An exchange which occurs whenever I encounter new people goes as follows, ‘But you don’t speak with an Aleppian accent,’ to which I respond, ‘My accent is Christian Aleppian.’ This sums up what I like to term ‘my life in the bubble’ or ‘the box’, a state where sectarian identity takes on specific traits, as particular as the way in which certain letters and words are pronounced. I come from a traditional, middle-class Christian Aleppian family, and for most of my life have lived in the ‘Christian’ neighbourhood of al-Aziziya, where the majority of residents belong to the same sectarian and economic class in Aleppo.
Throughout my childhood, and until I came of age, there was no diversity among my group of friends: not a single Muslim in a city whose Muslim population runs into the millions, no Kurds, no Armenian Christians. So I grew up in the box, with few opportunities to meet anyone outside its confines. This was Assad’s Syria, in which the security services quashed ordinary human interaction: no volunteering, no civil society, no political parties. Any volunteering or social work took place within the confines of the church community; either formally, connected with the institution of the church itself, or informally, within the church community. We studied at a school affiliated with the church; after school we volunteered for the church; we celebrated public holidays and festivals at events overseen by scoutmasters who were members of the church. And so on. We grew up with these friends and in these circles and we shared the same stories, the same obsessions, the same fears of, and for, others.
Prior to the revolution, my city experienced two major political events: the slaughter and repression of the Eighties and the Kurdish intifada of 2004. Or at least, that’s how I, as an apolitical adolescent and early twenty-something, remembered them. While Hafez al-Assad was committing massacres in Aleppo which led to the deaths of hundreds and the disappearance of thousands, I was being raised to believe that ‘terrorists’ were trying to overthrow the government, forcing Hafez to crush them. In response to the forced disappearances and massacres, the residents of the city stopped trusting one another so it wasn’t until the revolution of 2011 that I met anyone who dared tell me that his uncle was in prison, or that his father was a martyr.
All I knew about the intifada of March 12, 2004, mounted by Kurds denied of their most basic political rights in Syria, was that, ‘a group of angry young men’ had provoked the security forces, burned tires, and blocked roads, forcing the state to meet them with violence. In this land of closed boxes, where walls had ears and even the most ardent regime loyalists lived in fear of the security branches inviting them ‘to have a cup of coffee’, there was only one narrative: that of the authorities. This narrative was one to which the totality of Syrian society, locked away in its boxes, was exposed, and frequently believed; indeed to question the authorities’ version of any public incident was dangerous and could lead to imprisonment.
Christians also had their own narratives, myths and rumours about the way ‘others’ lived, just as these ‘others’ had their own about the Christians. In the circles in which I grew up these narratives frequently gave rise to feelings of superiority over, or an irrational fear of, ‘the Other’.
But to return to the root of the problem: political and civic life was non-existent in Assadist Syria. How then could you hear, or read the news, of its victims? How were you supposed to encounter anyone of a different sect, with whom you might have thousands of things in common? What was the root of the differences in your two accounts of the ‘one nation’ in which you lived together? How, to find commonalities when art, culture, sports, science, civil society, and politics, even religion, were outlawed by the intelligence services?
It was in the shadow of these boxes, all carefully arranged and kept apart by the security forces, informers’ reports, and media propaganda that the Syrian revolution of 2011 began. And, just as before, these different communities had their own accounts of the events, causes and aims of this revolution: some sectarian, some nationalist, and some regional. If opportunities for those interactions and encounters had been risky prior to the revolution they became suicidally dangerous afterwards. Nevertheless, even in its early years, the revolution managed to restore meaning to the term ‘patriot’ for an entire generation, and during the years of the non-violence movement (2011 to 2013) we were able to penetrate the barriers in between our boxes of class, region, and sect. Although certain groups within each class and sect did not participate in the non-violence movement, it nevertheless provided an opportunity for those who wanted to, to meet with ‘the Other’ within the space of their shared Syrian identity, an opportunity hitherto unavailable.
Then came the savage violence perpetrated by the security forces, and the geographical fragmentation of the country, irretrievably entrenching divisions between Syrian communities. Abetted by extremist Islamist organisations and through the deployment of its military, intelligence, and media agencies the regime promoted sectarianism. Narrow sectarian affiliations became the sole means by which individual citizens could protect themselves from one another and from the state violence. Yet, despite sectarian paranoia about ‘the Other’ and the widespread dissemination of insightful sectarian discourse on social media, Syrians who resolutely believed in citizenship, continued to take an almost directly contrary position on the sectarian question in Syria.
