Jamila Amin flips through her journal, recalling the beautiful days spent at her grandmother’s house in Syria’s Quneitra Province.
“That was the only time where I could live at my own chosen pace,” she says. “I would meet up with friends and relatives and attend gatherings in the evening where young men and women danced folkloric Circassian dances to traditional music. These were among the best times of my life, but my father of course never knew that I attended these social gatherings.”
Jamila is the only girl in her family, born to a father from the city of Qatana in Rif Dimashq Province and a Circassian mother from Quneitra Province. She speaks of her mother’s amazing qualities; of how she stood by Jamila and supported her until she was able to stand on her own two feet. Her father, though he loved her dearly, was quite harsh and strict, as she was the only girl. It was he who had the most impact on her freedom of life outside the confines of the house.
“I dreamed of becoming an airline stewardess,” says Jamila, “or a fashion designer. I would sew clothes for my dolls while my mother and father were off at work. The most difficult time was when my father forced me to leave school after I completed my elementary education. This was why I was unable to fulfill any of my dreams.”
Jamila remained without either school or work for many long years. She spent all her time reading until she turned twenty-four and took a job in a government institution.
“I was quite isolated,” says Jamila, “keeping entirely to myself until I began working. Then I started interacting with people more, and I built many friendships, and my personality grew stronger.”
Jamila remembers the wide social gap that existed between her father’s religiously conservative family and her mother’s liberal Circassian one. “My father imposed all the principles and values he had grown up with on me,” says Jamila, “from how to dress, to the hijab I was made to wear from an early age, to being forced to leave school and not mix with anyone of the opposite sex. Meanwhile my mother never forced any of these things on me, because the Circassian community respects young people’s freedom to make good choices within the bounds of proper manners and behavior.”
Jamila explains that because girls in the Circassian community are granted the freedom to study, work and attend mixed social gatherings, this establishes a principle of mutual trust with the parents, who have confidence that their daughters can tell right from wrong, and are able to protect and conduct themselves within the bounds of good behavior.
The Circassians originally hail from the North Caucasus, from where large numbers of them migrated to Turkey and Greater Syria as a result of the long conflict with the Russian Empire. In Syria, the Circassians have managed to integrate with their surrounding communities on every level: social, political and cultural. At the same time, they have managed to retain their own particular customs and traditions that have been passed down through the generations for thousands of years.
Jamila was in her twenties when her parents divorced, and she lived with her mother for a number of years before she decided to bring her father back to live with them once more, though her parents stayed in separate rooms until her father passed away in 1985.
Jamila says that her father’s family was quite rich, and they owned land in Qatana and in other parts of Rif Dimashq Province. Her father had been disinherited, however, due to his marrying her Circassian mother, who was considered an outsider, especially as she had only given birth to a single child, a girl, which meant that any inheritance Jamila’s father received would eventually be passed on to Jamila’s future husband, a stranger to the family.
Jamila met a young Palestinian-Syrian man through one of her colleagues at work, and they were married within a month of knowing one another. The marriage lasted over ten years, during which time Jamila had a daughter, Farah, before divorcing. Jamila attributes the divorce to the fact that she and her husband hadn’t gotten to know one another enough before they got so quickly married.
Jamila has raised her daughter with the same value of mutual trust she learned from her own mother, saying that she doesn’t forbid her from anything, as she herself has suffered so greatly from being denied her freedom during her own childhood.