Elias Bitar is 52 years old and lives in Damascus. Here, he talks to us about his sense of identity:
I’m like the majority of other citizens in any of the countries of the world: I consider myself to be Syrian par excellence. I was born to Syrian parents, so I’m Syrian by birth and I also belong to a religious minority, which is the Christian community. Syrian society is of course known for its pluralism, or at least the general region we’re in is known for its pluralism. Meaning that my own sense of my Syrian identity has become truly conflicted, caught between my pride in the nobility of our history and the difficulties we’re living in the present and the tendency to want to run away from them or overcome them.
On how the experience of the conflict over the last ten years has impacted his sense of identity:
I belong to a venerable religious minority that has long had a presence in this region. And suddenly you find yourself in a place where you’re no longer wanted! You have to find a solution, since this is where you belong, this is your land and now you’re forced to think about leaving it or else finding another solution. It was a very difficult, hard thing to feel, and it definitely greatly impacted the way I feel as an individual belonging to this minority. This hard feeling of fear and apprehension threatens your sense of safety and your life. It wasn’t easy at all during that time, and it’s possible that a person flees to a more secure place, carrying their homeland in their heart and leaving. When things got really bad, everything became quite clear and frank to the point where my fears were coming true, and in the end the homeland is where you feel safe.
On how the outcome of the conflict might impact his sense of identity:
I’m speaking here as a minority that was threatened during that period of time when the uprising turned into a religious conflict. Meaning that it transformed—and I’m so sorry to say this—into the attempt to establish a religious state and such! Our existence was truly threatened, and though the way the conflict ended was unsatisfactory, both economically and politically, as a member of a minority and speaking only for myself, I can say at least that I’m still here. That I never left the country even once, not even as a tourist. I’m not saying this was a strength, but it was certainly one of the outcomes.
On how the mass migration of Syrians has impacted his sense of identity:
It’s added a lot to the Syrian identity in general. I’m one of those who never left the country, or even the city where I’m from, but I have many friends and relatives who emigrated, either internally or outside the country. Of course their leaving impacted us, because we’re always in communication with them, we’re always hearing their news. All the things that have affected their lives personally have also affected our personalities and identities as individuals living in Syrian society. The cultural and economic exchanges and all the other things they’re living are transmitted to us here first.
On the rituals, habits and customs that keep him connected to his sense of identity:
Certainly, there are some habits I practice just by virtue of citizenship, behaviors I’m not even aware of but which were acquired as a result of the reality and the lives we live here, the things that are always enshrining our identity.
He goes on:
On a personal level, I often go back to the Good Book. I practice certain cultural activities, for example, simply moving from one neighborhood to another, from one place to another. There are things that remind you of who you are in and of themselves, like hard work. Or like standing in a fuel line at the gas station, waiting your turn.
The rituals I can actually practice in my daily life and which influence my identity as a Syrian are undoubtedly individual initiatives such as putting together some cultural groups for poetry lovers and which include the participation of some friends. These groups have served more than one purpose. A cultural purpose certainly but also some more immediate ones during the middle of the last decade. There was the attempt to raise our voices, or to bring together the different sides, to just gather together. Through these activities we tried to play some kind of effective role, but unfortunately our voice was weak, weaker than the sounds of the war.
If he had to define his identity in just three terms:
Pain, patience, and hope.