Khaldoun, who prefers to give only his first name, is from the city of Homs in Syria, and currently lives in Germany. Here, he talks to us about the factors that influence his sense of identity as a Syrian:
I am a Syrian Arab. I used to live in a middle-class rural community in Syria where everyone knew everyone else, and everyone helped one another. For example, neighbors knew one another and would offer help whenever it was required and this—frankly speaking—is something I really miss here in Germany. It’s known that here it’s every man for himself. Sometimes if something happens to you in the street people can just pass you by as if nothing has happened, and I find this very strange. As for the issue of Arab nationalism, I feel quite proud of being an Arab, though my religion is what I feel I belong to most. After that comes the nationalism that was created a century ago through colonialism and by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. We were a single nation, whether Arabs or Muslims. To me there is no difference between a Syrian, an Iraqi, a Lebanese, or a Saudi, though sadly we are now suffering from these divisions. For me, my religion is my identity, and in my opinion, no matter a person’s nationality or religion or belief system or sect, your homeland is the one where you feel you can live a safe, free, and dignified life. This is the homeland, not the nation that gave you citizenship or identity papers. This is a wrong concept of the homeland because my home is where I can have dignity, where I can be free under the law and religion. This is my homeland.
On how the Syrian conflict has impacted his sense of identity:
The Syrian revolution had a great influence on me. It opened my eyes, which had been closed until then. It taught me so many things that I’d been unaware of, that I didn’t even know existed in the first place. When we left Syria, we kept hearing the expressions, “son of your country,” “children of your country,” meaning that any Syrian was “a son of my country.” In my opinion, this is untrue. Who but “a son of my country” displaced me from my country? Wasn’t it fellow Syrians who were killing us? Arresting us? Humiliating us? That’s why for me my primary identity is my religion, and then there’s my sense of nationalism. My Syrian homeland is secondary, because my homeland is where I have a sense of security, psychological comfort, freedom, and dignity.
On how the different outcomes of the conflict might impact his sense of identity:
Certainly things would be entirely different if there hadn’t been a revolution. If there hadn’t been a conflict. The idea that this one is Alawite or Shiite or Sunni or Christian—all of this sadly came about after the revolution, and of course it was the regime and its supporters that provoked it all. They have to foment internal conflict in order to maintain their power. They need internal struggle, sectarian and national struggle in order to rule. I have so many friends of various different sects. I’m not at all fanatic in my belonging but I definitely see who sides with the oppressor, who supported the oppressor. Even if it were my own father I would oppose him, I wouldn't even greet him or speak to him.
On how the practice of rituals, customs, and traditions impacts his sense of identity:
I’d like to begin by saying that generally speaking there’s nothing in common between German habits and traditions and those we used to practice in Syria. Personally, I never used to spend any time at home at all. I’d leave in the morning, during the holidays or summer days as well, and wouldn’t be back until bedtime. Here it’s totally the opposite, I go only from home to work and then back from work to home. The thing that has had the biggest impact on me here and pierced into my heart, the thing that has allowed so many other countries to advance before us is culture in general but reading in specific. Everyone you see here, at the train station, on the train, on planes, in airports, wherever you look, even in cafes, everyone is holding a book and reading. Ninety percent of people here read, and this is something I sadly never saw in Syria. In Syria I was so passionate about reading; I read so many books, but to be honest I haven’t been reading at all since I moved here.
If he had to define his identity in brief terms:
My identity is the religion I practice, my morals and the way I treat others, and the memories I have.