The Dilemma of Belonging Somewhere

It has been over a year since my birth country was plunged into a desperate war. When the revolts against the ruling government started, they were only peaceful demonstrations, which were quickly met with disproportionate force. Soon the resistance armed itself and found allies amongst extremist groups, and some Gulf-state governments who were opposed to Syria’s alliance with Iran. The discourse turned ugly. Instead of justice vs injustice and freedom vs dictatorship, we started hearing Sunni against Alawis and their Shiite allies, and “Us” against the”Them”. The morality of the revolution or those who are fighting for it, came under scrutiny.

I for one, was unable to reconcile the aspiration for justice and democracy with the cruel punishment of enemies, or mutilating their corpses. The savagery of both sides intensified as time wore on. And we all know that war is an insatiable beast, and once blood is shed, it feeds on itself in an endless cycle of cruelty and savage retaliation.

I haven’t heard any news about the battle for Syria (or in Syria) in months. I am sickened of body counts,  and it is enough for me now to hear the grim news from my sister. She and her family are fed up with the fighting and just want their old life back. Dictatorship, corruption, and lack of civil liberties seem a small price to pay for safety now. After all this time I see the logic of their argument. And even though I implicitly still support the revolution as a principle I am not sure anymore of the means it employs.

I have left Syria because I had very little in common with the people there. I could neither relate to overt piety, nor to a life of leisure as a socialite. I was often criticized for my  casual dress sense, my inability to apply makeup or style my hair. My sister, in contrast did not have a problem with taking close to an hour “getting ready” every time she wanted to step out the door. Now, she has chosen to wear a headscarf, I think it is easier to just cover up and leave the house rather than get every single hair in place. I have one dry bottle of mascara that I never use, but over twenty years ago, my cousins tried to teach me how to apply, foundation, blush, eye-liner, lip liner, lipstick, and eye-shadow. I think I gave up as soon as that first lesson was through. I could never justify wasting so much time on all this rubbish. Besides, I am happy with the way I look. One of the first things I did when I got divorced was to stop dying my hair. I suffered for two years with my twin stripes, of carrot/aubergine and salt-and-pepper and was thrilled to finally have my natural grey-highlight. Women in Syria would never understand this attitude. They thought I was awfully uncouth when I walked the streets in a T-shirt, faded jeans and hiking sandals. I think they dubbed me as the African savage. Everyone expects an expat to arrive in designer clothes, expensive leather shoes and flawless skin. I only had my casual wardrobe and proudly showed off my arms and legs, tanned by the African sun. After living in South Africa, I became an alien to my country of birth, but at least I had a good excuse then. When I lived there, I tried my best for years. I wanted to belong, but it never worked. In South Africa, I found a place where it was okay to be myself. I belonged regardless of the color of my skin. Most people dressed casually, just the way I liked to dress. Nobody ever asked me what my religion was.  It was a revelation.

I found that I relate to South Africa better than I ever related to my country of birth. I respect and admire the wisdom of its people and the way they transcended their differences and moved along towards a common future. The idea of Ubuntu and the truth and reconciliation speak volumes on the morality of this nation. Yes, there were incidents of bloody conflict, and even the current majority government has made its shares of mistakes and trouble, but none of these come even close to the monumental destruction still under way in Syria.

The nightmare scenario playing out in my birth country does not correspond to any of my views.  I am so ashamed and unhappy about it that I reached a stage of total apathy. Some of my friends write glowing praise of the country they remember, the beautiful Syria, where different sects and religions lived side by side, in peace and harmony. The cynic part of me questions the veracity of such an innocuous image, when the erstwhile neighbors are now caught in an exchange of violence, that causes more bloodshed at worst, or slides into the worst gutter language at best.

I watch in horror, while people I once considered friends defend the indefensible, or hurl obscenities and accusations at others for a difference of opinion. For one group I may be classified as an Israeli sympathizer, a tool of American imperialism. While the others would call me a non-believer, and enemy of Allah. Both groups are fools, and again, I find myself unable to relate to neither.  Before the revolution strayed into sectarianism I enjoyed listening to a few secular voices, calling for a civilian rule, under a liberal constitution. Today, these voices are drowned by the proponents of an Islamic State.

My dilemma is that I cannot openly criticize the religious tone of discourse, for fear of offending my religious friends. Besides, I do not want to look as if I am supporting the alternative (the current bloody regime that continues to kill people with impunity). On the other hand I feel that I do not have any stake in this battle anymore because, in all honesty, I neither want the religious extremists to win, nor can I ever accept the criminal regime to stay.  Unfortunately for everyone, these two sides have the best chances, because they have the strongest foreign support (Russia, Iran and Hezbollah – on the side of the regime, and the Gulf States, and the western world, on the side of the armed religious insurgence). This balance of power has so far kept both sides more or less evenly matched, but sooner or later the scales will tip to one side.

I withdraw again to the safe cocoon of African politics. For all its faults at least the ANC is still ruled by a civilian constitution. It recognizes the rule of law, not the rule of God or the ancestors. The more Syria slides into anarchy the closer I retreat into the safer ground of my South-African identity. One post I recently read likened a birth country to a mother, and an adopted country to spouse. So according to this analogy I am an ungrateful daughter to the mother country.

If this were true then I could argue that my mother country never treated me well in the first place, I felt like I was kept by an evil stepmother, who constantly pushed me into things that I did not want to do. My adoptive African mother was kinder and loved me the way that I am, I call her my true mother. Again, this is something else where I differ from the people in my birth country. Belonging to the birth country is not a choice in their opinion. It is a sacred duty. And blind patriotism makes the best fodder for senseless wars.

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