Take me, for instance. I still don’t know how to respond when someone describes me as, ‘a Christian woman who supports the revolution’. The mention of my sectarian affiliation embarrasses me, as though there were some conflict between the religious and the Syrian. The clearest example of this came at the beginning of the revolution, with the popularity of slogans such as ‘I’m Syrian, not Sunni’ and ‘I’m Syrian, not Christian’ and so on, as though it were impossible to inhabit these two identities simultaneously. Aside from that sense of embarrassment and the conflict between the religious and the patriotic, the sectarian conversation in Syria is flawed by a kind of dreamy romanticism, which disingenuously ignores what is said behind closed doors adopting the historical narrative of ‘living together in harmony’. Spoken of in this manner, sectarian identities resemble more closely what these people would like Syria to be than what it really is. At the same time, and especially since the rise of the Islamists, a minority of extremists on all sides have adopted a violent discourse that regards ‘the Other’ as little more than an enemy it seeks to exterminate.
What is certain is, that after years of war, engaging with sectarian identities has become considerably more difficult and complex. Are we able to write about the political stance of a given sect or class without crossing the line and inciting violence? Is the struggle of these different groups, to safeguard their existence and their rights as a community, at odds with the struggle for the sake of the nation as a whole? Does recognising the reality of identitarian persecution lay the foundations for mass oppression? All we can say, is that after years of war, each and every one of us is afraid of being categorised as ‘Other’. For example, as an Arab woman, I am obliged to clearly state my opposition to Turkish intervention in Afrin. This is for no reason other than my Arab roots make me ‘Other’ to my Kurdish friends and I have to defend myself. A Christian girl who supports the revolution? A secular Sunni? Like it or not, membership of any group means taking on the political views of the majority.
While Syrians are wary about discussing their sectarian identities, they are at the forefront of non-Syrian analysis of the conflict. Syrian demands are rarely viewed as political demands for a democratic state. Syrian politics are reduced to the minority rule of a ‘Sunni’ majority, and all attempts to achieve peace are reduced to the superficial belief that we must arrange a meeting between an Arab Sunni, a Christian, and a Druze, and endeavour to ‘reach a compromise’ between their competing views. It goes without saying that the majority of them are unable to freely voice a point of view in a state where citizens spy on each other and write reports to the security services.
‘Protecting minorities’ is an attractive proposition, but like most international responses it is superficial and fails to engage Syrians as essential partners in finding solutions to their own problems. Of course, this vision is problematic on many levels, it contains a considerable amount of Islamophobia, Orientalism, and generalisation, and insufficient time listening to what Syrians want, in particular the victims of human rights violations. The protection of civilians is removed from the agenda and replaced with the deeply insincere and superficial issue of ‘minorities’.
Is it still possible to talk about a diverse Syria today, in light of the collapse of the patriotic, and the rise of regional, tribal and sectarian concerns? The answer to this question has to depend on the extent to which political change in Syria is a serious proposition. There is no hope of a diverse Syria beneath barrel bombs and torture, chemical weapons and forced displacement. No hope for a diverse Syria in which Bashar al-Assad’s strategy can be summed up as lorries transporting residents from their homes for others to take their place. The violence must cease, alongside a committed attempt to initiate a process of transitional justice which can guarantee, first and foremost, that all communities come together to listen to the stories of their victims. The violence must cease, and the process of political transition begin, guaranteeing personal and political freedoms, access to the truth, and the freedom of expression, as part of a quest to construct an inclusive Syrian identity.
Democracy and provision of free spaces for mutual participation and engagement, are the only ways in which communities will be able to come together and work. In Assadist Syria there is no citizenship, no freedoms, no justice, only the tenuous illusion of security built on the back of tanks and aerial bombardment, which will one day, no matter how long the lie of stability prevails, blow up in everyone’s faces. In Assadist Syria, the authorities will continue to entrench communities within their boxes, in order to one day set them against one another, transforming any movement based on political demands into a sectarian conflict. Democratic change in Syria is the only feasible path to protection and safety available for Syrians, minorities or not.
Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger.