From “This onion is Sunni” to “Nice Sunnis like us”

24 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: Pascale Menassa

This article by Mohammad Dibo 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.

When my grandmother got a taste of the bitter and pungent onion that made my tears fall, she cried out, “Ouch! This onion is definitely Sunni!” When I failed to understand what she meant, she clarified her idea, saying, “This onion is bitter and pungent like Sunnis.” Noticing that I still did not understand, she avoided the explanation and just said, “When you grow up, you will find out for yourself what this means.”

Indeed, when I grew up, I understood, but not completely on my own. I heard words here and there in the village and in closed same-sect circles, where people talk freely about “the others” of a different sect and ethnicity. In the presence of strangers, such talk would disappear. Proverbs and famous sayings along the lines of “trust a Sunni with dinner, but trust a Christian with your life” were popular in these circles. The proverb meant that Sunnis’ food is pure and resembles ours, but one cannot trust to sleep at their house. Christians’ food is impure because they eat rabbits and pork which are forbidden to Alawites and Muslims. But, one can trust to sleep at a Christian’s place because his life wouldn’t be threatened, while a Sunni can kill you as per the common belief.

Other expressions included, “Once an enemy, always an enemy;” “They never loved us, why would they start now?”; “If the regime collapses, they will take us back to the mountains and the bloodbath will begin.” In popular circles, the latter is a reference to Al-Jafr book by Ali Bin Abi Taleb and is considered a prophecy of the dark future ahead. In fact, some Alawites are afraid history would repeat itself, and they worry that they might have to immigrate, flee and hide. From generation to generation, stories about Ibn Taymiyyah and Ottomans (Sunnis) who made killing Alawites permissible and forcibly displaced them from cities to mountains have been circulated. The memory is as alive as though it were happening now. It is part of the daily conversation, as if it had happened in the near past rather than the distant one.
The proverbs are always followed by unverified stories about that man who slept over at a Sunni family’s house, and whom they killed in the night…

In the village where I grew up, insulting Omar Ibn Khattab, Abu Bakr and Othman—the companions of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad—was common to the extent that children learned the insults without knowing their exact meaning. You would hear a child telling another simply, “God damn you, your face is as ominous as Omar and Abu Bakr’s.”

There was a running joke in the village about a cleric who asked a sharp-tongued young man about his take on Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman during a sacred religious gathering. The young man answered, “Fuck this, fuck everything related to them, and screw their mothers.” People commonly told this joke to make others laugh. Then, they would proceed to another joke, as if nothing had been said, throughout the course of a regular public discussion which is not necessarily focused on sectarian talk or anything of the sort. The joke or expression flows naturally into the conversation before moving on to another topic.

Sunnis were not the only targets, as the jokes did not spare Ismailis. You could hear “Ismaouli” being repeated during the conversation, along with expressions of disgust on the face of its utterer to show disdain and hatred for this sect. Some Alawites see Ismailis as the worst of enemies, even worse than Sunnis. Some also believe Ismailis worship the vagina. According to some DEFINE/Alawite/Sunni folk tales, when an Ismaili man dies, the woman engulfs him with her thighs while saying, “Sheikh Massoud, Sheikh Massoud, we came out of you and to you we return.”

According to another joke, an Alawite sheikh called an Alawite cleric on the phone to invite him to attend the Eid which only Alawites are allowed to come to. When the cleric picked up the phone, and before he could speak, his caller said, “Sheikh Ibrahim, brother, we would like to invite you to the Eid on Friday at our house.” The cleric answered, “You have the wrong number, dear, this is such and such [he mentioned the name of a village known to have Ismaili inhabitants] village.” Then, he hung up. The sheikh called again, and as usual, before the cleric could utter a word, the former told him, “Guess what happened a few minutes ago?”
- What?
- I was calling to invite you to the Eid, and I called the damned “Ismaoulis” by mistake!
- Well, what can I tell you! You are still talking to those damned Ismaoulis!

It turns out the sheikh had redialed the same number without realizing it.

The joke has two significances. It shows the technological ignorance of the Alawite sheikh, on the one hand, and the Alawites’ hatred for Ismailis, on the other.

