This article by Mohammad Abu Hajar 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.
Talking about sectarianism in Syria is like standing on the line of fire. How can we talk about sectarianism without perpetuating it?
It is clear that brief answers attempting to dissect reality as it exists do not provide a fair answer, for this reality is open to contradicting interpretations that can be analyzed through a sectarian perspective and which enables its holder to enunciate rules and descriptions that are sectarian in nature.
Indeed, any discussion centred on sectarianism may only contribute to strengthening it. It seems, as well, that the biggest beneficiary of any talk about sectarianism to date is the "Syrian state," wherein the political authority that controls all its internal minutiae purports to play the role of protector to all its citizens who belong to all sects. It therefore pushes forward approaches that make sectarian statements and actions seem as if they were a revolutionary product.
The myth of a cohesive society
From the discursive standpoint of this authority and its supposed behavior that "transcends sects", stemmed the populist arguments peddled by regime supporters at the start of the 2011 uprising: arguments which presumed the cohesion of Syrian society. This cohesion supposedly existed before the start of the protest movement itself. It is a cohesion subject—or that was subjected—to the dangers of confusion and dissipation; suddenly rendered vulnerable all because of the revolution’s coy appearance.
At the time, any conversation about revolution and political change in Syria, even the notion of addressing corruption, was directly followed with talk about sectarianism and national unity from regime supporters. A person whom we knew and who grasped well how much sectarian consciousness penetrated him, even in his personal relations, would tell us how his family had berated him the first time he asked about their sectarian affiliation. It is a story that he and his family know very well was not plausible, neither before nor after the revolution.
Perhaps a full survey of the demographic composition, in urban neighborhoods and rural villages, would be enough to show how matters were in reality. A minimal level of linguistic knowledge of how members of each and every sect speak about other sects is enough to debunk the narrative of a completely "homogeneous" society. You can clearly see the demarcation lines that exist between various ethnic, sectarian and religious groups. This demographic separation—be it voluntary or organized—was crudely obvious even to tourists before the conflict.
The demographic divides were clearly exploited at the beginning of the revolution when a set of checkpoints was erected at the entrances of specific neighborhoods—Sunni ones—but not in front of the others. In a way, these checkpoints served as confirmation that sectarian boundaries, which were drawn in the minds of residents of all neighborhoods and of every group, existed in Syria well before the revolution manifested itself physically. These limits had been previously defined by sets of symbols and signs, observable differences in lifestyle, clothing and food. They were also demarcated by the presence of certain dialects in some regions and not in others, by the signs on streets and shopfronts, and by the way someone speaks to others or about others.
This lexica of symbols represented the extreme limit that a collective mind could attain of how to be in control; an oral history—a series linguistic and physical signs; and even the extent to which zu‘ran [gangsters] and shabiha [thugs] could reach into some neighborhoods.
The example of Tartus
It was known that in cities such as Tartus, for example, each group had its own thugs, its own tough street guys with their specific corners. There was something like a custom, an undeclared and unwritten "social contract", that explained and codified how residents would have to behave if they were to live in places where other groups were present; that is, how they transacted with both the place and the population existing there. Such a contract was binding even for the thugs and qabadayat [machos]. A breach of contract by any of them was a transgression for which not only the offending party but also his complete group would pay the price.
This social contract was also an expression of how areas of different demographic compositions had developed over time. Each sect, during the period of urban development and prosperity, together with the increase of rural migration, developed its own thugs and representatives, specific foods, and symbols that could be used to indicate the presence of others—or refer to those others in the middle of a conversation where the speaker is unsure about the existence of something that could spark trouble and reach the ears of the other or become public talk.
