This article by Maya Abyad 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.
I was asked to contribute to the Sectarian Oral Heritage file in my capacity as “a Damascene [Damascene] from inside the [Old City] walls,” and to talk about the traditional views and stereotypes this community holds towards the remaining components of Syria’s demographics. It was clear from the wording of the request that the editor, by virtue of prior knowledge, regards “Shwam” as a supra-sectarian demographic category, despite that a majority of them are Sunni Muslims. In his request, he insisted that the file not only tackles sectarianism, but the various demographic categories at play. It is true that the discussion of ethnic nationalism (typically along Arab-Kurd lines) was present in several other articles. Classism, however, seems to have been “reserved” to the discussion of Shwam!
Initially, I tried to wriggle out of this commitment, arguing that my journalistic work has by and large been confined to investigative reporting, and there certainly is no shortage of voices in Syrian opinion writing. Furthermore, I relied on the pretext that, in the “classy” demographically mixed neighborhood in which I was brought up, sectarianism was not the ultimate social arbiter, a fact I became more aware of when I encountered people from the rest of our diverse country. Those encounters came through several friendships, activities and adventures that were hardly welcome by my community or the communities I was discovering but were nonetheless a major source of knowledge on the complex strata of Syria.
This was followed by the gender excuse, that dealing with sectarianism and its “bequeathment” to children is not handed down to females as it is to their male counterparts in Syria, which is the case for all sects. Males are the “legal heirs,” those who carry down the family name, and its sectarian identity, to the next generation, along with all the systematized and legislated gender discrimination involved in this: The name of the mother’s family is not mentioned in the official papers of the children, who are not allowed to choose but automatically assigned to the father's sect, and the wife is forced to move to her husband’s civil records. Women’s affiliation is insignificant, then, and they are but property whose ownership moves from one male to another. This means that they are not raised to develop the same tribal sense of belonging cultivated in males, because they must remain flexible to fit in with their new owners.
In short, females appear to be the property of the sect, not its keepers, mere carriage pots, or at least, the male’s share of sectarianism in Syria is that of two females.
A Blessing in Disguise, perhaps!
Then arrived the last excuse, that I had spent most of my childhood and adolescence living outside Syria, and that I only began recognizing this aspect of Syrian society later in my school years, and even more during my university years, so my memory of the oral heritage on this subject is very shallow.
Afterwards, I reverted to the phrase “start with yourself,” knowing fully well the scarcity of the Shwam that volunteer, or even dare, to openly criticize the Damascene community and its prejudices. The “Damascene Lobby”, comprised of the romanticizing "lovers of the jasmines" of the now dry Barada river, is not to be underestimated in the Syrian arena. Even the opposition aims to appease them, despite them being mainly regime loyalists. Political differences may polarize, but the capitalist financial centralization in the capital (and the family) always keeps some unburnt bridges.
On the other side, there are those who have decided to build upon internationally recognized narratives of social “whiteness” and its various manifestations in many countries of the world, regardless of the ethnic classifications of their peoples. This “whiteness” is an historical social construct, relating less to the color of one’s skin than to the color of the “leather cover” of their passport and the number of zeros in their bank account.
Not to equate American “whiteness,” for example, with the so-called “Syrian whiteness”, and ignore the differences between the two, of course. Especially when the most prominent of such differences is that a significant proportion of the “privileges” enjoyed by such "white" Syrians are not privileges to begin with, but rather rights that everyone should enjoy. Depriving the majority from them made them seem like privileges to many, which is indeed dangerous because it represents the first step backwards in the battle for their attainment. But on the other hand, I do know that several common straits between the two groups have made the use of this “whiteness" term a rather pragmatic, quick, solution in today’s debates on Syria. So I use it reluctantly.
Regardless of the points of convergence and divergence between us, I understand that this side too will not necessarily welcome my intervention. Perhaps that makes it necessary, then!
Before the Revolution
I recall that several years before the uprising, I put forward a “social theory” I then called the “demographic barcode”, by way of self-deprecation. I referred to it as a “social theory” at the time, as my friends and I liked to call our social views, since harboring independent opinions was a presumptuous act, an audacity my generation dared not commit. It was thus necessary to apologize for having an opinion by mocking it, so as not to be swallowed whole by intellectual wisenheimers of the previous generations.
