Ronas Sheikhmous, 31, lives in Germany. Here, he talks to us about his sense of identity:
The injustice and oppression practiced against the Kurdish people had almost a problematic effect on the formation of my identity as a Syrian. So I felt myself to be more Kurdish than Syrian. I remember how loud was the sound of the war over the course of the last three years before arriving in Germany. Despite that we played and sang in Syriac and Arabic. Politics pushes people away from one another and music brings us close together. When I first came to Germany I was very drawn to Kurdish music and Kurdish bands. After that, in 2018 I began partnering up more with Syrians and getting to know Arabic music much more. And the other way around too: there are Syrians who play Kurdish songs with me now, and I play Arabic songs, and that’s what’s become my identity.
On how the last decade of conflict has affected his identity:
I feel like much is lost. I feel that I could have finished my doctorate in Syria. The war showed us that we have a sense of Kurdish nationalism as a society but it impacted us negatively as individuals because we became lost.
I have connections to Syrians here in Germany because of my work. I work in Arabic and I communicate a lot with Syrians. I feel like my coming here gave me a stronger connection with the Syrian identity musically-speaking, stronger than the one I had in Syria. I hate politics and I love music. I believe in music as something that brings all peoples together.
On how a different outcome of the conflict might have affected his sense of identity:
I had so much hope. I had hope to live beneath the Syrian flag, whatever it looked like. To live beneath a Syrian umbrella. That was how I felt from the beginning of the peaceful Syrian revolution. We had hope. Had I remained there and had there been a change, a peaceful change, I would have had hope, and continued to have that patriotic feeling that I had at the beginning. Then it all transformed into international meddling and polarization. When I was in Syria, in Qamishli, there was an attempt to create a musical gathering of cultures. We presented a very diverse mix of languages, with Kurds singing in Arabic, and Arabs singing in Armenian, and Armenians singing Kurdish and Syriacs singing Turkish… we would sing to the nearby sound of gunfire and yet we went on.
On how emigration has affected his sense of identity:
I left Syria in the middle of 2014. I often feel like I’m forgetting things. I doubt my old memories because I see people who were once in university with me but there are so many of them I don’t remember. Our memory of the war has been affected.
There aren’t any Syrian cultural unions here. You find only two kinds of unions: one of them wants only to be Kurdish and the other is Syrian and connected to the mosque. I personally don’t go to the mosque and don’t want to be in this kind of union. At the same time, I don’t want to join the political Kurdish unions. I always think about how if there was something cultural, it could be a cultural melting pot to bring all of this together.
I feel like immigration affects children’s personalities and this is the most dangerous thing. The problem for them isn’t in learning a new language but that they might forget their personalities.
I’ve been here for seven years and I haven’t been back to Syria once. I feel a great sense of longing to go back. I think about my father and mother who are still there. I also have a lot of friends who are still there, scattered across many cities: Damascus and Aleppo and Qamishli… I feel like I’m forgetting!
On the rituals, habits and customs that keep him connected to his sense of identity:
At the musical, cultural gatherings we’d have in Aleppo, we’d all drink together and sing. When the coronavirus pandemic came these kinds of evenings that once brought us together were forbidden. Right now I’m longing for these habits that were basically rituals for me.
There’s also Syrian coffee. My wife is Syrian and she’s the one who always prepares this morning ritual. And we are often in communication with a restaurant here that prepares Syrian food. Music too—listening to Fairuz is a Syrian ritual. We’re still living with Fairuz in the end.
If he had to describe his identity in three terms:
I’m Kurdish, Syrian, and I have hope that Kurds will be able to live better lives in Syria than the ones we lived.