It was a sectarianism that used to show itself through trembling fingers trying to wrap themselves on someone’s trembling wrist in order to draw the attention of others to the existence of a member of the Alawite sect. It was an attempt to say that there was, in the middle of that gathering, one of those who put on the khal’ah [a piece of cloth placed on the shrine of the righteous guardians; Alawites cut pieces of this fabric to make bracelets in the hope that they will protect the person wearing it]. It was a sign that all others quickly understood, and typically the Alawite himself understood it well before anybody else. Admonishments would rain on anyone who took the liberty of describing the Alawites as "Nusayris” or "shembreess” [a demeaning term used by Sunnis when speaking about Alawites without openly saying so]; who said "they shall return to their villages uncivilized as they came"; or who made fun of all the Alawite religious symbols, sheikhs and the legend of the shrine of "Abu Taqa" [a shrine that belongs to one of the Righteous Guardians and which many Alawites claim possesses the miraculous ability to detect lies]. Reprimands would fall on our Sunni friend because he allowed his tongue to go loose without thinking rather than because he erred in his descriptions.
On the other side of Tartus, another Tartusi resident was trying hard to put the tip of his thumb above the first joint of his index finger. He believed that this could stop his friend who kept talking about Sunnis – about the relation of their sheikhs to sexual perversions and to what their Sunni wives do while hidden under the headscarf, all while using Omar and Abu Bakr as insults to be haphazardly thrown around. At times, someone in the gathering would flash his shiny teeth, trace his fingers over them and end by tapping each tooth or mentioning he had a toothache last night. That was another sign that everyone understood. It signalled the presence of a qashmar [a demeaning attribute used by Alawites to describe Sunnis without declaring so openly], one "who does not enter religion of the beloved Prophet except on the path of the penis." Some Alawites believe that a Sunni cleric must have sex with his religious student before starting to teach him. After the qashmar or qashamer [plural] left the gathering, our companion would have been subjected to a similar rebuke to the one our Sunni friend previously experienced: How did you allow yourself to speak in such a manner in front of the Sunni? The problem being here that the discussion happened in front of the Sunni person versus that it happened at all.
Once the qashamer or the shembreess had left, the two sides could then fearlessly speak about the bkabisha feast, an alleged celebration orgy where all the members of a community join in. One person was sure that those were the Marashida (Murhsidi sect), while another strongly objected saying this was in reality the celebration of the Ismailis. Someone else said he heard about a young man who participated in this sexual tryst. This young man wanted to know whom he was fucking since complete darkness does not let you know what's happening. He discovered later on that he had slept with his mother and sister, so he killed both of them and then killed himself. It was a story that no one would be able to confirm, but everyone could agree that this was a satanic ritual and then peace prevailed.
Talk about Christians
Talk about Christians is summed up by speaking about their daughters' clothing and the tenderness of their young men, whose manhood and masculinity was put in doubt over a diet that allows eating pork unlike in the Muslim and Jewish tradition. Was it not the famous proverb that said "Have lunch with the Sunni / Alawite / Murshidi / Druze / Jewish person and stay with the Christian"?
You can trust Christians to the degree of sleeping in their house. They will not backstab you like others would. Here there exists a wide range of sects, and each sect formulates whom we can eat with, all according to historical relationships that communities have constructed with each other. All this means that you must not trust the Christian’s food for they want you to eat pork in order to become like them. Pork is responsible in one way or another for the lack of male hormones, which are responsible in turn for a Christian brother’s tolerance with the very short skirt of his sister!
Limited mixing, clear turfs
In general, there is nothing to be afraid of. These sorts of mixed sessions were rare to happen anyway. You would often sit with a “homie”, a friend of the neighborhood, where the neighborhood had one sect only. Homies need no labels, no signs, and no symbols. In these neighborhoods, and especially in lower classes neighborhoods, we live and die with each other. There we don’t have to communicate with the Other. There, none of us will use our fingers for designations and symbols that we may not always like to use because they serve as a reminder for people to exercise self-restraint. In such neighborhoods, the presence of others is considered to be a flaw for which only they can be held accountable for it. They are responsible for their own presence there and any resulting reactions it could trigger from others.
I remember that we were in a working-class café in a neighborhood of one sectarian predominance, when one of those who were sitting started to speak about Alawites with a louder voice than what was generally allowed to happen in mixed places. Our friend here was safe, confident and unafraid. The only way to stop him was to publicly declare and with a clear voice: our friend sitting with us here on the table belongs to the “honored community”. After a moment of silence, one of our friends went on to bash the gathering and the one who was supposed to be a guest: Why did he not declare his sectarian identity since the start!