My habit of “social theorizing” began in my teenage years, when my family moved to Syria. I had been living my childhood in a “Levantine” bubble, where no considerable difference exists between a Syrian, Lebanese or Palestinian, because we were all foreigners to the local community. Before arriving in Syria, I was clueless as to the difference between a Shiite “Shi'y" and a communist "Shuyou'y". But I learned the hard way, when I made the mistake of asking my friend’s Korean mother if she was from North or South Korea. My friend’s eyes widened, and she bit on her lip as she stared at me in horror, amazed at my audacity to ask about something so obvious. I looked at her mother, who was silent for a moment and then replied, very briefly and without even looking at me: “The Southern, of course.” To be honest, I didn't even know back then which was the communist one! But as a result of such clumsiness, I arrived in Syria fully conscious of the sensitivities surrounding demographic categories, and their political roots, to many peoples of the world. I still did not necessarily know exactly what these classifications or their origins were. But I knew the problem was not only that “walls have ears” for the secret police in Syria, it was much broader and older.
However, I did not expect the demographic classifications of Syria to reach the stage of creative extravagance or “embroidering art” as Shwam would say. Gradually, I began discovering the many types of categories: financial (poverty and wealth); nationalistic (Kurds, Arabs both indigenous and assimilated, Armenian, Circassian, Syriac or Turkmen); ethnic (light or dark, and their diverging shades); tribal (and its urban equivalent of the extended family); sectarian; cultural (related to the degree of education and its legacy throughout the family’s history); colonial (associated with the foreign bloc that the family leans towards in terms of second language, culture, travel and nationality); generational (I was astounded by the lack of respect towards children); occupational (public employees, merchants, white collars, farmers and artisans); regional (whether rural or urban), political (in terms of the presence or absence of a political heritage in the family, and its type); class (a regional, tribal, cultural and economic compound).
The list goes on and on, and it would be no exaggeration to say that I spent a decade discovering different forms and manifestations of such categories. I am still taken aback by new discoveries, which together constitute what I call the “demographic barcode”; similar to the code that gives every product in the market its unique identity, which devices can read without the need for exceedingly long numbers. What distinguishes lines in the barcode is not only their length, but also their width and the distance between them. For example, a middle-class rural family may be closer to a financially modest urban family, even if their sects differ, if there’s no "persisting" political animus between the two sects at that given moment. Meanwhile, a rift could reach fever pitch between neighbors of the same sect, if one is a liberal university professor and the other a conservative merchant. This is, then, a more complex relationship than either the sect of the father's family or a box to check in the civil registry.
The “aggravating factors” that increase the width of a line rather than its length, vary depending on circumstance. In his book “Deadly Identities,” Amin Maalouf perceives threat as the most important factor of weighting: the threatened/targeted component of a composite identity is the one to which the individual clings and it eclipses/overwhelms the rest of one's identity. There are, however, other factors of such gravity, through incentivization rather than intimidation. Scarcity, for example, is an important factor of aggravating a demographic component, albeit scarcity does not necessarily imply being threatened. This is well known to the richest 5% in any country in the world.
The one thing I’m sure of after years of careful observation, is that the “server” of the Syrian brain works at its maximum capacity in the first 10 minutes of being introduced to another Syrian, in a “quick scan” of their demographic code:
- Hello, I'm so-and-so.
- Welcome, pleased to meet you. Is so-and-so related to you?
- I am from the X part of the family, there are no connections between us despite the similar last names.
- Oh, then you are from Y.
- Yes, originally I am from there, but my family has lived in Z for years.
This conversation takes place in tandem with a visual scan, of course, whereby the Syrian pays close attention to the color of their fellow countryman’s skin, eyes and hair, their style of dress and accessories, and the dialect they speak. Their responses are compounded to all of the above, in light of the occasion that saw them in the same geographical location, or social or professional forum, so that the demographic code is mentally constructed in the mind of the inquisitive person. Only then can acquaintance be said to have been made.
Although I have grown accustomed to these rituals for years, the question “where are you from?” still confuses me to this day. On the one hand, I am not concerned with the opinion the asker will form of me based on my answer, so I have no reason to elaborate much. On the other hand, I know that they will attempt reading between the lines of my brief answer, which will further prolong the annoying conversation, and so I am keen to keep this old game as short as possible.
