Zafer Nahhas is in his early 30s and lives in the UK. Here, he talks to us about his sense of identity as a Syrian:
I’m a Syrian Halabi (from Aleppo), and my belonging to Aleppo is huge and high on my list. It’s been affected a lot by the war and the revolution; Aleppo is the city where the largest part of my identity was born and raised. And so, in leaving Aleppo, as a refugee or deportee or traveler or expatriate…. whatever word you use, it’s now something I also use to introduce myself with. I consider my work or activism on peace-building dialogues, even the technical things related to society and politics also part of the “who am I?” question. Frankly this was one of the challenges I’ve had to face over the last decade because of my work as a researcher and civil society activist. My work is part of my situation and cause, and my cause is part of identity, and there is hardly any more separation between my personal and professional lives!
On how the conflict has affected his sense of identity as a Syrian:
My belonging to my country is a huge part of… or let’s say the engine behind my identity. During my time in Syria, that belonging was perhaps local, Syrian, Halabi, revolutionary, politically part of the opposition to the regime. It had a political slant. In leaving Syria, it began taking on a humanitarian character. I could see that there was suffering in other parts of the world. And with that added awareness and education, my sense of belonging took on a civilizational dimension, perhaps related to the region, our region, to the geography of Greater Syria and its neighboring countries and the surrounding cultures.
On how a different outcome to the conflict might have impacted his sense of identity:
I accuse every party to the conflict of exploiting, militarizing, and pitting different identities and affiliations against one another. I can’t deny that I myself didn’t fall victim to this incitement. I felt the effects of both horizontal and vertical divisions, and I also saw them in my friends and colleagues everywhere. And yet I realize that seeking asylum and traveling, not just asylum itself, but asylum and travel and other factors have all played a role in giving me a much broader exposure to different cultures and different people and different experiences. And as I grow older and more understanding and knowledgeable, I’m beginning to be able to change my ideas about things.
On how the migration from Syria has affected his sense of identity:
Emigrating from Syria exposed me to more cultures and people, and that was very important. Even in Syria, greater exposure brought up so many different questions. But as Syrian refugees we were put back into these little boxes, they put us in boxes labeled refugee. And asylum, in the sense of becoming cut off from your origins, your land and society and country and all the many connections and belongings there, felt to me like a kind of disappearance. Meaning that parts of my identity were melting and dissipating because I was unable to express them. And even if I expressed them, people were unable to understand. In short, asylum erased a part of who I am, both to myself and before other people. It built a new part in that place that I wasn’t even aware was being built until it was halfway done.
On the rituals, habits and customs that keep him connected to his sense of identity:
Before 2011 I used to feel that these could be reduced to two kinds of occasions: one was the national or state holidays we were raised on (Independence Day, Evacuation Day, the anniversary of the Baath Party, etc…), and then the religious holidays like Eid el-Fitr, Eid al-Adha or the Hijri New Year, which, coming from a Sunni Muslim family, were the ones we celebrated. Today though I don't celebrate either kind of occasion. The first kind of tradition fell away along with the disappearance, after the revolution, of everything tying us to the Syrian state or the current regime, and the second fell away after asylum.
If he had to choose three terms with which to define his identity:
House painter; Syrian in imagination, identity, and dream; abstract, abstract-logical!
The first term refers to my solidarity with the Syrian Kurds.
The second is about identity, about future and past.
The third is about how I try to compare stories or make sense of them.
In the end I talk about my solidarity, my belonging to my country and the way I think, and these are the three fundamental things that can express who I am.