In the countryside and in the cities, north and south, east or west, in various Syrian provinces, “one, one, one, the Syrian people are one” was a cornerstone of the peaceful demonstrations of the revolution and one of the key mottos that the Syrians shouted out loud to confirm their belonging to one single united Syria that no sect or religion or race could divide. However, no sooner had the truth been revealed than they started to realize their country was not as united as they thought it was; neither was it inhabited by one united people no matter how loud the voices shouted. Can a shouting voice truly unite what the Baath regime has been dividing and dissecting for decades?
“I am from Douma, but I was always proud that I was born in Damascus, and that this is written on my identity, which is the case of all my brothers,” says Munira, 36, an Arabic language teacher and resident in Turkey.
“My mother used to show off proudly in front of our relatives that she gave birth to all of us in Damascus and in its best neighborhoods, al-Maliki,” Munira said. “She recommended that we should not make mistakes when we provide our personal information when applying for something or preparing a file for one reason or the other.” At the beginning of the revolution, it was advantageous when crossing the barriers, although delivery of birth certificates was in Douma, but the place of the birth sometimes worked for the benefit of my brothers when crossing the barriers.”
Munira insists that most boys and girls of the countryside used to hide their dialects that revealed their origins at university. “It is undeniable,” she said, “that there is a certain feeling when you are a student at university, for example, that you are a second-class citizen if you were not from Damascus and a third-class citizen if you were from the countryside. And when someone happens to know I am from Douma, he or she often asked whether my father swears by divorce or not!”
Munira says that countryside dwellers have started to feel they are proud of their belonging to their small towns and villages only after the revolution. “The revolution has helped us regain some of our dignity and pride,” Munira adds, “and this applies to hundreds of areas and cities whose names we knew only after the revolution. When I read the name of Douma on the live broadcast of the news channels and the ten-thousand-people demonstrations in it, I felt really proud. The people of Douma may be “swearers by divorce”, but the people of all Syria today swear by their heads.
Love is Blind
“Whatever we think, the success of marriage between people of the countryside and people of the city is impossible, a conclusion I reached after a difficult lesson that I had to learn from,” says Nada, a fictitious name for a young Damascene.
After a love story during college, Mohammad proposed to her according to customs and traditions. “My family was strongly opposed, Mohammad was from a rural Damascus town, while I was a resident of the Chagour neighborhood in Damascus, but I loved him so much and insisted on getting married to him. After some give-and-take and long periods of refusal, my family reconciled with my wishes without really blessing my wedding, and the family of Muhammad also did not agree but was forced to yield to their son’s desire to get married and choose his wife. ”
Until not very long the problems caused by the difference in culture between the two families have appeared. They started as soon as both families agreed on the dowry, the engagement, and the wedding, Nada said, “Although the countryside and the Levant are geographically very close, the customs are different. The value of the dowry in the city is more than twice as expensive, for instance. Even the nature of the bride’s trousseau is different. In addition, in the Levant we do not have Chinese yogurt, and the management of the celebrations is different. For example, in the Levant, the bride’s family is responsible for the engagement party, and the bridegroom’s family for the wedding, but in the countryside, both parties are the responsibility of the groom’s family. Whose customs will be applied then? Although these early problems were a signal I should be aware of about the extent of the difference in cultures, however, I insisted on my attitude and my willingness to live with Mohammad. ”
What Nada considered problems, was just trivial and incomparable to what will come later, and what was resolved by mutual consent and “shyness” as she put it, turned into quarrels after the wedding. “Mohammed was a good person,” Nada explains, “but the day I became his wife, there was a misunderstanding about everything. Our mentality is very different, life priorities are different. We have disagreed about everything, from lunchtime, the nature of the food on breakfast and dinner, in addition to the sudden invitations of his friends, and the way I dress, my family visits, and so the problems started to move from bad to worse, at the expense of the love and affection that joined us together. I never imagined that, but I reached a stage I was not able to handle this stress and quarrels, and so I asked for divorce after three years. ”
