Madeline Okian, 28, lives in Syria. Here, she talks to us about her sense of identity:
I’m from Aleppo, from an Armenian family. I have a whole bunch of mixed feelings when I think about my Syrian identity. When I think about identity in general, I find it hard to separate it from fear. I feel like fear is an essential part of our identity as Syrians, that fear in fact unites us! At the same time, I feel lost, because there’s no clear consensus on what it means to be Syrian. I’ve never tried to extricate myself from the group of people I know, and with time this makes you feel like you’ve somehow failed to try and discover what it means to be Syrian. At the same time, there’s a failure on behalf of your society, your surroundings, the state itself, the various sects… in short, everyone benefits from this situation. And when you leave this stage of things, of blaming yourself, and start knowing who to blame… it’s somehow made me more comfortable with this identity that I’m only now trying to figure out.
On how the conflict has impacted her sense of identity as a Syrian:
The last ten years have had a profound impact on my view of identity. I changed on the personal level because every now and then I evaluate it all over again and my identity changes. During the first period, maybe because I was 19 and I’d just graduated from school, I had truly emerged from a cocoon. And so the first two years I didn’t care much, I felt estranged from the entire subject. Until my Syrian identity began to change and I started to feel a kind of belonging, to understand that my personal identity, that my entire being had been formed by this place, and so I couldn’t take my mind off the subject. Little by little I started to feel a sense of desire, to ask myself: do I want to leave this place or not?
After 2011, you might start to feel like you did nothing, like you stood by and watched while someone who lived near your house, in the adjoining neighborhood, was killed. And with that, many of your concepts are shaken to the core, and you begin questioning whatever you once believed. You ask: did I ever really believe those things or was I just repeating things I’d heard? I don’t want to fall into the trap of prejudice.
On how a different outcome to the conflict might affect her sense of identity:
In short, if we didn’t have this sense of attachment to our Syrian identity during the last ten years, it wouldn’t exist now in this particular form. Lately I might feel my Armenian identity stirring in response to something happening in Armenia. Because of our attachment to our Syrian identity, any political or social change over the last ten years has made that identity a priority for us, and we’ve begin thinking about not only our profession of that identity but of how we profess it as well. In principle, any change that takes place might impact the way I think and impact the questions I’ll be asking myself, and I’ll reconstitute my identity accordingly. For me, my identity is somehow always a subject open for debate.
On how emigration has impacted her sense of identity:
It’s made me feel more Syrian. You feel with others more. You tell yourself, I’m part of the fabric of this place, and no matter where I am I will always belong to this place, I will always belong to these people. In general, emigration made us feel a little guilty, and also made me aware of my privileges. When I’d say that I had this feeling of being a guest, it was very clear that the Armenian-majority areas weren’t suffering anything, and so it’s a privilege for me just because I’m not being treated the way other citizens are. But so long as they’re benefiting from something, the people around you will remain silent, and this is where your identity feels split again.
On the rituals or customs she considers an essential part of her identity:
I don’t feel concerned with any rituals, maybe because in principle they mean nothing to me. Let me say here I’m talking about religious rituals in general, because unfortunately most of the occasions we’re allowed to celebrate freely are religious ones. So when you're religious you feel like there’s no place for you, like you don’t even exist. Of course there are rituals you practice by virtue of being part of a family and part of a community.
If she had to sum up her identity briefly:
I am a religious person with an incomplete identity.