Arab Spring Blog Conflict Middle East Society and Culture

For some young Syrians, war brings unexpected freedom

"Syrian Woman" by Ruba Alash (http://dollofroz.deviantart.com)
“Syrian Woman” by Ruba Alash (http://dollofroz.deviantart.com)

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Rasha Elass is a journalist and Global Fellow at PS21. She has spent the past two years covering the uprising-turned-civil-war from inside Syria and now divides her time between Washington DC and Beirut. Follow her on Twitter: @RashaElass

Razan has a secret. She fled Damascus to Beirut at the behest of her family in mid-2013, then began to discover herself.

First she took off her hijab.

Then she found herself sharing an apartment with two strangers, both Syrian, but one of them male.

“Living with a roommate would have been weird back home, not to mention a male roommate. It’s not something I ever would have done,” said Razan, who is 28 years old.

“And the hijab? It’s a personal choice, but a different sort of personal choice now that I’m away from home. I’m anonymous here, away from family and neighbors and old friends from school who knew me all my life. And so, I’m making different choices,” Razan said.

She has not shared these things with her family, who remain in war-torn Syria.

Razan is part of a quiet trend among young, middle-class, educated and displaced Syrians who, for lack of a better word, are reinventing themselves. They are overlooked by the media, which focuses on more obvious stories like the strife of Syrian refugees. And they go unnoticed by academics, who rely on data and research that is too difficult to conduct in the current volatile environment.

The trend is not about the hijab, which Razan points out is the “obsession of the Western world, not our world.” It is about youth weaving a new reality, an alternative future for themselves and their region, even while their voices go unheard amid the loud and violent wars that surround them.

In Beirut alone, dozens of exiled Syrian musicians perform to standing ovations, drawing from their unique training in pre-war Syria, with its combination of Cold War Soviet influences, classical Arabic musical training, and Sufi mysticism. Now they cross-pollinate with their Lebanese counterparts, a complimentary bunch who lament having lost their heritage at the expense of trying to acquire the newest and trendiest in global techniques.

A similar story unfolds with exiled Syrian artists, many of whom have recently shot to international fame, with their pained expressionist canvas and unusual sculptures. The same goes for Syrian writers, poets, children’s books illustrators, rights activists, journalists, burgeoning intellectuals, and ordinary young folks. Political oppression stifled their impulse to hold public debate with each in pre-uprising Syria. But war, poverty, mourning, a fear for life, displacement and expiring visas distract them from holding one now.

A French protest in support of Mohamed Bouazizi, the "hero of Tunisia"
A French protest in support of Mohamed Bouazizi, the “hero of Tunisia”

Ask a Frenchman

They are the people that build societies, and without them a nation has no future. At no other time has it been so imperative that they tackle the issues at hand, along with their contemporaries from all over the Arab world, especially with the rise of extremists like Islamic State, with its seductive promises of heroism and belonging.

So, what does it mean to be a citizen in the Arab world in 2015? And when does belonging to a state trump belonging to a clan, sect, or religion?

What is the ideal model for the contemporary state? Should it be totally or partially secular? From which historical, philosophical, or religious context should it derive its values?

Noha el-Mikaway, the Middle East representative at the Ford Foundation, says Arab youth today are in a better position than ever to tackle these questions, but have not yet risen to the challenge.

“Unlike previous generations, young Arabs are not beholden to a Western (colonial) model that is imposed upon them. And they have everything. A common language. Technology. Social platforms. But for some reason, they don’t own the narrative yet,” she said.

Ask a Frenchman what it means to be French, and he’ll say: “Equality. Liberty. Fraternity.”

Ask an American teenager what it means to be American, and she’ll invoke the Founding Fathers, separation of church and state, and the U.S. Constitution.

Ask Syrian school children, or Lebanese, or Iraqi, and each one will give a different answer depending on their politics, ethnicity, or religion.

Perhaps this explains why the Arab Spring has been a revolution without an idea, a movement devoid of an ideology. Or why, the instant the state falls apart, its inhabitants automatically fall back on their clan, sect, or religion.

