Hanadi Zahlout is from Syria, currently living in the south of France. Here, she talks to us about her Syrian identity:
The things that represent my identity are the mix of personal experiences I had growing up on the Syrian coast. It’s an environment that affected me both existentially and emotionally, and later there were also the political and cultural factors I experienced during my social and political work. These were the biggest factors until the outbreak of the revolution, which impacted my identity in numerous ways. At the beginning, I used to wonder whether geography was the main factor of one’s identity. After the revolution I started to feel that memory is the most important part of identity, and all of these helped refine my sense of self.
On how the conflict has impacted her sense of identity:
The conflict had a huge effect on my identity because of my participation in the revolution. During the peaceful phase of the revolution, there was a state of intellectual transcendence in one’s identity, but with the rise of the different military factions and their hijacking of the revolution, a sectarian conflict around the issue of identity emerged. I’m an Alawite from the coast, and this was a factor of my identity that created quite some pressure, but in the end it is a part of the Syrian identity. That’s why when I directed a message to the Alawite community it resonated so strongly, except it had a converse impact on my family and that wounded me greatly. While I was working to get out from under the weight of sectarianism, the message was being conveyed incorrectly. Now I have a very positive perspective on the wound left by this message. I know that it was a difficult experience but the question that it posed to the Alawite sect is currently one being forcefully repeated by so many Alawites, even if belatedly.
On the impact of immigration:
The geographical distance created a sense of separation similar to that when a child is separated from their mother, and it brought up a lot of questions, like: are we supposed to settle down in a new place or work on improving the Syrian nation from afar as though we're going to return shortly? To tell you the truth immigration impacted my identity in the sense that I needed to bridge the distance between myself and the homeland, and to bridge the distance between myself and the other Syrians in Syria. I felt a need to communicate, to talk about the things that matter to us, to truly feel that there are people who resemble us, who are working on the same things and who have the same dream, the dream of a better country. I don’t mean people who have the same affiliations, but people who resemble us in terms of perspective.
She goes on to talk about the habits, traditions, and rituals she used to practice in Syria and what they look like now in Europe:
Of the habits and traditions that I preserved for myself is the personal ritual of the morning coffee. I would brew some Arabic coffee and listen to Fairouz almost daily, and I still do that here. I had a need, I think an emotional one, to continue this daily morning ritual. I long for the habit of celebrating holidays and gathering with family specifically; I miss it so much, because I’m alone here. I have no brothers or sisters or mother to gather with on holidays, to make sweets with in the run-up to Eid el-Fitr and Eid el-Adha.
If she had to define her identity briefly:
To define my identity briefly, I say that I am Syrian first. This isn’t a general description of where I’m from, but is rooted in the fact that I truly feel a sense of belonging to the Syrian society, to the entirety of its rich spectrum, all its towns and villages. I am Syrian first, in my accent and in every cultural and artistic aspect. I feel a belonging to all these things. Second, I’m from Latakia, a daughter of the sea, and I feel proud of this Latakian-ness, this beautiful aspect of Latakia that so few people talk about. It was something deliberately obliterated during the period before the conflict and also after it. Third, I am a feminist, not in the sense that I am a woman, but in the sense of being committed to liberating the oppressed, not just in Syria, but in the whole world. Wherever there is someone broken, I feel personally concerned. I ask myself: how can I help this person? And these are the three aspects that I feel represent me most.