- Where are you from?
- Where from in Damascus?
- From Damascus itself, from the city of Dimashq…
- Yes, but, Damascus is a large city…
- Would you like to know my exact civil registry address, my current residence address, or where I grew up?
Here, hesitation begins to set in with the majority – perhaps they expect the three to be identical? But they usually only really care where the family comes from. “I perform an ablution with milk”, in preparation for feedback. Someone once answered me:
- You’re from the XYZ neighborhood and not wearing the hijab?! Heck, is this what’s become of people from that neighborhood?
To be honest, that was a more comfortable reaction in my opinion than that of the scores of others who implied it, less directly. The discussion even reached the point on one occasion that I took out my personal identity card and showed it to my colleague at my new job, so that he believed me, as Damascene girls do not behave “as such,” and of course the answer to what “such” means exactly, is evaded.
Over the years I have discovered that the “such” means that a Damascene girl should be more conservative and timid in middle-income or poorer areas, more snobbish and formal in the richer neighborhoods, and in all cases, she must be more stiff and passive, or “hard to get and spoiled,” qualities referenced as praise.
For instance, it was not often that one finds a Damascene woman from my neighborhood, parking her new car in al-Midan, for example, and then proceeding on foot to the wholesale shops, to ask them to participate in a consumers' survey for her part-time job during her university studies. May my father’s soul rest in peace, with his university years abroad that “ruined his education.” Here now are the girls of this generation, coming to jam the “scanner” of our demographic codes with their newly imported “whiteness”!
I did not understand their confusion and hesitation to answer my simple questions, although they did not openly refuse to tackle them. I was demographically suspicious to them, which meant they had to be careful. That was good training for work to come in journalism, post-revolution, in other parts of Syria.
Before the revolution, the strongest manifestation of the demographic barcode was in it being the pillar of family husbandry, commonly known as “arranged marriages”. In this regard, elderly women boost by far the most powerful Syrian server. Teenage girls knew this more than anyone else: “Come here, sweetie, give me a kiss. What a beautiful face, you’ve grown into a fine young woman, praise be.” Elder women fall short of a full “bridal mdass groping” by virtue of the minimal cultural development they were forced into with girls of this new generation.
Meanwhile, accurate and meticulous “scanning” of height, weight and skin, hair and eye colors will have been concluded, as well as having verified the family origin, both the mother’s and the father’s (sect and tribe), the address of residence (finances), the father's profession and the mother's educational level (cultural category). All that is left is for her to ask you, “What class are you in, honey?” (to estimate your age). Then you look at her eyes, as she continues to look directly at you, without really seeing you anymore. The server is working at its utmost capacity. She summons in her mind the barcodes of single males in her archive, who corresponds to your barcode, according to Damascene demographic criteria. How hideous it was to attend women’s weddings in Damascus…
After the Revolution
The significance of the demographic codes was more evident after the revolution, in the fact that it was the parameter of the regime security's handling of citizens. This is well known to any Syrian who had ever passed a security roadblock checkpoint and was asked to produce their identity card. After the exodus, I am astonished to see the spread of the “Damascene Joker card” outside Syria's political borders. Taxi drivers in Beirut, for example, know the names of Damascus neighborhoods and their “demographic implications” more closely than people from Aleppo do. The custom extends even further, reaching Istanbul, where locals ask you from which part of Syria you are, and are delighted if you say you are from Damascus. I am not looking at the historical roots of this phenomenon here, but what was socially disturbing during my adolescence, has today become a shame laden with blood.
I have not mentioned any new information to the Syrian reader so far. Everyone knows that a Damascene does not enjoy the best reputation with other Syrian communities, especially in terms of generosity and transparency. Even many Shwam themselves do not hesitate to participate in such mockery. The Damascene who got two houses in Paradise sold one, rented the other, and moved to hell, the old joke says. Traditionally, “style before sustenance” because the social interface is more important than the actual quotidian quality of life.
