Maha Alhayek is Syrian and currently lives in Cyprus. We spoke to her about her sense of identity:
I am an Arab, Syrian woman, and humanity is my religion and ethnicity. This is because I was born to a family with very enlightened values with regard to science and culture. Even in my married life, I lived within a family culture that valued moral, scientific, and knowledgeable ideas, and this is what influenced my life most and made me who I am. The life I lived allowed me to accept everyone, no matter their state, and to see people for their humanity. Sadly, things changed with the revolution; people changed, society changed, ideas changed.
On how the last years of the conflict has affected her sense of identity:
Frankly the conflict has no relationship to my feelings about my identity as a Syrian. I am a Syrian no matter what, whether there is a conflict or not. Identity is what you hold on to when you leave your country, you cling to that feeling of being a Syrian, trying to preserve it.
On the way immigration has affected her identity:
As far as I’m concerned immigration has had no effect on my Syrian identity, or my sense of being Syrian, but it’s given me a new feeling, which is that I need to start looking for a new identity, one that will help me adapt and go on with my present life. I now have a new life that I want to go on with. I want to think about it, and I want to see the people living here in Cyprus and integrate with them so I can establish the foundations for my new life. That’s why I’m trying to adapt to them, I’m trying to learn their language. And I feel that the people in Cyprus are similar to us Syrians; they think like we do and of course they have many customs and traditions that resemble ours. They even have ideas similar to ours, I mean, I feel they’re close. There are some small differences that we will learn and that’s what we can do.
On the rituals and customs of her daily life in Syria and how they were affected by immigration:
Well, my situation now is different because in Syria I used to work. I had a very full life, full of work and activity and the responsibilities of house and kids. When we immigrated, I had no more work, and this affected me hugely. I sit around now unable to work on anything, and the kids are now each in a different place; like all Syrians, scattered across the world. I’ve suffered a lot from this.
In terms of the new habits and customs she’s gained:
Honestly, you find different customs and traditions in each country. Because my life before was full of travel and a lot of tourism, I’ve encountered many different cultures, and lots of different ideas, as well as different peoples’ customs and traditions, and this gave me great impetus to try and understand the other, to understand other people. How do they think? How do they live? Maybe that’s what made me accept other people, in the midst of this difficult situations we’re living. The circumstances they’re going through, whether bad or easy or difficult, are the same ones we’re going through. This has affected me and given me the ability to withstand the harsh circumstances I find myself in now, and the ones I’ve been exposed to in this place of exile. For example, and there are many examples, there’s the subject of language. Here in Cyprus they speak Greek, a language completely different to ours, and one we’ve never heard before. This has made things so much harder for me, because language is a huge obstacle. That’s why I’m trying to learn Greek now to the best of my ability, even though at my age it’s very hard to learn a new language. But I’ll still try.
If she had to define her identity briefly:
All the traveling I did before immigrating, and all the different places I visited, all gave me a great capacity to see different people and the world, and I feel that my identity is my humanity. And it’s with my sense of humanity that I deal with all people, all across the world, and that’s what I care about. I don’t care about ethnicity, or religion, or shape, or color, or anything else except how I can integrate with people on the basis of our shared humanity.