Here it is considered to be a grave mistake not declaring oneself a stranger. The right way to follow in such neighborhoods is to reveal things unless a specific prohibition is issued—unlike in mixed alleys where speaking openly about sects is forbidden until proven otherwise. Symbols, significations and esoteric movements all belong to mixed neighborhoods or places of communication. In those alleys parents teach their children a lesson on how to speak on the phone, in the street and at school. I remember one kid in our neighborhood, aged five or six, who was talking to his relatives on the phone. One of his relatives had fallen in love with an Ismaili girl. I remember the kid saying: “We don’t want the girl she is Ismaili.” Heartbeats accelerated, and hands raced to snatch the phone from the hand of the child who did not know—yet—what must and must not be publicly said.
I remember that when we moved from one neighborhood to another in the late 1990s, I was then in the first stages of middle school. On my first day in a relatively mixed neighborhood, the children of the neighborhood met and asked me frankly whether I was Sunni or Alawite. My mother and sisters did not wear the veil but our dialect was different! Mine was a situation where it was difficult to easily identify the sect and so they had to publicly ask about it. As a result of caution or because of my parent’s attitude towards the matter, I used to deny that I knew the answer to that question, up until they started asking me if I knew the khal’ah, and when they heard my answer, they got the response to their desired question.
A shared grasp of sectarian borders and symbols
This kind of sectarianism was known by everyone, even by the sons and daughters of communists who—supposedly—were raised away from the dominant religious thinking. I remember that I took a friend for a stroll and we entered a neighborhood of Tartus that he had never visited before. He was very taken by it, or perhaps quite fearful of his new surroundings since my friend’s ancestors did not belong to it. It was as if he had taken a civilizational slap similar to what happens during a first visit to Damascus or New York. Everything was the same outside of your original neighborhood. This sectarianism defines one area of the city as kharab al-Islam [Undermining of Islam]. Within the borders of this region, a Tartusi Sunni can with full liberty. The area starts from the Mosque of Peace, and ends somehow at edge of Al-Mina Street. It is a place where caution reigns. In this region, veiled women and writings that advertise Hajj and Umrah prevail. The names of the women such as deceased's sisters and wives, are not written on the obituaries that are put in the streets.
Before the Sunni quarter, directly on the other side, there was an area dubbed kharab masihi [Christian undermining]. It started at the “Church of the Lady,” which corresponded to the Peace Mosque, and extended to the Al-Mishwar restaurant. It enveloped the most vital places for the people of the city, such as mixed-gender cafes and gold-selling stores. The most ubiquitous images here were pictures of artists, announcements of upcoming concerts, and obituaries headed by the crucifix next to the image of the male or female deceased. This is the vital area of the Christian Tartusi.
To the south of this Christian enclave begins an area where the Alawite Tartusi can move and behave with full liberty. This region starts with the Imam Ali mosque located exactly behind Al-Mishwar restaurant. It stretches on until the southwestern end of Tartus, an area where obituaries make mention of female relatives of the deceased and where the pictures of Bashar al-Assad are prominent. Earlier, it was the picture of the Syrian president's father, Hafez Al-Assad, that dominated the scene. At the beginning of the 21st century, pictures of Hassan Nasrallah also made an appearance.
These borders and symbols were made by the founders of the "contemporary" city. They were geographically, anthropologically and linguistically engraved in every detail of daily life. When we talk about the founders of the "contemporary" city, we cannot talk here about the Syrian regime or about colonialism; nor can we speak of a historical stage by itself. But it is certainly reasonable to say that everyone has failed to change this situation. Perhaps they want these foundations to remain intact. One can also say, for example, that the regime helped consolidate these limits. It certainly transformed them into a concrete and recognized reality when it hastened in Tartus to put security barriers at the entrances of Sunni neighborhoods only, albeit these neighborhoods were not politically active, not even in a minimal way of what could be described as political activism at the beginning of Syrian revolution. This has contributed more to the promotion of sectarian isolationism in a city—and all its residents know it—that has not played a pivotal role shaping the history of Syria since the times of the Phoenicians. All of its inhabitants know that the city was and still is very crudely and disrespectfully marginalized.