Mirella Abou Shanab, 31, is from Damascus, Syria. Here, she talks to us about her sense of identity:
I remember how, before, I’d introduce myself as Syrian. I had such a sense of pride and joy in saying it. But now, after the war, when I say the words, “I’m Syrian,” I sometimes feel ashamed, and sometimes afraid, and other times I try to anticipate how the other person might react, especially those of another nationality. I wonder how it might affect the way they see me, this Syrian girl, from a war-torn country. How will they judge my sect? My education and culture? What’s their stereotyped image of a Syrian girl, of any person coming from Syria? I smile when I say I’m from Old Damascus. As for religion, I don’t even mention it at all, it means nothing to me. I talk about my education level, and I might mention what I’d like to do in the future.
On how the conflict in Syria has impacted her identity:
Before the war, I never even thought once about the issue of identity, and here I’d like to emphasize identity as the question of one’s personal “ID card,” because it’s become a big tool of the conflict. There are checkpoints across the country now, and you have to show your ID so they can see your name, your family’s name, what city you come from. We never paid the least attention to that card before. It was just a piece of paper, and sometimes you forgot it at home when you went out. We’d put it in the drawer and forget about it. But when the war started, we had to carry it everywhere all the time, and we therefore started to think about it all the time. We started to think about the information it contained, and we always used it when introducing ourselves.
The first real decisive situation I encountered during the conflict in terms of my identity, my nationality, and my accent was when I traveled to Beirut at the end of 2012 to complete my Master’s degree in media studies. I was also looking for a job, and when I found an opportunity at a Lebanese TV station, one of their conditions was that I shouldn’t use my Syrian accent when I spoke!
The conflict is still ongoing, and I see it as not just a military conflict but an economic one as well. And the consequences of the economic war are much worse than the military one. I can’t imagine any future on the ground after the end of the conflict; I can’t imagine what might happen in the country. But I can say that over the last ten years and until today, we’ve all been impacted greatly and will continue to be impacted as Syrians. No matter where we are, not just in the Arab nations, but across the world, all of us now sometimes feel ashamed and often afraid of the person’s reaction when we reveal that we’re Syrian. I still have this fear. There’s no sense of stability or security and I don’t imagine we’ll ever regain them. There’s nothing that can erase the harshness and sorrow we lived on a personal level.
One how emigration has impacted her sense of identity:
Sadly, the impact was all negative. I can’t find any positives to it. Maybe this is due to the countries I chose, all Arab countries that don’t much care for human rights, and where there was borderline racial discrimination. We felt that they saw us as inferiors, or regarded us with pity, even if you’re someone well-traveled and highly educated, from a well-regarded family in your own country. But as soon as you travel to any one of those Arab countries you’re treated like a third class citizen.
On whether there are certain rituals, customs or traditions she considers an essential part of her identity:
That word, ritual, always goes back to the idea of a religious ritual. And these are usually particular holidays or occasions. And the essential difference in the practice of these rituals is the family. But today we’re all scattered everywhere. They say that if only the cafes and public spaces were to return then the country would be rebuilt, but who’s going to return your friends to you? All the young people who left, all the families whose members are now scattered in different countries across the world—these will nor return! And so the rituals I used to practice before the war, together with my friends and family who are no longer here don’t really provide the same sense of pleasure they once did.
If she had to define her identity briefly:
I’m a Syrian woman, a person from Damascus who dreams of a better future.