I recall that in one session of what was then considered “political discussion” among the men of my family in the nineties, and while delving into the “encroachment of global Zionism” and its grip over international finance, one of them wondered: “These Jews haven’t spared anyone their theft and extortion, except for the Shwam!” The answer from his cousin arrived quickly: “Because Shwam are more Jewish than Jews themselves!” This quip was followed by a torrent of laughter. Unlike the men in my family, I leave the analysis of the past and current Syrian economic ties with the international banking and monetary systems to the specialists. What I do know for sure, is that Shwam see no shame in their financial “prudence” and the tight shrewdness that has enabled them, according to the prevailing Damascene opinion, to persevere throughout the city’s ancient history.
A theory of Damascene endurance
This theory of “the Damascene endurance” brings us to the most politically consequential aspect: the aversion of confrontation at any price. “The hand that you cannot beat, kiss, and then pray God breaks it.” A Damascene is a merchant, not a politician. Politics are a dangerous and reckless game. Shwam have more foresight and less ideologically orientation than that – survival is their anchor/compass. While Shwam pride themselves of the “wisdom” of this approach, many Syrians condemn it, saying that “whoever marries their mother, becomes their uncle”. But the Shwam claim it is not as simple as that. For example, when French General Gouraud entered Damascus as a military ruler occupying Syria post WWI, the sons of a few Damascene families raced to lift his carriage instead of its horses. My uncle remembered the names of several of those families until his death.
On the other hand, many old but non-Shami residents of Damascus I know would sometimes grunt over discrimination by Shwam and their sense of superiority towards non-Shwam, even if they are neighborly and kind to each other for generations. At the same time, many Shwam insist that their main fault is being too kind-hearted. They are “the people of compassion” who pity everyone and only garner the resentment of those "others" in return… “Others" here being non-Damascene residents of the city, who have settled in it for generations!
From inside or outside the Old City?
I do not know precisely when this accumulation system of political, religious, ethnic, and economic components began, but it was later boiled down to the Ottoman personal civil address registry, coining the term “those from within the walls,” that is, the walls of the Old City of Damascus. This Old City is barely one tenth the size of the Syrian capital today. However, the Damascene hierarchy begins with the countryside and the suburbs of the city, and then moves up to those registered within the administrative city of Damascus, then to those who are from within the walls of the Old City or outside of it, then to the differences between the neighborhoods within Old Damascus. As I consider how narrow the square kilometer area we're talking about here is, I cannot help but remember my friend's Korean mother!
The demographic suspicion that I evoked during the days of peace, was a handy tool in dealing with members of the Syrian security forces, whose mentality is molded into the same old demographic broken record. On the one hand, the non-veiled Damascene driver is met with nothing but smiles at roadblock checkpoints. I remember in one of my attempts to enter a semi-besieged neighborhood, I had to ghost drive the highway, and then play dumb blonde at the checkpoint. They felt no threat from the young woman in a sleeveless summer shirt. Their cooperation was not motivated by any respect, of course. To the contrary, they do not see women as peers enough to even worry about, even though they are deliberately hostile in dealing with my veiled relatives.
On the other hand, it was never easy for me to gain the trust of the residents of the uprising areas until they were sure of my Damascene origin, and my Sunni family name. Given the security chaos and the many informants everywhere, it was very dangerous for me to show my identity card to strangers while working under a pseudonym, but I had to do so in a number of critical situations.
I can almost hear the protests of my friends who remained in Damascus “you're giving them an excuse to choke us too now!" since I am revealing the secrets of Damascene concealment, which Syrian security still claim to ignore. However, the fact is that the Damascene-Assad alliance, as with less famous business class alliances in other cities, has become so obvious that discussing it with matching clarity cannot, and should not, be avoided. We all know that the drafted Alawite rank soldier manning the checkpoint did not have the same choice over the position in which he suddenly found himself, as our neighbors, doctors and lawyers, have. They had prepared for generations for such a confrontation, and carefully orchestrated their stance to the point that they raised their children on how to behave during it: “Your time is not now my dear, it comes later”, says our relative with a USA passport. We sit quietly on her terrace overlooking the Malki presidential Palace, sipping our coffee under the sounds of the shelling from Qasion onto Ghouta.
What is strange is that the discourse of the Syrian revolution, including that of supposedly anti-sectarian secularists, infamous for its scorched-earth approach to critique, that spared no one its pithy tongue, still avoids talking about the strongest “class sect” in Syria.
