Reem Maghribi has parental roots in Syria, Libya and Palestine. She currently lives in Cyprus. Here, she talks to us about her identity:
It changes depending on experience, because experiences affect the way someone lives their life. I am Arab, raised in a house where there was a belief in the Arab identity and its ability to solve the region’s crises and problems and dictatorships. I am also political; religion has no place in either my life or my identity. A person’s place and the language they speak also help in determining one’s identity.
In terms of my Syrian identity, there’s a difference between identity and nationality. I have no Syrian ID papers; only my mother is Syrian. I have however lived and worked in Syrian, and I know Damascus very well, and I definitely feel like a Damascene. Even though I can’t be granted Syrian nationality, Syria is still a country I love, a country that’s important to me. I have memories there and family there. That’s my relationship to Syria.
On how the last years of conflict in Syria have impacted her sense of identity:
For a while now I’ve been conducting interviews with and meeting different Syrians who are very similar to me in their liberated thinking and rejection of oppression. They all come from different parts of Syria and speak different dialects, and they broadened my understanding of Syria. There are other people who did the opposite, meaning, they divided us politically. And though we sadly didn’t succeed in our revolution, the fact remains that after decades of silence, we raised our voices high in the name of the place we call Syria.
On how the various stages of the conflict have impacted her sense of herself as a Syrian:
That time was very beautiful and also very terrible. My relationship to Syria didn’t change since I wasn’t on the ground there. I think there’s something now called the Syrian identity in exile. Most Syrian immigrants won’t just change from one day to the next; there will always remain something Syrian in them, and each Syrian will retain a sense of belonging to Syria. The only difference is that most of the immigrants won’t be able to return to the land called Syria. As for me, my sense of myself as a Syrian isn’t so much attached to the land as it is a cultural thing. It never dies, even if I’m not in Syria.
On how immigration impacted her identity:
I was raised abroad, because my father is a Palestinian refugee and he was a political activist. Because of the situation in the Arab countries, I was away from Syria. I visited every summer, but always remained within the context of my family environment. Later, I went to live there, I worked and studied there, meaning I had different kinds of experiences. Now, the Syria I’m getting to know is related to culture and politics, and to contexts much broader than Damascus. Syrian immigration gave me a wider chance to come to know Syria and Syrians.
On the customs and traditions she has preserved or gained:
I am new to Cyprus, and before that I was in Lebanon. In terms of customs, the difference between Syria and Lebanon isn’t that big. For example, I love Syrian food, and when a group of us Syrians gathered during the conflict, everything was always related to the conflict. Even the music and art of the time were tied to the messages of the conflict, such as: we want out freedom; we want the tyrant to leave. I don’t know if you can call these “rituals” that are specifically tied to the Syrian identity so much as they are related to the identity that seeks freedom, and which is bound by the conflict that we’re still living. Since I was raised abroad in the diaspora as an Arab, our identity was more Arab, not necessarily Syrian or Palestinian. In London we went to Ramadan iftar gatherings wearing Arab dress and sat down on the floor to eat, listened to music. These were part of the rituals and customs we practiced. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that my closest friend in Cyprus now is a Syrian. Maybe this is tied to my sense of belonging to my country, and my desire to hear the accent and be surrounded by the culture.
If she had to define her identity briefly:
It is diverse and variable. It’s a kind of value system, because first I’m a mother, a working mother; I’m a writer. My sense of identity changes depending on experience. I’m Syrian and Syria is inside me, but for this to be my identity? I’m Arab, and there’s no need to specify further. The millions of Syrians who immigrated might be able to understand my way of thinking about this after twenty years abroad, because I was born in a country that my parents had themselves immigrated to. I was raised as an Arab in the UK, and I missed my country. When I moved to live there I was then practically kicked out. I was forced to leave. I lived in many different countries and in the end, I traveled and immigrated to the best of my abilities, trying on new cultures and languages. There’s no need to define or limit who I am. Maybe it’s waxing philosophical when a person says that they belong to the world, are children of earth, of the universe. My entire life I’ve never had a place to cling to, because I never got the chance. Palestine, Syria, Libya, Cyprus, the UK, Lebanon and a number of other countries besides have all influenced my identity, but I don’t need to put a name to it. Hi, I’m Reem.