Ahlam Nazal

Produced by: Sharq.Org
Part of the Curated Collection: Syrian Histories,
Original Interview Length:
Interview Location: Turkey
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Ahlam Nazal was born in 1968 in al-Silmiya city in the Hama countryside, where most of the people were poor. “The majority of the population in al-Silmiya worked in agriculture,” says Ahlam. Over the years, professions and occupations developed and diversified to include jobs in public office, services and shops. Most employees headed to Hama, Homs, Damascus and al-Tabqa in al-Raqqa Governorate to work in governmental offices.”

She adds, “There was a general perception that all those who lived in al-Silmiya were Isma’ili Muslims, but in fact, the community was diverse and included an Isma’ili majority along with other sects, such as Alawites and Sunni Muslims among others. One neighborhood in the city was called al-Qadamisa quarter, named after those who came from al-Qadmus in Tartus Governorate. Another neighborhood was for those who came from Hama after the 1982 massacre. Some of them liked al-Silmiya’s open and hospitable society, decided to stay, and contributed to the revitalization of the economy by opening shops and bringing in their professions. Despite the pleasant atmosphere at all levels in al-Silmiya, marriage outside the Isma’ili sect remained unacceptable, especially for girls and for those getting married to someone outside the region. However, this situation changed with time, witnessing more openness towards others.”

Despite the difficult economic conditions in the city, a great deal of attention was paid to educational and academic achievements, especially those of girls. “It was considered to be shameful for a household not to have a library, even if it contained only a few books as part of the décor,” says Ahlam. “It was also shameful if one hadn’t read famous books and novels, such as Les Misérables, and How the Steel Was Tempered, and the works of Mohammed al-Maghout, Gibran Khalil Gibran and others. Knowledge and culture were a priority for parents. Despite our average financial situation, my father would take us to the bookstore at the beginning of each academic year and buy us the best copybooks, pens and school supplies. Moreover, although my mother was semi-literate, she would review our homework, without letting on that she didn’t know how to read.”

Ahlam started to work during summer vacations in high school. A huge percentage of young men and women in al-Silmiya used to work during the summer to be able to afford school supplies and to help their parents and younger siblings. “At first, the society around me didn’t accept my work at the Onion Factory,” says Ahlam. “However, with time and with the increase in the number of female workers at the factory, the negative stereotype changed, and my work became my source of pride.”

Ahlam remarks that women in al-Silmiya did not experience oppression or discrimination and had always served their role equally with men. It was true that women hadn’t worked in the past, but they had played a major role in decision-making and managing family matters. After the 1980s, most women started working as a result of their education. That period generally witnessed an improved economic situation in the region.

After graduating from high school, Ahlam went to Homs to study Arabic Literature in al-Baath University but had to drop out to take care of her sick mother. “Eight years after dropping out of university, I went back again with great determination and vigor,” she says. “I improved my Arabic language skills through personal effort. I started tutoring students and working as a substitute teacher in the countryside of al-Raqqa and al-Silmiya, moving around several villages. This gave me personal experience and knowledge of traditions and differences between rural people in different regions.”

She adds, “The countryside of al-Raqqa is different from that of al-Silmiya. The former’s society is more conservative than that of al-Silmiya, where women enjoy greater freedom whether in the city or the countryside.”

Ahlam volunteered with a civil society organization that dealt with issues of the environment and cultural activities. Her membership in the organization marked a turning point in her life because it allowed her to engage in social work and various other activities throughout that period. “I helped establish a children’s club with a group of young men and women,” she says. “I also participated in the organization’s marathon and then in Frans’ Hike, which brought together activists from many Arab and foreign countries, touring regions of Syria to learn about their culture, history and people. This allowed me to be in contact with other communities and boosted my courage and self-confidence. One of the accomplishments I’m most proud of is establishing a cinema club for children, despite the organization being exclusively for adults.”

After acquiring solid experience in dealing with children, Ahlam opened a teaching institute, which also organized social activities during summer vacations. “Many of my friends stood by me, encouraged me, and volunteered to teach at the institute at the start of the project. Although I opened the center in 2011, when the events in Syria began, it was extremely successful, attracting large numbers of children from our region as well as surrounding areas. I didn’t really care about the modest income because I only worked to cover my living expenses and to give the children what they needed, especially in light of the psychological pressures they were facing due to the prevailing state of fear and anticipation in the country caused by ongoing events.”