“It is important that we do not leave the country to them,” my aunt whispers gently in my ear. Maintaining a lifeline requires that the largest sect is divided, between supporters and opposition, to ensure its sustainability and continued influence, even if it comes to the total denial of those less materially privileged within the sect, who in their turn consider it a treasonous “denial of one’s origin.”
Obscuring economic classism
The layers and types of prejudice and racism in this theory overlay in an intersectionality that would've been interesting if it weren’t so bloody: The rich Sunni Damascene belongs only to this narrow group—for its very scarcity—and is not overly concerned with the poor rural Sunni in Syria's countryside. While the latter only sees of the Syrian demographic prejudice what the regime worked so hard to showcase: only sectarianism… to obscure economic classism.
Poverty is not rare; so, it is not as strong a demographic weighing factor as wealth is. It is therefore easier to divide the poorer across sectarian lines than it is to divide the wealthiest. Add to that the role of financial wealth in providing opportunities for the cultural development of its owners.
On the other hand, unlike allies, what converges Assad with his loyalists is not always mutual benefit, but mere sectarianism sometimes. Not many People will send their children to die for money alone, nor for the sake of a person of whose corruption and fraud they are fully aware, but he managed to convince them of a threat to their existence and identity, by reducing that identity to the sect alone.
Systematic sectarian blindfolding was the best solution to cover up the sudden radical shift from failed socialism to crude neoliberalism, following the succession of Bashar al-Assad to power at the turn of the century. For example, to this day, a majority of Syrians do not see Bashar al-Assad’s choice of wife as anything other than marrying into the wealthy Sunnis, without noticing the international fact that he married a British investment banker! Local sectarian fervor comes before foreign considerations in the ladder of Syrian demographic prejudices, an art Assads mastered, but did not invent. The regime also mastered playing its global echoes, of Islamophobia and the coincidentally convenient terrorism industry, neither of which were invented by Assads either.
Hiding economic ambitions behind identity conflicts is certainly not an Assad patent–it's one of the oldest tricks in the book. However, those who live under its absolute authority their entire lives can hardly believe that it is a mere facade of very simple greed, such as the recently issued Real Estate Law No. 10 in Syria. Our neighbors, from all sects, in that building overlooking an area of illegal housing, did not conceal their ambitious calculations for the leap that our apartment prices will take if the regime manages to uproot the uprising community from their lands and implement the huge modern housing project it had dreamed of for years. Again, the Assad regime did not invent Urbacide and is, unfortunately, not the only one using it.
I now arrive at the real reason I had avoided participating in this series of articles. Despite the importance of openness in discussing sectarianism today, and the honest inward look from each of us at our own prejudices and privileges before charging the other, sectarianism in its simplest form did not concern me. I know it has long been deployed, but wasn’t the main determinant, of political balances across the modern history of our country. The broken “white" record played by my neighbors that “sectarianism has no place in the Syria we know”, is not smoke without fire.
On the one hand, urban mingling and cultural development in large cities have played a fairly effective role since independence in building a Syrian identity. To this identity did subscribe some of the people who enjoyed the protection and services of law and state, as they felt their citizenship existed, even if minimally. It is easy today to disregard it as if it were a mirage, in the aftermath of the trauma we all suffer. But the fact is, it had been a decently lived reality in a number of areas, and it is counter-productive to deny that completely.
On the other hand, a certain number of zeros on the right in one’s bank statement can create a national cohesion and unity that exists only in the worn-out pages of the regime’s nationalism school textbooks. As mentioned earlier, clinging to a demographic factor/component of one’s identity increases with its scarcity. Therefore, the demographic factor with the strongest hold over its members, is that which is constantly seeking to minimise their numbers: The financial factor. Affiliation to the richest 10 percent may be desirable, but belonging to the wealthiest five percent is evermore important. In the face of this ever-renewing scarcity, other factors are largely ignored. Thus, rich Sunni Shwam are indifferent to the sectarianism that bonds them to rural peasants. The latter consider that greed has blinded the hearts of the rich until they denied their identity, as the regime continued to fuel funding and sectarian violence against the poorest in the country. The truth is that no one here has denied nor forgotten anything. It is the same demographic system for everyone, each sees it in light of their own circumstances.