Other sects and ethnicities are also targeted in Alawites’ public discourse. For instance, when you tell a person “You are such a Jew!”, it indicates that the person has committed a disgraceful act. And, when you tell someone “You are such a Kurd!”, it reflects the person’s stubbornness. But, demonizing Ismailis and Sunnis stands out compared to other sects.

Along with this prevailing oral culture, blending with other sects is uncommon except within tight boundaries. Rare are the social ties between people from different sects, even those living in cities and crossing paths with other ethnicities and sects in the market and at work on a daily basis. Interconfessional marriage is also not encouraged, but exceptions exist. Still, if a woman marries a man from another sect, the neighborhood folk reject her more than they reject the man. With Alawites, the resentment never reaches murder when a woman marries a man from another sect, unlike in some other sects and ethnicities. Perhaps this is due to the inferiority of women relative to men, according to the Alawite religion. Consequently, women are not taught the secret Alawite teachings.

Connecting with others

Two main factors helped me to break free from sectarianism, open myself to the world at a young age and let go of these common views about other sects and ethnicities.

 For one, my father was leftist, and he left behind some “red” books [in reference to communism] that I found at an early age, and introduced me to reading. These texts widened my awareness and knowledge. Second, I was the only boy among six girls (five sisters and my mother) after my father’s death. Since women are not taught religion, this oral culture that I mentioned earlier did not exist at our home. I only got a sense of it during my youth, when I started mingling more with the folks in the village, which I left early on to pursue my university studies in Damascus.

For these reasons, I always sought to break these limitations and blend in with people from all sects. My Alawite friends frowned upon my actions, especially when I would bring my cronies from other sects to my house in Damascus, which they thought was reprehensible. Although many of them were born in Damascus and interacted early with other sects and ethnicities at school and in neighborhoods where they reside, their relations were restricted to exchanging greetings. Of course there were exceptions, but that was the general situation.
My Alawite friends were especially bothered that my Sunni friend Ahmad hailed from Houla in Homs, which is a village close to the Alawite Rabia village. The ties of the two villages are marred by deep-seated and constant hatred, as my Alawite friends told me, and I do not know whether this assumption is true or not.

Although I always tried to break the cycle and I imagined I was free from these inherited stereotypes, I experienced an incident that remains carved in my mind. I was 20, and I invited my college friend in Damascus to my place. We stayed up late, and when he wanted to return home, I told him to sleep over. That was the first time I slept under the same roof as a person from a different sect.

When I put my head on the pillow, I could not sleep, and I was surprised that I was edgy, worried and scared. All the tales I had heard came rushing to my head. I spent the night having nightmares and waking up from them to find my friend Ahmad sleeping next to me peacefully.

In the morning, we had coffee, and I was ashamed of myself, of my fears and thoughts. But that incident was important for me to break free from the inherited sectarian and ethnic thoughts once and for all.

I realized that the orally-told stories were all lies and that the human inside us can overcome everything. I was certain that being liberal is nothing without actual experience, which is the only path towards real emancipation. This is how we know whether our ideas are wrong or right.

I also learned from this incident that sometimes, we think we broke free from certain chains, but in fact, we did not. Opinions and resentments take shape from childhood. Even though we might believe they no longer influence us -- they are, in fact, buried deep inside us, lurking in the recess of our minds, ready to pounce at the first opportune moment. At this point, experience alone can be the purge or gateway to another state.

Experience proved useful for my grandmother too.

She had to undergo surgery in Ibn al-Nafis Hospital in Damascus. In the room where she stayed for a week after the operation, there was a veiled Sunni woman accompanied by her daughter, and I was accompanying my grandmother. On the first day, my grandmother and the woman were being cautious, saying the minimum possible. Her daughter and I were chatting and asking each other to take care of our respective kin if one of us had to leave to do something important.

The next day, my grandmother and the woman started talking, and when they could get up and walk on the third day, they talked more, and they gave each other apples and helped one another.

By the end of the week, when the woman left the hospital, my mother looked at me and said, “Why do you teach us to be like this?”

When I looked perplexed, she continued, “Why do you [men] tell us Sunnis are not good, although they are simple and nice people like us? Didn’t you see how sweet that woman and her daughter were?”

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