Bezan Zarzar is 32 years old and currently lives in the Netherlands. Here, she talks to us about her sense of identity:
I usually introduce myself as Syrian Palestinian. Lately I’ve been saying, “I have Dutch citizenship,” because I also feel that influences me, that it plays a big role in my identity and with regards to my official documents. I was born in Syria, and so were both my parents. I was raised in Damascus, which is my love and passion. I speak with a Syrian accent; I don’t really know how to speak the Palestinian dialect. I also feel like language has a huge influence on identity, which is why when I worked in the Netherlands as a journalist, working in Dutch, I always felt like there was something missing. I feel very Arab, and so when I work in English or Dutch, I feel somehow lesser than, like I’m not a full journalist but one who’s missing something essential. Language is the most important thing for me, the tool of expression. I very much believe that religion is an extremely private thing, and it’s up to each person alone to decide their connection to god, or their connection to whatever is out there in the universe no matter what they call it.
On how the conflict impacts her sense of identity:
The conflict left me with a sense of anxiety and fear, always anticipating the worst. The sound of shelling and gunfire, those sounds we would hear daily, have remained lodged in my memory. In terms of how my sense of myself as a Syrian was affected by these events, I'll say that those were the times when I felt myself belonging most strongly to this place. I belong to it intensely, even though on my official papers I’m not Syrian at all. But my national feeling, my feeling of belonging to Syria is great, and has only grown greater since the events of the last decade.
On how a different outcome to the conflict might affect her sense of identity:
We had hoped that any change that might come about in this country would be for the better and would happen without bloodshed. Certainly no one on either side wants to see victims, because in the end we’re all Syrians. My connection to Palestine is solely a connection to the cause, keeping it alive, not letting it die. But all my national sentiment and sense of belonging to the homeland, to a specific place, is all about Syria. In some places I talk a lot about Palestine, or more comfortably when I’m advocating for a cause. As an activist I talk a lot about Palestine, but the truth is that Syria takes up a huge part of my heart. Though I don’t talk about it for a number of different reasons, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t there, or that it doesn’t take up the majority of my daily thoughts and feelings and emotions.
On how immigration has affected her sense of identity:
When I got the Dutch nationality, I transformed in one second from the refugee I’d been for so many years—I’m a third-generation refugee—into a citizen for the first time in my life! For the first time I was told: “now, you are protected by law.” I never wanted to be anything other than Syrian, but at the same time I was happy that for the first time I was recognized as a person with full rights. My exit from Syria played a major role in reshaping my entire concept of belonging and identity, and I still feel like I struggle with these things.
On the rituals, customs and traditions that help keep her connected to her identity:
Religious holidays and occasions were always big events. The entire family would gather together and there would be specific foods and rituals. I miss all these things now. In exile I’m always trying to recreate this atmosphere, it’s a bit surreal! Like during Ramadan I usually break my fast alone. I play the call to prayer at the Umayyad Mosque on YouTube and I turn it up the volume and then eat. During Eid I also play the prayers from YouTube. I cook only Syrian food. I also keep to the ritual of reading, which is a private habit. I’ve gotten into that more now.
If she had to define her identity in brief terms:
I belong to the place in which I am, to the people I love. I belong to any righteous cause no matter where it is in the world. I’m Palestinian by identity, a Damascene in my heart, and now Dutch by passport.