Saghatel Bassil is 44 years old and currently lives in Sweden. Here, he talks to us about his sense of identity:
My name is Saghatel, and my name has always caused me problems because no one pronounces it correctly. It comes from ancient Hebrew, from Aramaic, and it means, ‘a question or supplication directed to the Lord.’ Saghat and El, El in that language meaning “I am the Lord.” So my identity begins with my name. My father is Armenian and my mother is Greek Orthodox, Syrian. I was born in Croatia, and the conflict in my identity has existed since the moment I was born. Now I have an additional one to add, which is that I have lost my sight and lost the use of my kidneys, so I am now blind and sick with kidney failure. I also live in an area that has nothing to do with anywhere I’ve lived before, in the far north of this magnificent planet, that is, in Sweden.
On his Syrian identity in particular:
My identity is Syrian, and part of it is connected to my father. He’s from Al-Jazira and so I’ve always had a leaning in that direction. Baba is a particular sort of “Jazrawi”, and Mama is from Aleppo and has a different way of speaking. Since I spent my childhood and part of my youth in Aleppo, I have more of Aleppo in me, and took a smaller part from my father. We’d go only rarely to the village with my father, usually in the summer for about ten days or so. And so in terms of identity I feel myself to be more “Halabi” than “Jazrawi.”
On how the last ten years of conflict have affected his identity:
When the revolution began it was a huge thing for me. It was something larger than my own identity. It was about oppressor and oppressed, truth and destiny. Though it somewhat contradicted my Armenian identity, I decided to stand by the revolution. Not because the revolution consisted of a division of identities, or because so-and-so is from this sect and so-and-so from another. I took that stand for the revolution because I’m a person who rejects any kind of injustice.
On how emigration from Syria has impacted his sense of identity:
Emigration is part of my identity: my grandfather emigrated and my father emigrated and so did I. And so an integral part of my identity has to do with the logic of emigration. I don't have fixed roots because they’ve been uprooted since the days of my grandfather. My father tried to plant new ones, and I’ve tried to do the same, but we’ve always had a problem with the place because we’re always being displaced. When I speak about my identity, I don’t see emigration as the most urgent and utmost part of it. It’s just something that’s been foundational in my personality and identity and the way I think, all such details.
On the rituals, customs and traditions he considers an integral part of his identity:
In terms of rituals and holidays, the more various your identity, the richer these become. I’m reconciled with all my identities, and so I feel this new sense of richness. For example, Mama is Orthodox and we celebrate occasions with her. And Baba was Armenian Catholic and so I celebrated with him as well. Instead of having a single celebration, I have two! Instead of one present, two. And it’s the same for everything related to this: music and religion and philosophy. I’m areligious; I consider religion to be a kind of culture. So on such occasions I don’t abide by religious rules or religious rituals; I don’t take it as religion and doctrine but as a practice of culture, a diverse human product. My wife is Indian, and so now I have a vast and wonderful entrance into Indian culture, and I’ve increasingly come to consider it as part of my identity. For me, things like customs and traditions aren’t these weighty obligations I carry on my shoulders, no. They're part of a delightful culture. I feel richer as a person when I practice them, when I understand and analyze them and discover their origins.
If he had to sum up his identity in three terms:
Human, rich, and diverse. And, I would add joyous.