Mohammad Amin Bikdali is 23 years old and lives in Germany. Here, he talks to us about his sense of identity as a Syrian:
I see my identity as my own personal portrait, where I put everything that I consider good or beneficial to me, in one way or another. On the religious side, frankly I don’t believe in any one religion.
I’m Syrian, and my identity is tied to the place I come from, where I was born and raised and where I acquired all my beliefs and ideas. I like to call this my “software.” It was born in Syria, its civilization and history, Damascus in specific. On the religious side, I will say, very clearly: “I don’t know.” Geographically Syria is very diverse, there’s the sea and the mountains. Syria is everything, meaning it’s a mix of everything. It has something from everything, geographically, intellectually, culturally, religiously, confessionally or regionally.
On how the conflict in Syria has impacted his sense of identity:
In my opinion the Syrian conflict is fundamentally a struggle over identity. The goal is to fragment, destroy, and steal the Syrian identity somehow. Here we’re talking about a theft of wealth, bounties, children, and lands of course, and so many other things, one of them being the Syrian identity.
The conflict was like an earthquake, shaking up the Syrian identity, and it also prevented us from knowing what our identity had been in the first place! It made us forget this history, these civilizations and cultures… in my opinion, they tried to translate the Syrian identity politically, turning it into extremely ugly forms. Turning it into cruel sectarian and regional conflicts. The fighting infected my imagination with a disease, resulting from years of destruction and war and killing and blood. This conflict will accompany us for the rest of our lives.
On how a different outcome to the conflict might have impacted his sense of identity:
Now we have to determine: how long has this regime been controlling Syria and oppressing its people? For many long years! I don’t want to take a political bent here but I think that politicization has distorted the Syrian identity in clear and obvious ways, right? So what I mean is that we should go back and build new parameters for our identity and sense of belonging without extremism, and one of those parameters fundamental to the Syrian identity is diversity.
On how emigration has impacted his sense of identity:
Emigration tried to erase my Syrian identity; it tried to pull it out by its roots. I think this is the reason we had a war in Syria in the first place, and all the things that have happened since are what brought me to the point. Of course I wouldn’t permit it, I wouldn’t permit myself or my children or any of the generations that will come from me to get to this point, for their Syrian identity to be erased. Yes, it had a huge impact, one I couldn’t stop. Because unfortunately I came to associate it with so many negative feelings, with all the blood and killing and sadness and destruction and pain. And so when I think about it naturally in some way or another I think about what happened to us, if only for a few fleeting seconds.
At the same time emigration also has a positive impact on one’s identity, because here, we need to work on rebuilding it. Emigration teaches us, makes us more aware, allows us to see the other. The regime had obscured so much for us, limited us, closed us off to the world and distanced us from it.
On whether there are certain rituals and habits he considers important to his sense of identity:
All the rituals have to do with Syrian food, with listening to some Syrian and traditional songs. There’s a Syrian barber I go to and when I go to him for a haircut, I find he’s managed to preserve the same atmosphere I remember from Syria. I take pleasure in these things and they give me a beautiful feeling, but the goal is bigger than that. The goal is to go back to the place where all of this once was, where when the time is right the rituals become more important. There are also plays and literature and poetry, and other things it’s impossible to relinquish, things that accompany you and become a part of your being and your identity.
If he had to describe his identity briefly:
I’m Syrian, I belong to Syria; my history and language and consciousness and knowledge are the features of my identity. My identity is diverse, like the diversity of cultures in Syria, like its history and youth, its ideas and religions. All of these are the secrets to the beauty of the portrait. This land, the diversity of its religions… religiously speaking, “I don’t know”; I respect all religions.