Haneen Ahmad is a Syrian woman from Homs, currently living in Damascus. Here, she talks to us about her sense of identity as a Syrian:
The question of identity is fraught, not easy at all, because given the way we live, each person has several different layers of identity. For example, I feel like my own identity has three dimensions. There’s the national one, which exploded in 2011. We discovered that it was an important thing to think about, and that it had in fact been fragmented, and has only grown more fragmented over the course of the last ten years. Then there’s the identity I created, or acquired, or chose. This is the one related to my personality. As a secular and liberated person I can choose the way I wish to live, the values and principles I want to embody, or the characteristics I wish to reflect to the outside world. Then, the third layer is the primary identity that I took from my family, my community, my city, my sect, my religion, my school, and my memory. These are the three kinds of identity, and if we were anywhere other than Syria maybe they would be more aligned. But here today we really have a problem touching any one of them. And so the question now is: can these three different dimensions of identity become compatible with one another? Or must they always remain in conflict?
On the way the conflict has impacted her sense of identity:
I used to think I had a good grasp of Syrian diversity and different Syrian identities, all of which are tired to sect and religion and community. But I call what happened after 2011 an explosion of all the identities that we had repressed as Syrians. This clash between all these narrow identities occurred because we can’t understand our relation to our national identity, or how we can all coexist together. This was a crisis for me and so many others of my generation. There was a very sharp divide, and a lot of tension as you tried to test your belonging to these narrow identities. You were forced in fact to tie your national identity to that narrower one. What I want to say is that the direct relation of the conflict to my Syrian identity made me test those other identities that fall under the national one. I tested other people’s identities too, and I came to find that I had several layers of identity in me: a rural one, a civil one, and a sectarian one.
On how the different outcomes of the conflict might impact her sense of identity:
The impact of the conflict on identity was quite decisive. If there’s a peaceful transition the results will be different. The conflict created a very rough friction, revealing our identities very harshly. Because after the nation state was created in the 1940s, Syrians were never given a chance to become aware of themselves, and the Syrians that found themselves confined in this geography had never had the opportunity in the first place to get a sense of their identities. This war then revealed all of this in the most shocking way. Even more deeply, we were forced to take political sides based on our identities. We were being tested on our identities every day on a national level. The different sides of the conflict played on people’s senses of identity in very profound ways in order to fuel the conflict and to force us to take sides and stand against one another on the basis of our identity. The Syrians who immigrated had to confront all these collective losses and can now see these different identities from a calmer perspective.
On how the practice of traditions and customs influences her sense of identity:
There are so many things I practice, the most important of which, and the one that makes me feel most Syrian, is the fact that I still live in the country. Another thing is that I’m still very attached to the idea of going back to my village with my father, to go back with him to our land and help plant and work the land. We grow pistachios, and one of our rituals is going back every year during the harvest season to gather the nuts. I also love Syrian food, and I love how when I visit my grandmother or mother they cook will cook the things I love: chickpeas and bulghur, stuffed grape leaves, hareeseh, maqlouba, moloukhiya, and most importantly, thrice-distilled homemade arak. I’ve traveled a lot, but I’ve never had this thrice-distilled homemade arak anywhere but Syria. I also love the Syrian accent, and how we pronounce the Arabic letter “qaf”, because the people of my village are part of my identity. This is my Syrian identity.
If she had to briefly define her sense of identity:
My Syrian identity is what was left to me by my grandfather, which is the land, and what was left to me by my father, which are my values, and what I gave to myself, which is my sense of openness and secularism.