Katia Mezaal, 43, lives in Germany. Here, she talks to us about her sense of identity:
I’ve really struggled with the issue of identity and it’s taken a big psychological toll on me. As part of a modest society in Damascus, in the popular areas, I was always obligated to define myself as a Christian. So in addition to being Syrian, I was forced to identify my religious affiliation, since the vast majority of students at my school were Muslims. I’d introduce myself in a way meant to provoke, because it was so obvious and well-known what I was, so did I have to keep doing it, like I was trying to improve my image, like I was somehow blighted? I became known as a troublemaker at school, and this affected me greatly. In high school I found myself struggling with what the various parties had to say. What did the communists think about all this? The nationalists? The Baath Party? I was pulled in a number of different directions. I grew up in Damascus with a mother who was perpetually afraid because she’d come to the city from the rural areas. So she saw the city and its vastness as a danger to her children. I categorically rejected her fear; I didn’t want to live in fear. The city couldn’t contain me. I had a dream. When I went to sleep I’d see myself flying because I didn’t want Syria. I hadn’t grown up on the idea of belonging or love of country. Rather I’d grown up with this handful of words I was forced to keep repeating like a parrot, in a society, which, like Syria at large, had no real sense of identity. And my own sense of identity was deformed in every sense of that word.
On how the conflict has affected her sense of identity as a Syrian:
When the revolution began, I myself was a revolutionary, revolting against everything, and my parents and siblings reacted strongly against that. They were afraid I’d become a danger to them. And so from childhood all I heard was no, this is forbidden and that’s forbidden… When I gained some awareness I left the country; this was before the war broke out. I saw the airport, the streets. I was very critical of everything. Some people accused me of being hateful, but this isn’t hate. For me, the homeland isn’t stones and olive trees, the homeland is people. There are cities that inhabit you as opposed to you inhabiting them. I didn’t want to live in a city that didn’t live in my heart, that didn’t know how to reside in my very being. To me, the revolution was like someone self-immolating in order to light the way before them.
On how a different outcome to the conflict might affect her perspective:
There’s no hope. How confident are you in people’s ability to change? In my opinion, for every hundred people you might find half a person willing to change—not even one entire person. That’s the way I see it. I don’t see the coming future as better than the past. I have no faith in better days to come for this country. My identity is my bad feelings, the emotions that carry me to places I don’t know how to describe or express.
On how emigration has affected her sense of identity:
In Syria I didn’t really care about family occasions. Not because I rejected these customs, I just didn’t care. Now that I’m in Germany with my family, we’re part of a big community here. We cling more to our beautiful eastern customs as a way of affirming our existence to the society here. We are beautiful people, we have beautiful customs, we know love, and how to respect the other. We deal with people like human beings, no matter their religion, ethnicity or creed. We try to prove those things we have in common, which in turn makes us cling tighter to the east. None of this affected my identity, but there was a lot of healing, and I’m now only half-deformed.
On the rituals and habits that constitute a part of her identity:
To take Christmas as an example: since this is a European country, everyone celebrates Christmas here regardless of their religion. It’s a holiday for everybody. As a Christian and as part of the Syrian community here, we gather together a lot more, and Christmas has become very important to us. We get ready for it, we prepare food, and the whole family gathers together. We invite our friends and German neighbors to celebrate with us. We play Arabic music and dance. We brought all our customs with us to Germany as is, even if we never practiced them in Syria. Lunches with the family, Christmas dinner, New Year’s Eve celebrations… the entire community celebrates together, not necessarily just the family. All the members of the Christian community here got to know one another and organize activities together as a sort of affirmation of our existence, an affirmation of our identity. As people, we can be nothing but Syrian.
If she had to briefly define her identity:
In three words: my emotions, the children of Syria, my love.