A painting by the artist Tamam Azzam. Image is published under fair use, all rights reserved by the artist.Translated by Pascale Menassa
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.
I was not aware of sectarianism in its theoretical sense when I moved from Qalaat al-Hosn to the mostly-Alawite Al-Zahraa neighbourhood in Homs City to begin my university education. I had never experienced love in its true meaning either. It was not until 2003 that I came across both feelings.
The situation appeared simple. On one side stood a Sunni girl (19) who was extremely polite, obviously raised the Syrian mothers’ way we know so well. On the other, there was Ibrahim (23). He was a joyous, generous and surprising person.
I had never met anyone like him. Ibrahim had golden skin, green eyes and a smile I thought was the prettiest I had seen.
“I love you” is an expression many girls dreamt of and its impact on me was much greater than any evening prayer.
I decided to keep my Sunni belief and that declaration of love that my Alawi boyfriend repeated completely separate.
Ibrahim, for his part, also tried to overlook the strictness of his religious teachings and focused instead on the features of his Sunni girlfriend’s face. He would systematically avoid any talk about religion when we met and would try to distract us both from thinking about the future.
A few months into the relationship, he took me to visit his parents in one of the villages of eastern Homs countryside. His father who was in his 70s and had lived in the shadow of sectarianism did not make an appearance. He could not stand to see me in his house. Still, he allowed the visit and left. The rest of the family—his seven brothers and their wives and children as well as his mother—gathered to witness the utmost audacity of the veiled Sunni girl who had come to meet them. This encounter went down in the annals of family history: a young Alawite man and his Sunni girlfriend.
We spent the next few months walking in Akrama in Homs discussing our future naively. How will an Alawite man and a Sunni woman continue down this path? Ibrahim would say he was ready to convert to Sunnism if he had to. I was convinced he would, based on my conviction that the right religious conversion is into Sunni Islam, whatever someone’s initial religion may be!
I set plans for Ibrahim’s conversion into Sunnism in motion by collecting prayers and supplications in an elegant notebook and repeating them daily. In my mind, Ibrahim’s facial expressions were always constant. But, when I gave him the notebook as a present, our sectarian upbringing manifested itself for the first time. He asked me to take back my gift and never offer him something of that nature again. The notebook only contained daily prayers and glorifications, but it was the first trigger for an endless discussion about the identities of Mohammad and Ali, and the nature of their relationship, all based on what each had heard within their religious community.
I accepted the situation and thought only about love. To maintain our relationship, I had to manoeuvre on another front—that of my family, which was made up of conservative Sunnis (at least when it came to social norms). My mother was devastated by the shocking news that her daughter (a university student) had fallen in love and was “going astray.”
My father’s opinion was quite different. My love story did not unsettle him that much, but my boyfriend’s sect did. I still remember his words, “An Alawite, you bitch?”
He said it with an anger and condemnation I had never seen in him before. I let my father down with this brazen openness to a sect we fear and whose authority we dread. We repeat stories of thuggery, theft and corruption about many of its followers. We know the limits to our citizenship alongside them, and we know that on a scale of importance, they always beat us.
We are part of a subdued Sunni community that feels national inferiority not only relative to Alawites, but also to all other sects, especially the wide Christian entourage in Wadi al-Nasara [Valley of the Christians, an area in western Syria that is part of Homs governorate, near Lebanon].
Until the age of 19, sectarianism took a more benign form in my mind. It was limited to noting the differences between us and our Christian neighbours in the western countryside of Homs. As a minority demographically, we always felt inferior to Christians (who were cleaner, smarter, more polite, richer and backed by the regime). Oh, how we felt we were treated unjustly! Many of us were convinced and insisted that the afterlife was ours and ours alone. Everybody else was astray.
I even remember the first time I entered Saint George Monastery [Deir Mar George] in the village of Al-Mishtaya during a field trip. I was eight years old at the time. My cousin approached the walls of the monastery and, together, we started reading the fatiha [the first chapter of the Quran] because we had heard so often that the stones of churches get nostalgic when hearing the Quran and the name of God!
The stories relating to Christianity and Christians did not end there. We were told that when the priest drew the cross sign on the foreheads of all teachers, they spent the next two days suffering from a strong headache. One notorious teacher got off the hook, however, as she refused to let the priest continue with this fake ritual.
Recalling such situations brings to mind the proverbs my grandmother and other women in the family would repeat. For example, “Let him be a muazzen [Muslim prayer caller] in Zgharta! [a Christian region in Lebanon]”, in reference to a person who stands out in a uniform environment; or “Mobilize oh Aisha” when a woman generates sedition or is treacherous [Aisha was a wife of the Muslim Prophet Mohammad]. My half-Lebanese grandmother who lived in a Shiite neighbourhood in Lebanon would repeat this proverb, even though, had she thought about it from a Sunni perspective, she would not have said it.
I also remember my repeated visits to my sister who lived in the military homes of Tafas, in the southern province of Daraa. I recall seeing clear signs of that “hidden” sectarianism that spread fear in the Syrian public sphere. Privilege was determined by one’s sectarian affiliation, and at the top of the pyramid were Alawites. Sunni and Ismaili women who were married to officers had more in common. They knew their value, and they acted accordingly. Even so, their relations with their Alawite neighbors represented a hard-earned privilege and went as high as the ranking of their husbands.
And I cannot forget one of my sister’s neighbors who loved my sister to the extent of considering her house “the house of God. In other words, a place so pleasant she wanted to visit or “perform pilgrimage to daily”. Still, she did not flinch when scolding her daughter in front of us and telling her “Damn that ominous face, just like Abu Bakr’s!” [Abu Bakr was the first Muslim Caliph after the death of the Prophet Muhammad].
All this proves how deeply ingrained sectarianism is inside us. Even if we choose to ignore this reality by not talking about it or naming it, remembering our fellow Syrians proves how ingrained this feeling is and even opens the door to freeing ourselves from such slogans as “The Syrian People are One”. Instead, we should opt for a more genuine and balanced approach to identity, beginning with acknowledging differences and their importance for our social composition. We should ultimately realize that, indeed, there is a Syrian-Syrian conflict stemming first and foremost from sectarianism, and it can only be resolved by accepting sectarian differences, socially at least.