Between a glorious past and problematic reality: Cultural identity crisis in Syria     

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Enab Baladi – Saleh Malas

Over the last decade, the Syrian uprising went from peaceful demonstrations to armed conflict, and people’s rightful demands for a reformed democratic political system were dimmed within an acute economic and humanitarian crisis with no solutions in sight.

During conflicts, social psychology concepts such as cultural identity, nationality, belonging, justice, and dignity are affected by acts of violence, including killing, forced displacement, arbitrary detention and imprisonment, destruction of civilian houses, and degrading human dignity in terms of deprivation of the right to work and violation of human rights.       

The repercussions of Syria’s overall degeneration into its current state have impacted some Syrians’ sense of belonging to the once glorious Syrian civilization and caused them to mock those still celebrating the past under current dire situations facing Syrians inside and outside.  

The exaggerated past versus the gloomy reality

Lately, some Syrians have been negatively interacting with social media posts and comments about Syria as the cradle of ancient civilizations, praising its history and heritage. These people claim that reminiscing about the past is an outdated narrative and one that is detached from today’s reality where Syrians face crises in all life aspects prompting them to seek an escape from Syria to anywhere outside.        

Syrian ancient history researcher Maher Hameed told Enab Baladi that to achieve cultural identity affiliation, there must be certain elements, the most prominent of which are history and geography, for without physical geography, there is no history and no culture. 

Culture is the shared characteristics and historical events of a group of people living in a defined geographical region. Culture encompasses humanitarian intellectual, social, economic, and political products that promote individuals’ sense of belonging to their country and its heritage. 

According to Hameed, the praise of Syria’s glorious civilizational achievements tends to be exaggerated, for there is no “pure Syrian cultural product,” as Syria was home to many ancient civilizations that enriched the Syrian civilization with many human attainments. 

Hameed added, the traces of neighboring civilizations are also evident in the Syrian civilization. For example, the Egyptian Hieroglyphs and the Cuneiform ancient writing style of Mesopotamia in Iraq led to the emergence of the Sinaiticus and then the Ugaritic alphabet, a Semitic language used in the city-state of Ugarit in the Tell of Ras Shamra near Latakia city in northwestern Syria. 

This alludes to the fact that civilizational achievements in Syria are not purely Syrian, Hameed said.  

The irony of celebrating the past in a distorted reality

A country’s constitution reframes its culture and value system over time through establishing laws that safeguard human rights, govern personal freedoms, and regulate relations between individuals and society, and individuals and the State.  

In Syria, the concept of civilization is disrupted due to the absence of the rule of law, as the Syrian regime’s security services have undermined the supremacy of law and justice in the Syrian government’s courts and institutions.  

Romanticizing the past and celebrating ancient Syria’s civilizational achievements is a normal reaction under current circumstances in Syria, where people are suffering from poverty, hunger, displacement, and poor government economic management, Hameed said.

He added that what Syria is witnessing today is a “civilizational defeat.” 

Hameed added, when Syrians compare their rich history with that of Germanic people, the Vikings, or even the Persians, they will realize that Syria was way ahead of all these groups in all civilizational aspects. While these people were living as barbaric tribes; ancients in Syria were settling in civilized and developed cities with theaters, courts, judges, and musicians. Today, however, Syrians have become the barbaric ones in the eyes of these groups’ descendants.      

Glorifying ancient civilizations that emerged in Syria and their achievements is pointless and even calls for sarcasm because delving into history is science while living in the past is ludacris, Hameed said.

He added, “We as Syrians have no credit in the fact that agriculture was invented in our country or that the alphabet was established on our land.”       

Moreover, relics of Syria’s historic cities are threatened with disappearance due to the armed conflict that led to the destruction of a big part of Syria’s cultural heritage through systematic bombing and smuggling operations. 

Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll on its social media platforms, asking the audience whether reminiscing about the ancient Syrian civilization’s achievements would help reinforce Syrians’ cultural identity under current reality. 

Among 715 users who participated in the poll, 400 participants said that celebrating the past would not make Syrians any more proud of their country or its culture as long as the status quo does not change in Syria. However, the remaining 315 participants said that talking about the glorious past of Syria and its cultural heritage might strengthen Syrians’ sense of national belonging even if there were no real changes at the present time.        

Cultural identity under Syrian regime’s authoritarianism

Social researcher Hussam al-Saad told Enab Baladi that the longer the conflict continues in Syria, the more its people will lose the link with its culture. Moreover, the fragile relation linking individuals with their State that is based on fear of authority is threatening most Syrians’ sense of belonging inside and abroad.         

Since 2011, the state concept in Syria has become attached with violence, pain, and all sorts of negative feelings that prevailed over most Syrians’ daily lives, particularly those abroad. These feelings grew worse as Syrian authorities increased their violence in society.  

It is challenging for Syrians to develop a sense of belonging to their country’s cultural identity unless they try to reach this state away from the Syrian authority’s rhetoric; otherwise, they will continue to ridicule their country’s ancient and new achievements. 

To most Syrians, Syria’s name is linked with the regime’s prominent figures, and current cultural and civilizational identity is associated with the al-Assad family.     

The value of Syria’s cultural and civilizational achievements has shrunk for Syrians who directly experienced the true relationship between the State and individuals under democratic bases, al-Saad said. 

People suffering dire living conditions would find no solace in the glories of their country’s past, and their sense of belonging would not be consolidated or cherished. 

Reminiscing about past glories is not limited to that of the ancient civilizations period but also to the 1950s when alternation of power was the norm in Syria. Between 1922 (two years after the end of the French mandate) and the union between Syria and Egypt in 1958, 12 presidents ruled Syria, including those who came to power by military coups.    

Societies resort to cultural identity and heritage to achieve a socio-economic revival. In Syria, the ruling Baath Party has marginalized civilizational achievements since it came to power in the 1970s and the party’s ideologies were promoted and celebrated in school textbooks and official and affiliated media outlets, al-Saad said.     

Syrians’ cultural estrangement due to harsh circumstances and living conditions, and the separation of those abroad from their culture except through what their relatives inside Syria tell them, constitute a significant threat and warn of creating a negative Syrian identity detached from its cultural heritage, al-Saad said.   

Al-Saad presented solutions that would help Syrians maintain their sense of belonging to their country’s culture, including having civil society associations and organizations with different cultural backgrounds to introduce Syria’s cultural heritage and legacy. 

He also called for separating the Syrian identity from the regime and ending the merge between the country and political authority. In this way, the concept of nationality will rise above any political authority and currents.      

The rule of law is the primary factor for preserving Syrians’ cultural identity. Syrians have been seeking alternative nationality or identity to live the freedom they were denied in their country. 

According to al-Saad, Syrians will embrace their cultural identity only when the rule of law prevails in Syria, and individuals feel liberated from authority’s control in a climate of justice, equity, accountability, non-discrimination, and preservation of rights.

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