This happened in Iraq after the US toppled Saddam Hussein and his governmental institutions. It happened in Libya after the death of Moammar Qaddafi. It has been happening in Syria since the uprising.

It also happened in the mid-seventies, when Lebanon first descended into a 15-year civil war.

Illustration from the late Timurid manuscript "Sa'di and the youth of Kashgar"
Illustration from the late Timurid manuscript “Sa’di and the youth of Kashgar”

A Glimpse Into The Future?

Some say Lebanon’s past war ensures that its people today will not allow their country to fall into the abyss, and that Lebanon opted out of the Arab Spring because “there was no government against whom to protest”.

In some ways, perhaps Lebanon is a glimpse of where parts of the Arab world might inevitably be headed over the next decade after the war eventually dies down; entrenched sectarianism kept in check by warlords who no longer want to fight each other, and a backdrop of thriving but insular communities that do not talk to each other.

School children in Lebanon learn different ideas about who they are as a nation. The country’s education ministry is yet to approve an official narrative of what happened during the country’s civil war, so kids learn different versions of history and identity depending on which school they attend, of which there are many.

A Maronite Christian ninth-grader likely attends a French lycée, speaks mostly in French, and maybe snubs his Shia Muslim neighbor who learns excellent Arabic in the country’s public school system. The daughter of an upper middle class Sunni Muslim family likely attends an international school (or the American school or now, increasingly, a German school). She will graduate at least bilingual, and will think of herself as “a citizen of the world,” which in her mind also means Lebanese.

Zoom out of Lebanon, and a similar picture emerges.

Arab kids growing up in the wealthy Gulf attend American, British, French, or International schools, learning everything but a common Arab history and sense of identity. Rich kids in Jordan and Egypt get similar educations to each other, but are divorced from the rest of the people in their respective countries. Increasingly, Arab kids graduate from elite schools and are fluent in foreign languages, but they cannot read or converse in their own.

Syrian refugee children at a clinic in northern Jordan.
Syrian refugee children at a clinic in northern Jordan.

“Only interested in security issues”

Life was not so for their parents. The political generations of the fifties, sixties and seventies championed things like Pan-Arabism and socialism, ideologies that have since died. This generation, the one that protests in the streets, has not found any alternatives.

Many Syrians cannot even agree if their future country should be called the Syrian Arab Republic, the Republic of Syria, or even just Syria, a debate that lasted a hot minute before Islamist militants hijacked the country’s uprising.

It helped that money, moral support, and arms started flooding mainly from donors in the Arabian Peninsula, with Salafi Islamic ideological strings attached.

It helped also that the Assad regime released many known terrorists from prison with the aim of inflaming extremism, so as to bolster himself as the only viable alternative to ruling Syria. Or that during 45 years of Assad rule, school children were taught that being patriotic meant loving Assad, not engaging in civics or nation building.

And let’s face it, the region’s two hegemonic powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, have lit their backyards ablaze in their thirst for influence, igniting a devastating war between Sunni and Shia Muslims that promises to leave nothing but scorched earth in its aftermath, and a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen since World War II.

Arab media can barely keep up with the news, from Assad bombing his people to Yemen teetering on the brink, not to mention the increasingly surreal and brutal video productions of Islamic State.

It is no surprise that Arab media hardly notices the subtle dynamics in the region, like youth breaking cultural taboos and cohabitating without marriage, or living life as an openly gay Arab or Muslim.

“And any other issue, like poverty, environment, culture, employment, and other very important things, the media does not care about these issues,” said Layal Bahnam, an advocate of freedom of expression at the Beirut-based Maharat Foundation. She was referring to media outlets in Lebanon, long considered the region’s most tolerant country of free speech. “But these days they’re only interested in security related issues.”

For Razan and her contemporaries, the priority in these tragic times is to stay alive, and hope that their loved ones survive the war. But perhaps once the guns quiet down, she and the rest of the Arab youth will start to hear each other and have a conversation, not just about the hijab, or negotiating social mores, but about who they want to be when they grow up.

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