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"No sects please: we're Syrian"

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The family that rescued us was a conservative Sunni family, but I felt closer to them than the young driver who belongs to the same sect as I do. Why?

Rita from Syria
8 July 2012

It was the day of the funeral for a martyr in Midan, the epicentre of anti-regime protest in Damascus. My friends and I were running away from the shabiha (paid thugs in the service of the regime) who had come to attack the funeral procession after it had turned into an impromptu protest.

They started shooting and firing tear-gas canisters at the mass of protesters. We quickly made our escape through the narrow alleys off the main thoroughfare. Unfamiliar with the neighbourhood, we found ourselves trapped down a blind alley. As if by miracle, two young women in their early twenties dressed in the traditional white jubba worn by conservative Sunni women during prayer waved to us from a balcony overlooking the alley, signalling for us to enter their house. In a blink of an eye, all nine of us protesters found ourselves being ushered into the sanctuary of this family we did not know.

The regime goons had invaded the neighbourhood: all we could hear was the sound of gun fire cracking the air. The family welcomed all of us, guys and girls without hesitation or question. The lads from our group moved with the father and the son to a separate room, while us girls remained in the living room. The two daughters were frequent protesters, and told us that at each protest or funeral, a member of the family keeps an eye on the alley where protesters like us come fleeing from the shabiha and get trapped. It turned out that we weren't the only activists that had sought refuge with them.

Despite our varied backgrounds, we spent the afternoon talking like old mates while drinking juice and coffee. No-one made mention of which sect they belonged to and the question was never asked of us - directly or otherwise. Within a short while, neighbours and relatives in the same building had got wind of what had happened and came to see us. An elderly woman told us about her son who had been detained for two months by security intelligence forces. After three hours, the young men of the apartments building drove us out of Midan - making sure the way was clear of regime goons – until we arrived at a safe spot to hail a taxi.

The taxi was hurtling down the street, dancing to the tempo of the deafening synthesized beats of dabkeh popular music beloved by all Syrian taxi drivers. As is the way of taxi-drivers the world over, he started to make conversation. The adrenaline which had coursed through my veins earlier in the afternoon drained out of me. I was frightened. I thought to myself he might figure out I was at the funeral/protest - a crime in itself in the eyes of the Syrian regime. I tried giving some evasive answers, but then he cornered me; “where are you from?" he asked. On the face of it, a seemingly innocuous question, but under the regime of the al-Assad's the mundane morphs into the menacing. “Where are you from?” is an indirect question to find out which sect somebody belongs to in Syria, as some towns and regions are strongly affiliated with one minority or another. For instance, the Druze in Sweida, the Ismailis in Selemiye, the Allawis along the coast, and Christians in the straight-forwardly named wādi al-Naṣāra [the valley of the Christians].

When I told him, he visibly relaxed, thinking that we were from the same sect. He started to tell me how much he missed his village in the mountains, but because he moonlights for the security forces (taxi drivers are notorious for this), he was forced to leave his family and come to Damascus to fight as he put it “the terrorists and the salafists who had invaded the country.” He spoke about his participation in suppressing demonstrations, calling the demonstrators "ara'ir" in reference to the firebrand Salafist, Shaykh Adnan Ar'our, whose sermons broadcast over the internet and satellite television have been the bane of the regime's existence. Ar'our was also the first cleric to come out against the regime.

The taxi-driver's words were of a man who had complete conviction he was defending his country against a foreign conspiracy. I remember thinking to myself “he could have been the one who shot at me and my friends. He could be the one who killed the martyr whose mother was unable to cry, not believing what had happened to her son.

I started asking myself: does protesting make me a terrorist? The family that rescued us was a conservative Sunni family, but I felt closer to them than the young driver who belongs to the same sect as I do. Why? Because the new Syrian society is – yes – divided, but it is split between the sectarian regime which changes the way it deals with people on the basis of their sectarian or regional affiliation on the one hand, and the Syrian people on the other hand, who at each daily protest are raising the famous slogan "wahid, wahid,wahid: al-sha'b al-Sūry wahid" which means the Syrian people are united. More than just saying it, they are living this fact in their day-to-day lives.

This is the weekly-featured-column in This Week's Window on the Middle East; to stay up to date with our columnists, bookmark our You Tell Us page and follow the columnists on twitter.

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