic slogans, Syrians lack a common history and will continue to do so as long as the oral history of each group remains different from the one presented in slogans of national dissimulation. A comprehensive history that incorporates and acknowledges all the differences between them has not been produced and therefore cannot be laid to rest in peace, as it should. And since the problem is not the result of insufficient knowledge of the other, mingling and mixing with the various others will not resolve this issue. On the contrary, the fissures are based on sufficient knowledge, awareness and design.
In societies that have leapt forward in the democratic experience, stereotyping of any sort is considered a cultural crime, even though no explicit legal text criminalizes it. However, before attaining this level of individualism, these communities were mocking themselves and their stereotypes. When we break free from the hegemony of the others and begin mocking our ideas about them and mocking ourselves rather than mocking them, we can say then that we have buried the hatchet. Our cultural and political history can only be buried when it becomes a subject hanging between a story and a joke.
When that day comes, there will be no military or intelligence checkpoint to denounce the presence of a person called Omar in a coastal city or cast him as the servant of an officer. And only then a new novelist might write about a person called Yazid, who is neither good nor evil, but a regular person like any of us who has virtuous and vices.