Omar Ali Al Hussein is 35 years old and currently lives in Syria. Here, he talks to us about his sense of identity:
I was born into a Sunni Muslim family, and the surrounding environment was the same. I’m somewhat religiously observant, moderately so. But traditions and habits always trump this, maybe because of the community and city in which I grew up. Most of the people there are the same. Like any other person in any other country in the world, I chiefly belong to the place where I was born, which for me is the town of Kafr Nabl in the Idlib countryside. Things changed completely for me in 2011; I went through so many things from then until 2020 that changed my identity and affiliations. I can say that history represents me, the history of my city, especially where I grew up. Also the history of Syria, how it’s known for its pluralism. My identity for example is intertwined with history. Maybe because I’m Sunni Muslim, my Muslim identity reigns supreme only in my soul.
On how the conflict and revolution have impacted his sense of identity:
I’ve been against emigrating from Syria since 2011. Currently I’m forcibly displaced, internally displaced. For example, though I’m only 70km away from my city, from where I was displaced, the habits and customs in the place where I am now are 100% different. So many things changed for us, and those changes in turn left their traces on my identity. For example, when someone dies in Kafr Nabl and there’s a funeral, we’d see everyone in town going to that funeral. Now that we’ve been displaced, I live in a house 30km away from my brother’s house, and 80km away from my uncle, and we perform these obligations at a distance, through social media, and sometimes we forgo them all together, whether happy occasions or those of mourning.
On how a different outcome to the conflict might have influenced his sense of identity:
Before 2011 we had a cultural center in Kafr Nabl and we held cultural seminars there or poetry evenings. There were literary activities for writers, most of them from our region, from Kafr Nabl and its surrounds. But after becoming displaced, I haven't attended a single cultural seminar since 2019, not even on Facebook. This has left an impact on my identity in general. For example, I am proud above all to be a Syrian citizen. When I went to Lebanon for work and they’d ask me where I was from, I’d tell them I was proud to be Syrian. But now I regret never having emigrated from Syria. It’s become very difficult to leave because of my financial situation. I’m ready to become a citizen of any other country that would offer to give me just half my rights. I’d be willing to give that country all my energy.
On how migration has affected his sense of identity in general:
As someone internally displaced, migration has affected my identity a lot, all of it in terms of loss. I lost friends; I have some friends who left with not so much as a phone call between us for over 5 years. I feel like those who cut off communication have lost their Syrian identities, they’ve become European citizens! Some friends talk about their concern for language, that Arabic should not be lost in exile. These are people I talk to from time to time, and they tell me also that they’re also careful to preserve their religion. They remind you always that you’re a Syrian citizen, as though you were their ambassador, and they don’t understand that they’ve become Germans or French. Whereas I am only 70km away from my city, I’ve all but forgotten what it was once to live in Kafr Nabl, even though it’s there in my heart.
On the rituals, customs and traditions that keep him connected to his identity:
Because of the situation imposed on us, during holidays for example, I’ll wish my mother and father and siblings happy Eid, since we live together in one home in exile. Then I’ll send whatsapp messages to the friends around me in the region. Before we were displaced however, it was completely different. We’d be in our village, preparing for the Eid feast two days in advance. I’d be as happy as a child. Weddings in Kafr Nabl for example, whether for close friends or not, are celebrated for two days. Now we just send money instead of attending.
Finally, if he had to define his identity in three terms:
Moderate Sunni Muslim, historically belonging to Syria, open and accepting of any change.