Anas Zarzar

Produced by: Sharq.Org
Part of the Curated Collection: Stories of Belonging,
Original Interview Length:
Interview Location: Norway
Production Team:
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My name is Anas Zerzer and I am aged 43.  I am originally of Palestinian-Syrian nationality but my current nationality is Norwegian. I worked in Syria for approximately 14 years as a journalist, and I studied at an engineering institute for two years before joining the Higher Institute of the Performing Arts where I majored in theatrical literature.

I have been living in Norway for six years. I left Syria in 2013 and arrived in Norway the same year, and then applied for asylum. I have had Norwegian citizenship for three years.

I did not live in a common residence immediately when I arrived in Norway. I moved between many refugee camps and waiting situations before moving into shared housing. Shared housing is a real test for the everyday culture and habits that reflect the cultural, social and human concepts we form. Our Eastern society in general and Syrian society in particular is a close community based on the principle of social networking as a means of dealing with others. Asking about updates and health or just checking up on others is a form of respect. That means that you cannot pass by someone who lives with you in the same house without saying "good morning" or "hi" and checking up on them quickly. This was put to the test when I lived with two other people. We were three people, each with his own room and sitting room, kitchen and bathroom were shared.

The two guys were young Norwegians and worked, and I was looking for work and studying the language. What happened was that every morning, when I left my room, I found one of these guys sitting in the sitting room with a laptop or doing something else because he worked in the afternoons.

According to the traditions and culture of Eastern or Syrian society, we say “good morning” but he would reply to me coldly or shake his head at the word "hello." I would try to talk to him saying, “How are you? Are you doing well?” This would be an abrupt question, perhaps surprising, so it would take him four or five seconds to make eye contact with me. I would immediately go to the kitchen and follow my daily routine. This happened many times and I felt that his reaction was never positive or communicative. I asked my Norwegian friend, who I trust and whom I am comfortable with, about it. I asked him how he thought my flatmate viewed me in terms of what I did to make friends, create new relationships and communicate. I wanted to understand it so I would know how to handle many potentially embarrassing and unnecessary situations. I said to him, “I greet my friend, or actually my flatmate, on a daily basis when I see him in the morning and I ask about himself and how he is feeling”. My friend started laughing hysterically so I asked him why. He told me that my way of trying to communicate with my flatmate was me intruding on his personal life. He told me that I could only ask such questions if he had disappeared for days because we both lived in the same household so there was no need to greet him or ask him about his life every time I saw him. I told my friend how it is important it is to greet everyone and ask about themselves as part of our customs and traditions. I explained that if we did not ask, it would be considered disrespectful and unacceptable. My friend replied that respect in Norwegian society is not to  intrude in the personal lives of others. It is okay to not ask these questions if you live together and there is no need to interfere in the details of each other’s lives.

Another tradition in our community is that when you cook food, you need to invite the person living with you to eat or at least offer them a taste of something new you have made. I held on to the traditions I was raised with so whenever I cooked and someone was in the living room, I would offer them some food and they would be pleased. But I was shocked that they didn't do the same thing for me. For example, more than once I went to the kitchen and one of them would be cooking. His food would be almost ready but they would not invite me to share it or offer me some to try.

I reached the conclusion that not everything we were raised on in Syrian society is a positive thing, such as offering food or paying attention and showing respect. These things can cause a sort of culture shock. The way to show respect and communicate in your new society could be the complete opposite of what you have been doing your whole life. In your culture, this new behaviour would be understood as disrespect so I think understanding the etiquette requires time, awareness and practice. Sometimes a collision is necessary for understanding. A collision can create a negative situation but it will result in deeper understanding of the new environment or culture.

Refugees go to classes so they can learn the language or study society and history. This is not enough to really understand the culture or to know how to deal with such situations  as this.

I think that this is the main reason why refugees from the countries of the East or the Arab countries prefer to live in cantons, residential groups, or live with each other. I mean, the point is that I want to live comfortably, and this comfort is reached by living with a group of people who are like you.

I mean, when I meet an Arab or Syrian man, we share the same customs, traditions and ideas through which we can communicate with each other to show respect or affection. We behave automatically in a way that is not calculated and never feels alien or weird.

While when you meet a European or Norwegian (I am a Norwegian) this changes 180 degrees.

As a quick example, I made a Norwegian friend while I was working in a library. It was a very special and unique relationship with the librarian who was my boss at work. Our interests and conversations were more about cultural topics than social ones or about different customs and traditions. When we recalled our readings and films, it was very special because it was based on culture, knowledge, books etc. He used to visit me and we would go on picnics together and take walks through forests. These are very well-known and healthy pastimes here. When we would arrive at my house, according to our culture, I would invite him in for coffee or food. It is more important to be respectful or show friendliness by welcoming people to our homes to have food or a drink. As for my friend, he would insist that we went to a neutral place so that he did not feel that he was overburdening me. This made me think, “Now where am I from?”

If I went out of my house and met an Arab, I would act according to my nature and upbringing as an Arab with the traditions and customs I understand and that I usually practice. Once I leave this Arab and meet a Norwegian, I immediately turn 180 degrees and behave differently.

By nature, humans seek what they want - comfort and psychological stability. This is one of the reasons why Arab or Syrian refugees try to build communities where they gather where the general atmosphere is the Eastern and there is no need for them to be anything but themselves and they can behave according to the way they were raised. This is not just Syrian refugees but for all those who come from countries of asylum to Europe or other host countries.

I am Anas Zerzer, and it is part of my story that I am living in Norway.