The strong sense of belonging that the people of Damascus often feel towards their city is often taken as exemplary. One might be from “outside the wall” or from “the inside”. Thus, where you are or where you come from can determine who you are. This is what the people of some other cities try to deny about their attitudes. Among them is Suhaib, 29, an electricity engineer from Homs, who assured us that in the case of his city, the differences between the countryside and the city do not exist, but when we asked “Does this mean that engagement and marriage between the people of the countryside and those of the city is easy?”, he said, “Certainly not! marriage is another issue. It has to do with equality and belonging to one culture. Why do the grooms put themselves in problems arising from culture and education background differences?” Honestly, it is very rare to find marriages between people of Homs countryside and people from the neighborhoods of the city of Homs. People of the countryside of Homs have habits and customs of their own, which are different from the city and this does not mean we are overestimating on side at the expense of the other. ”
Suhaib presents an example of the lack of cultural intermingling in Syria. He says: “Our entire family lived in one or two neighborhoods of Homs. We could visit all the relatives of my father and mother in two hours, and we did not have one relative in the rest of Syria. All our acquaintances, neighbors and relatives are here, we had no minimum contact with anyone outside of this culture, even when we wanted to get married. We wanted to stay in the same environment, and only those who resembled us were allowed to join us. ”
A Tourist-like Government
The Syrian people contact with other peoples has enabled them to realize the magnitude of their internal problems, which is what Munira talked about after she moved to Turkey. “When I lived in Turkey,” she says, “I began to realize how much Syria is regionally divided, and that the true feeling of belonging of the Syrians is to their regions and not to the entire country, which is fundamentally related to the state’s policy and laws. For example, in Syria, all the events and exhibitions and attention are focused on the capital Damascus, and in second position the economic capital Aleppo. How much interest is the regime putting on Rif-Dimashq when compared to Damascus? It is almost non-existent, which is the same when we consider its interest in Hama, for example, compared to Damascus.”
“The government, like tourists, knows only about Damascus and the surrounding tourist areas, which is of course reflected on the people of the country. Why should I, the resident of Douma, visit al-Hasakah if there are no people, no relatives or activities I can visit there?” she says. “In Turkey, however, I have found the opposite. Each province has festivals, exhibitions and events that distinguish it from other provinces and attract visitors,” she adds.
Munira stresses that creating contact between citizens from all regions is the government’s responsibility, and demonstrates her idea with an example: “Another point that drew my attention to the Turkish people is how mixed they are. The case of my neighbors, for example, is telling. The father is from Ankara and the mother is from Duzja; the son started working in Siirt and married a young woman from Bursa, and now work in Izmit, while his sister works in Istanbul. The working system and employment necessitates the mixing of people and changing the places of residence, which allows to build relationships among people from cities and other countryside areas and to know their habits and their character. This greatly eliminates the differences between them.
Abu Zied, a merchant from Hama who lives in Turkey, does not deny the existence of what he called psychological barriers between the Syrians, something that nearly faded away at the beginning of the revolution but has become even worse after it lost its peaceful aspect. “The whole issue had been planned and implemented by the regime for decades, Hama is for the people of Hama, Aleppo is for the people of Aleppo, the Levant is for the people of the Levant, and it is the case for all the provinces. It is rare to find someone from Aleppo living in the Levant, or from Homs living in Latakia. The whole system is designed so as to make each community closed upon itself like a shell instead of mixing with others. This applies to the people of the countryside and the people of the city in the same way as it applies to the differences between one city and the other. Even when a young man is at the age of military service, you find his family pay all required briberies to keep him near them, all this with the consent and the blessing of the regime.”
Abu Zied draws attention to an incident he witnessed at the university camp a few years ago. “We were at the university camp when a regional dispute between a colleague from Deir ez-Zor and another from Homs. The resident of Deir ez-Zor could not control himself as if he was rejecting a stereotypical image that has been often attributed to the people of Deir ez-Zor. He was screaming at us: “Until now, some people still think that we live in tents and move using animals. Deir ez-Zor is a city like your cities, and like you we study and learn, and the word shawi (reference to people in Syria who use the shawi accent – characteristic of desert dwellers) is not offensive.”