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.
We hear expressions like “God help every man according to his religion,” “No matter how sweet, a Muslim cannot be trusted,” and “A Kurd is as stubborn as a mule” all the time. But, we often start any sentence about religion with “Thank God we live in a country without sectarianism and we do not know racism,” and “All are good people,” to end the religious discussion and to feel satisfied that we are not sectarian and we respect others, regardless of their belonging!
Talk about sectarianism or religion often happens in small, closed circles of like-minded people. Such issues are not publicly discussed because the concerned group fears being accused of sectarianism or narrow-mindedness.
I was born and raised in Homs, where I spent a normal childhood. The city boasts a confessional diversity. We were two Christian families living in a neighborhood mostly populated with “our Muslim brothers,” as my grandmother, a bride at 14 who hailed from Hama and lived in the neighborhood until her death, would say.
I was only allowed to play in the street or in front of our house a few times, under the pretext that “girls do not play in the street.” For a while, I thought my parent’s fear that I might be injured during my playtime was the only reason behind this decision. But, I later realized that their fear stemmed from their desire to forbid me from befriending or hanging out with “Muslim kids” and learning their habits. The source of that fear was a feeling of insecurity and mistrust towards the others who had a different religion and social background.
Like guests in our own country
The feeling that we were guests in our own country and that we had to respect the system in place which provided protection for Christians never left us. This fear grew during Christian religious holidays, when security protection was intensified and policemen and intelligence officers were deployed in front of churches to defend them against “possible imaginary attacks.”
The constant feeling that I belonged to a religious minority in my country accompanied me until I started my university studies and moved to Damascus. It was not easy to get answers about identity, belonging and religion, especially since my family never boasted about being a practicing one, or about religion being a priority in our lives. Later, while my awareness about others increased, I embarked on my quest for answers. I stepped down from my ivory tower and blended in with my university peers and work colleagues of different sects and backgrounds.
I remember well my first personal experience with religion, when I was in first grade. We had recently transferred to the St. John of Damascus School. The religion class teacher stood before us and asked the Christian students to move to a small room next to the class we were in and the Muslim students to remain put. She began explaining some verses from the Holy Quran and wrote the Fatiha [introduction of the Quran] on the board. She asked us to memorize it and repeat it to the students.
I memorized it and repeated it to my classmates. A quarter of an hour later, another religion teacher came into the classroom and called out, “Who is Milia?”
I stood up immediately, feeling ashamed and scared. Did I do something wrong necessitating punishment? The teacher quickly explained, “What are you doing here? Follow me to the other classroom!”
She reintroduced me to my Christian classmates and warned me that this small hall is where we will constantly meet during religion class until the end of the school year. She later contacted my father to tell him about my “heinous” act and ignorance of the religion I belonged to.
The incident became an example of religious coexistence in the family, which boasted that “Milia memorized the Fatiha in first grade instead of the “Our Father” prayer!”
A year later, I returned to my old school (Al-Ghassania Private School) where I spent the whole elementary cycle. It was then that the notion of religion and confessional belonging became ingrained in me. Being a student at this school was a public statement that one belonged to the well-off Christian and Sunni families of Homs. Expressions such as, “Muslims from good families like to enroll their children in Christian schools because they provide high-quality education and teach languages,” were whispered.
Each morning, the motto of the Baath Vanguards was religiously repeated at any public or private school in Syria. Along with it, at my school which was Orthodox, students of all ages would recite the pre-studying prayer aloud daily. Sometimes, my curiosity pushed me to read the lips of my Muslim peers to figure out whether they were repeating the prayer with us or just faking moving their lips, as I did when repeating the Baath Vanguards’ mottos and national anthems.
I had many questions about the importance of repeating the pre-studying and post-studying prayers in front of everyone and imposing them on non-Christians. Why did I have to be separated from my classmates during religion class?
Innocently, I asked the teacher the question, “Miss, why don’t we take the lesson together?”
She laughed and answered, “It is better to be separated.” She had that discreet smile with a wink and a head gesture to the left or right, which was the code for being careful when talking within a group about somebody from another religion.
