Abeer Idriss was born to a Sunni father and an Ismaili mother in the town of Masyaf, part of Hama Province in Syria.
“Most of the original inhabitants in Masyaf were part of the Ismaili sect,” says Abeer, “but as wars grew more frequent and people began to migrate, the social fabric of the town began to change. Soon the town had people of many different sects, such as Sunnis and Shias, Alawites, Druze and Christians. Masyaf was known for coexistence, for the mixed marriages that took place between all the different sects, though marrying anyone from the Alawi sect remained an exception and unacceptable. The Ismailis in the area managed to stay true to the tenets of their faith, unlike the people of Kadmous, who did not heed it.”
Abeer goes on: “In the past, Ismailis were accused of blasphemy and heresy, even though the faith is based on the teachings of Islam. Our beliefs are different to the Shia and the Alawites, however, as Ismailis do not deify the Imam Ali or his sons and family, nor do they allow the cursing of any of the companions or wives of the prophet Muhammad. The Ismaili sect is closest in its doctrine to the Sunni one, and they both pray and fast in the same way and follow the same concepts and ways of worship. Ismailism is considered a mix between a number of different philosophies and bodies of knowledge. Unlike the Alawite sect for example, it has no credo of secrecy around its beliefs, however some Ismailis who worked outside Masyaf had to make an effort to blend into the surrounding social fabric in order to avoid the name-calling and judgments they're subjected to by some members of the other sects, particularly the Sunnis, who call them heretics and hedonists. In those situations, the Ismailis instead professed to be Sunni Muslims.”
Abeer took her secondary school exams, but she didn’t manage to pass for two years. Her studies were disrupted by events at home, she’d had to move with her family to into a dilapidated and badly appointed new house and she neglected her studies, rebelling against her family and circumstances. She’d met and fallen in love with a boy from the Alawite sect during middle school, and their years-long relationship had caused friction and tension within her family.
Abeer founded some support from her younger sister and her cousin; a university student with Marxist leanings who rejected what he saw to be his family’s backward ways. That support was enough for her to finall pass her exams and receive her secondary school certificate. She tried to enroll in the Faculty of Fine Arts and then the Institute of Applied Arts in Damascus, but because she had no influential backing or nepotistic connections, she was unable to gain entry to either. She then threw herself into reading and watching foreign films, trying to fill the emptiness she felt as a result of being unable to pursue the course of study she wanted.
In 2003, after seeing an ad in the newspaper, her father she suggested she seek a job as an air stewardess for Yemeni Airlines, and so Abeer submitted her application in Damascus and was immediately accepted. Her first trip to Yemen was scheduled within the month.
A job as a stewardess was not a desirable one for a woman in Abeer’s social milieu; it was a profession that cast aspersions on a woman’s honor as it allowed her too much freedom and escape from the control of watchful eyes. Although she faced no such objections from her parents, both her Ismaili and religious conservative Sunni uncles on both sides of the family had strong opinions on the matter. They did not, however, have the authority to impose them, despite trying repeatedly trying to pressure her parents to discourage her from taking the job.
Abeer remembers that one of her uncles converted to the Ismaili sect and embraced his new beliefs with fervor, inerpreting the teachings in a decidedly conservative manner. This did not however pose any problem for him within his family or social surroundings.
“At a time when most of the people in the area belonged either to the Ismaili or the Sunni sects, a current of Twelver Shiism also began to appear at the beginning of the last decade, urging people to convert by handing out donations to the poor and offering free schooling, taking advantage of people’s poverty and the fact that there was no guidance from the older families. Political links are quite important, with political affiliations in Masyaf divided between Baathists, Communists, Nasserists and members of the Syrian Nationalist Party; religious affiliation is much more secondary. But with the advent of this new stream of thought, suddenly there were a lot more children wearing the hijab, and religious fairs taking place in their mosque, called the Rasool al-A’tham Mosque (Greatest Prophet Mosque), and their Imam surprised our community by traveling to Iran, adopting their religious and scientific positions until they spoke with the same voice and parroted the same teachings.”
Through her work as a stewardess, Abeer was able to visit her cousin, who had moved to Spain to avoid potential arrest due to his anti-Baath political activity and his affiliation with the forum for Democratic Youth. It was during that visit that she met a young Moroccan man, who seemed to embody all the qualities of the man of her dreams. He asked Abeer’s parents for her hand in marriage and they agreed without raising any objections, placing their faith in her own maturity and freedom of choice. Her uncles once again tried to intervene, but the engagement went on as planned.
Unfortunately, their engagement was short lived. Abeer was unable to continue visiting her fiancé because she was constantly having to shuttle between two different countries. After the uprising began, this became even more difficult as it became harder and harder for Syrians to acquire visas for travel.
“In Masyaf,” says Abeer, “people generally object to one of their own marrying someone of a different nationality or a sect outside the area, as Masyaf’s Sunni population, for example, consider themselves to be quite moderate, as opposed to the Sunnis in other areas. They particularly object to a person marrying someone from the Alawite sect, as both Sunnis and Ismailis consider marriage to Alawites to be forbidden, and the only way for such a marriage to take place is for the couple to elope. And while parents, given enough time, might forgive a young Ismaili woman who married a reactionary Sunni from outside of Masyaf, the Ismaili or Sunni daughter who marries an Alawite will be disowned for life, forced to visit her mothers and sisters in secret, without her brothers and father or male relatives knowing. When the genders are reversed, and families end up with an Alawite daughter-in-law, she is considered a spy for her sect, shunned by her husband’s family and regarded with extreme suspicion. Alawites themselves do not accept inter-marriage either: in some cases girls are killed by their families when they marry outside their sect.”