Bashar Azzam is a Syrian living in Suwayda. Here, he talks to us about how he understands his identity as a Syrian:
First and foremost, I’m Syrian and my identity is Syrian. I’ve been searching for a collective Syrian identity for a long time. There is a history and there are cultural elements that have built this identity. I used to feel like I didn’t have an identity. The concept of identity is a modern one, and trying to define the Syrian identity is a project that began only recently. For example: historically, what links me, a son of Suwayda, to someone from Deir Ezzor? I don’t feel like there are any links, or like there’s any singular identity that can unite us, even though I feel much more closely linked to someone from Lebanon in terms of identity and history. And this means that identity is nothing but a theoretical concept. There is a problem anyway in the idea that we use the concept of identity to defend borders that were dictated to us. I see certain elements of my identity that I had no will in creating, that are rooted in a consensus made by our forefathers. Our forefathers decided upon this geography so that we might build an identity inside it. Is this something we’re even convinced by? Or not? These are the givens we must begin from, however, to build something to indicate that we are one people inside these borders. But we are fragmented nations with no historical ties to one another, only an agreement made in the past. That’s how I understand myself as a Syrian, based on a consensus made by my forefathers, and based on the fact that after this consensus was made, different components came together to create something called a Syrian identity. It’s nothing more than that.
He goes on:
What represents me as a Syrian is the fact that I’m a citizen of this country, and would like to realize my dreams within this country. Unfortunately, our identity is always borrowed, and our education is a Western one, and so we find ourselves lost. As an artist, when I see something beautiful within the framework of my own identity, it’s always something borrowed from the outside; it doesn’t come from my own heritage. It might be very beautiful, but not here. It’s beautiful in New York, and this is what I’d been looking for to assert my own unique identity, different from the others around me.
On how the Syrian conflict has impacted his sense of identity:
Over the last ten years of conflict, the Syrian identity has generally become fragmented. It feels as if we’ve returned to the past, to the time when new identities were being forged. For example, I am a Syrian citizen who lives in Suwayda, and I belong to the Druze sect. The conflict forced me to build alliances with different members of my society with whom I have nothing in common. In 2011, I went out into the streets with the peaceful protesters, and then I became wanted by the authorities. And so in order to go study in Damascus, I had to make a tactical alliance with some sectarian factions, such Rijal al-Karama, an armed Druze faction, in order to secure protection for myself. This alliance changed my understanding of identity. The nation is supposed to provide you with safety and security, one that gives you a sense of collective unity. The collective unity in Suwayda was split from the larger sense of collective unity in Syria. Now when I go to Damascus I feel like I’ve literally moved from one nation to another, that I’m living under a different identity. People living inside Syria are divided among five or six different areas, and each is completely separate from the next. Sadly, this sense of Syrian identity that I had before 2011 has grown distorted, and what I’m most concerned with now is an identity that simply guarantees my survival, not one that can grant me a sense of well-being.
On how immigration has impacted his sense of identity:
When the peaceful demonstrations began in Syria, we had all these dreams of an inclusive homeland. Now, in 2021, so many of us are thinking of immigrating and feeling regretful about staying here. I’m one of the people who stayed, and this gave me the opportunity to get to know new people, and I tried to engage in a society in which I feel myself to be a stranger. Because my closest friends, and even my relatives have all left the country. Paradoxically, society in Suwayda has changed as well: there’s a lot more social mixing, which means that we were much more isolated before 2011. Everyone in Suwayda used to be Druze and there was only a small Christian minority. Now there are about 100,000 refugees who’ve integrated into society here, and this made people feel like we shouldn’t have been so closed off. That the isolation in which we once lived was wrong, and these newcomers aren’t bad people. We live all together now and enjoy good relationships with one another.
If he had to define his identity in brief terms:
I’m a Syrian artist from Suwayda governorate, dreaming of freedom.