During elementary and intermediate school, I joined the “sorority”, also known as the Sunday school. Paradoxically, even the name has a religious connotation (Sunday schools on Fridays!). Socially, Fridays were Muslims’ day off and were linked to the Friday prayers, while Sundays were reserved for Christians.
I spent a significant period of time within the sorority, and I was committed to most of its weekly activities like reading and memorizing texts and stories from the Bible, in addition to the leisure aspect like field trips and summer camps at monasteries close to Homs. A group of young men and women who were older than I was organized the activities, and we called them “Brother fulan and Sister fulana [so-and-so]” out of respect.
For a girl like me in her early teenage years, the sorority was a space to meet people like us and to familiarize myself with my religious identity and belonging. Parents feel reassured when their children participate in such activities that present a chance to remain within the bubble of “All those who are like us should join us.”
I believe the sorority and all forms of religious gatherings are a primitive form of the common dating and meeting up practices. The main difference is that, within these circles, all members belong to one religion. This space provides a social cover that tolerates girls and boys meeting each other and having a love relationship that could end in marriage. As the sayings go, “Tell me what company you keep, and I’ll tell you who you are," and “Marry within your own religion, or die because of your choices” [Popular saying in Syria, said in the spirit of “birds of a feather, should flock together,” meaning people of the same sect should stick together, otherwise they the existence of the whole community at risk].
After my one-time participation in the summer camp with the sorority, I discovered that my identity and convictions began to take shape based on the stereotypes and ideas of those in charge, while completely disregarding my own thoughts and my personal opinion. I stopped going to the activities, and I was completely convinced that relying on “religious privilege” widens the gaps in society and is no means to reaching equality and justice.
Spoken and unspoken codes
The imaginary state and fear of meeting the different others was not completely eradicated when I took my distance from the neighborhood community that lived by the saying “he is one of us, not one of them.” It took a new shape with the first day of college at the University of Damascus in the Faculty of Literature. My classmate called me to sit by her side in the middle of the hall instead of sitting to the left side that was reserved for Palestinian students, as she had heard from graduates.
“Why are you sitting on the left side? Don’t you know it is reserved for Syrian Palestinians? This is our seat, and we will stick together from now on.” What she meant by “us” was the Christian group of four students.
I later found out why her uncle used the word “German” while talking about a person he does not know. She said, “We use some codes when we want to talk about somebody from a different religion. We say German to mean Alawite and Shamout to mean Sunni. Nobody can guess what we are talking about.”
I found out that these terms are among the first words that incomers to Damascus learn to show that they are blending in with their new society or to implicitly condemn discrimination among citizens. We did not have the courage to point out the role of the Syrian regime in deepening this sectarian rift and preferred to “coexist with this national solidarity lie.”
With the outbreak of the revolution in Syria, I felt I needed to justify my stance vis-à-vis this revolution, since I coincidentally belonged to a religious minority. I would receive letters of thanks and surprise from some friends who assumed that all Syrian Christians advocated the regime. My classmate in elementary school whom I had not talked to for a long time was thankful “for my support for their cause and revolution.”
He said, “What brings you to our side?”
I answered, “Your side?”
“Yes, the revolution! Why bother with this issue? It is a revolution of Sunnis against Alawites. But, thumbs up! I did not expect you to be on our side!”
A few days later, a common friend from the days of elementary school who lives in the US contacted me and said, “I am so happy you are with the revolution. All my school friends are against us. Thank God, the world is still fine with people like you.”
“It is my revolution too. You need not feel happy. I am also a Syrian citizen, before being a Christian. I have rights and an opinion I want to express too.”
It was not easy to partake in this issue. I was afraid and worried about sharing my memories and previous personal experience. I was not as strong and aware in the past to confront this sectarianism. But, I now feel we are deeply in need of confronting this problem and talking about it openly rather than behind closed doors, if we want to build a country where all Syrians are treated based on citizenship and equality rather than affiliations.