Sectarianism has no place in the Syria that “white” Syrians know, not because they are ignorant to its existence for the “other,” but rather because they know that it is a tool used only against others and not against them. Ignorance or denial of sectarianism here increases proportionally with the cultural and financial status of the speaker!
The “non-existence" of sectarianism in your community means that you live in a community that is strong enough to not fall under the regime’s security utilization of sectarianism. That is usually due to its financial and/or cultural advantages, thus it is something to be proud of and show off for members of this community.
I am not casting accusations here nor denying the importance of the cultural progress that has been achieved through the respect-worthy efforts of previous generations to overcome the sectarianism of their ancestors. I have already mentioned having many reservations about the way in which the term “white Syrians” is sometimes used. However, the cat and mouse game in denial or claiming ignorance, instead of facing reality and dealing with in a positive and productive way, will of course lead to the other feeling a sense of dishonesty in the approach. It is not helping anyone, and it’s about time we grew out of it.
One of the most violent evidence I see for this, is that recurrent story many detainees told: The interrogator looks them in the eye in the middle of a torture session and says: “Yes, curse, hate, we want you this way: Vengeful!” The reason for this is not only that blind rage harms its owner more than his enemy. It may also be an attempt at an equality of sorts: The oppressed class harbors a grudge against its oppressors. That is the rule. If you still hold no grudge against your oppressors, then you still do not acknowledge their persecution of you. You still have not put yourself in the category of the oppressed victim, and that's a continuation of your triumph over them.
Holding minorities hostage
At the same time, the regime has not allowed minorities to break free from the cycle of fear of previous persecution against them. Assads used it to their own benefit over the last half century, holding those minorities hostage to a continued sense of victimhood.
If you do not feel vengeful towards the security-controlling minority after all they have done, you have not yet recognized their victory over you, and their sectarian revenge has not been fulfilled. This is the hateful logic of the sick sectarian security regime.
I write this, then I notice what’ve just done in this article: I was asked to write about the perception of Shwam towards other Syrian communities, so I wrote only about the Shwam themselves. The truth is, I have not heard much from my family about other components of Syrian society, not because they don’t have stereotypical views, and not only to avoid raising me into a sectarian culture, but also due to mere indifference!
Two kinds of Syrians
In the minds of many around me, Syrians are divided into two categories only: Shwam and non-Shwam. I recall in one family gathering, a young woman began to talk about “their infiltration into every corner of the country” and its institutions, where even the University of Islamic Studies (teaching exclusively Sunni Islam, of course!) was not spared being full of “them”. Others tuned in, thinking this was a discussion against the authoritarian sectarian minority, until the young women mentioned an example as a student at the University of Islamic Studies in Damascus: “I counted the number of Damascene family names among the hundreds of students in the lists of exam results, and found no more than 35 Damascene names among the entire class!”
Here, a non-Damascene in-law wondered: “What does a Damascene family name have to do with the Sunni faith?”
A moment of silence followed.
I return to thinking about the sectarian mindset of those interrogators: Could it be that they think hatred is the only way to acknowledge their existence?
My own skeptical monologues aside, I am not surprised that many of my friends from our “fancy” neighborhood were really aghast at the level of sectarian grudges that was revealed after the Revolution. I am certainly shocked by the scale of bloody violence it was utilized for. But I say my companions, and not my relatives, as what we say “amongst ourselves” in the family home is never exactly identical to what we show in front of "them.”
Plural form of Shamy: A person who’s family originates from the Old City of Damascus.
Damascene proverb meaning to prepare for an unpleasant experience, or to take precautions because there is a problem or unpleasant news to be expected
 Taking a Mdass is an old tradition of the bridal selection process. It is one of the stages of the physical examination of the bride-to-be by the mother-in-law, such as the walnut-cracking-teeth-test, the hair-pulling-anti-extension-test, and the natural-breast-anti-inserts-test famously known as the "mdass groping". In time, the term became used to mock sexual harassment by men against women.
 A proverb about the order of priorities, meaning that appearances and social status are more important than the individual nutrition and consumption habits. Some regard it as an economic axiom, that investing in tools and objects that live longer is more important than food and perishable consumables.
 Proverb signifying easily shifting alliances, regardless of family zeal and belonging.
 "Arab nationalist socialist education" is the name of an "academic" curriculum introduced by the Bathists into Syrian schools and University curricula.