A window into Syria
For most Syrians, I seem to have an identity crisis. I was born in Vietnam, look half African and hold Dutch nationality.
Syrian army helicopters [file] Photo: REUTERS
For most Syrians, I seem to have an identity crisis. I was born in Vietnam, look
half African and hold Dutch nationality.
The position of being a complete
outsider gained me the trust to make them open up and lower their guard in a
country where even family members may not freely express their political point
of view among each other. Entering Syria as the only tourist going there these
days, I spent three weeks listening to different stories and restructuring my
Among all the people that I met, the story of Hani – a
32-year-old from Aleppo – struck me the most. Zillions of narratives have been
reported in the media, but very little was told from the Alawites, who are
ironically the focal point of the war. Hani belongs to their 2-millionstrong
community which accounts for 12 percent of the population. Although the Alawite
religion is rooted in Islam, the religion is a mixture of belief. They have a
trinity, drink wine and recognize Christmas. The women do not usually cover
their heads. The Assads have been working hard to promote Alawite as a sect of
Shia Islam in order to be accepted in a Sunni-dominated country.
story he shared, Hani recalled that his mother was furious because the Alawite
sheikhs were encouraged to deny the divinity of Ali (prophet Muhammad’s
son-in-law). This is a serious betrayal to Alawite idiosyncratic theology since
divine incarnation is the foundation of Alawite belief. A new mosque was built
by the government in their home town and his family was asked to go and pray
with other Sunni.
For Hani’s family, their Alawite community has given up
their religion, or more accurately, converted to Sunni Islam, for the share of
political power and equality in the nation.
When Hani was small, his
teachers would tell other students that the Alawites forced sisters and brothers
to sleep together, and that they all have tails: “Oh God! I don’t have a tail.
This means I am not Alawite!” – Hani remembered running home crying, deeply
scared because he obviously did not have the “proof” of being Alawite. His
childhood memory tells him that despite the great lengths they took to pretend
to be Sunni, Alawites are not accepted as decent Muslims. In fact, some
unofficial surveys show that half of the Syrian do not see them as
Now at the age of 32, Hani is experiencing a déjà vu as he again
sees how Alawites are demonized as the civil war between the Alawite-led army
and the Sunni opposition escalates. Last year, Hani was part of the Arab Spring
where young liberal secularists, regardless of religious backgrounds, demanded
regime reform and democracy. “It is over. It is dead!” – he said – “now it is
all about Alawite versus Sunni. Last week a neighbor suddenly asked me if I was
Alawite. I said yes, knowing that it is the beginning of my end. Now a bullet
can be in my head anytime!” Hani showed me the apartment he lives in Aleppo. It
was all closed up. The windows were shut, sealed and nailed.
gained more than 30 kg. since he lost his job, he now lives like a fat scared
mouse in this prison of his own.
In the afternoon, he often tries to call
his three sisters in Homs who have not stepped outdoors for months. His
brother-in-law, a wall-of-a-man, almost 2m high, serves in the Syrian police
force. He belongs to one of those, who according to popular narrative in Aleppo,
are believed to be capable of murdering civilians brutally because he is a
Bashar’s man. One day, this massive guy hysterically broke out in tears
confessing with Hani that he pees in his pants every day. They report that many
of Alawite girls have been kidnapped and raped by the armed gangs from the
In Hani’s apartment, the only source of connection with the
outside world is a laptop with internet. However, Hani, as well as many other
Syrian I talked to, is confused at best. The mainstream media in the West have
been embracing the (dying) Arab Spring against the dictator.
say the least, the government’s army did not initially seem to have a fair
presentation in the media.
They were portrayed as absolute demons while
the opposition was victimized.
There is a lot of nuances and gray area in
between. Last week, BBC World News editor Jon Williams admitted that it is
unclear who was behind the killing. Journalists should report what they know as
well as what they-do-not-know. Some Western officials went as far as to describe
the opposition’s YouTube communications strategy as “brilliant.” According to
Williams, this is likened to so-called “psy-ops,” brainwashing techniques used
by the US and other military to convince people of things that may not
necessarily be true. To put it simple, a demon does not pee in his pants every
The second source of media backing for the opposition comes from
the (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and has been calling for jihad, provoking sectarian
Hani showed me an opposition’s channel broadcasting from Saudi
called “Sunni blood as one” sending hostile speeches towards Alawites: “Freedom!
Freedom! Until we crush all the Alawites to the bottom.”
Then comes Al
Jazeera. Despite all the suspicions, Al Jazeera is simply a true news hunter
that focuses on “anything that moves.”
Based in Qatar, a country with
heaps of money and no identity, Al Jazeera belongs to numerous attempts to
establish Qatari influences in media. Hence, believe it or not, the channel has
no clear agenda, if not just want to see itself as endorsing regime change in
the Arab world. In February, the network’s server had been hacked and some of it
secrets were released to the media, including some email exchange’s that
indicated widespread disaffection within the channel over its “biased and
unprofessional coverage” of Syria.
For the record, some national media
channels have been trying to report (part of) the truth, that the rebels are not
as innocent as they seem to be, and that a part of the Free Syrian Army can be
described as “a branch of al-Qaida” as anchorwoman Rula Ibrahim of Al Jazeera
admitted in her leaked email.
However, as in the story of the boy and the
wolf, Syrian people refuse to believe the government because they have been
hearing lies many times before.
Last, there is social media (blogs,
twitters, forum... etc) and word of mouth in Syria that has been circulating
around zillions of conspiracy theories and guesswork about the political game
among the more influential countries.
The most famous theory is that the
West does not want to topple the government.
They just want to keep Syria
in conflict to the point that would benefit Israel and weaken Iran who is
Syria’s big ally. Many in the country say that the fate of Syria depends largely
on Israel to the point of whether Israel wants to keep Assad (i.e. we are enemy
of each other but we accept the game) or dare to face the challenge of a new
Syrian government (i.e either more democratic or more extreme); The second
theory goes wild as it states that the so-called Arab Spring was all part of a
plot by imperialists to absorb mass hatred of the dictators while consolidating
their grip on the region.
Amidst this riot of information, there is still
a pretty consistent and popular view in Syria that is not properly shared in the
media, as Hani himself put it: “The president is not perfect. I would chuck him
in the bin if I had a better choice. But between him and the Sunni extremist
opposition, I would go for the lesser of the two evils”
The writer is a faculty
member at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, she is on a journey through
Middle East tracing the path of Islam from where it began. Follow her travel
stories at www.facebook.com/cultureMove and www.cultureMove.com.