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 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian army helicopters 370
(photo credit: 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 judgment.
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.
In the 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 Muslim.
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.
Having 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 opposition.
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.
However, to 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 night.
The second source of media backing for the opposition comes from the (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and has been calling for jihad, provoking sectarian war.
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.