Relations between Christians and Muslims and other ethnic and religious groups appear good and well, but there lurk beneath the surface acrid whisperings of a strong hatred among Christians for Muslims. Quite a few of my other European friends here tell me how their Christian host families have complained to them about their dislike and even hatred for Muslims. One account involved the father praising Bush since he kills Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such hatred is not surprising as Syria’s different religions and ethnic groups tend live in segregated neighborhoods or villages. This village is Syriac Christian while that is Circassian or this neighborhood is Druze and the other is Alawite.
For instance, in my Arabic class there was a Syrian Circassian girl who had grown up in Sweden but had family here. I did not know anything about the Circassians and she explained to me that they were a group of Russian Muslims who had emigrated from Russia to Syria in the last half of the 19th century and that they had their own language and a distinct culture from the Arabs. The truth of this still bore in her Russian appearance. She explained that because of the cultural differences between Circassian Muslims and Arab Muslims, the Circassians had a tendency to marry within their community and live in Circassian enclaves or towns. One of the major differences includes the treatment of women. Circassian women have more freedom in dress and marriage than their Arab counterparts which makes for difficulties for an Arab man, accustomed to more subservient women, married to a Circassian woman. Thus, they tended to keep their Russian features such as their pale white skin and lighter hair color. Also, the Circassians are only present in certain parts of the country which included Damascus and the Golan Heights. During the 1973 war with Israel, it was some of their villages and towns that were destroyed by the Israelis.
And so at times I wonder what does it mean when Syrians constantly repeat that there is no difference between Muslims and Christians and that they are like brothers. Perhaps unity and fraternity for them means practicing a tolerance for each other’s presence while decrying each other in their separate circles. That is what was described at least by a Christian Jordanian-American here on a visit who I chatted with in a juice bar. Although the family I stay with show no hatred toward Muslims. In fact the Palestinian mother is very anti-American and speaks of how bad President Bush is and the mess he has caused in the Middle East. She has asked me about my politic opinions but I try to avoid saying anything.
But at a later time at the same juice bar as I met the Jordanian-American, which I frequent about everyday, I received a much more vocal and acrid opinion of sectarian relations by one of the workers. The workers who run this stall are Kurdish and related to each other. I had been coming to it without conversing with them when one day, when I was the only one there, this worker came out with a rather shocking and virulent opinion of Arabs. He started saying that Arabs and Muslims are terrorists and then he pulled out a picture of Jesus from his wallet and told me this a good prophet and that Muhammad is not as good because he brought Islam which brought terrorism. I then asked him if he was Muslim and he said yes. I was then really surprised for it is known that Kurds have poor relations with Arabs but I didn’t expect him to attack Islam for it is a part of his own identity. He then also told me that he does not go to mosque anymore and prays in his home instead, because he did not like that the religious leaders in the mosque would use their pulpit to attack America and Great Britain and make other political comments. Next, he started complaining about the government and how it steals money from people and made slurping noises to express how it sucks them dry. I found it very odd that he wasn’t afraid to say any of these things to me since Syria has a very strong secret police and under Hafez al-Assad, the old president, no one dared to say a thing against the government. However, with his son, Basher al-Assad, coming to power in 2000 the ability to say such things is probably what people mean here when they say there is more freedom. Either way, the Kurds seem to suffer from a real identity crisis as Syrians and Muslims.
This was further explained to me when at a café I was sitting with a Kurdish youth who spoke English and I told him what the Kurdish man from the juice bar told me and asked him to explain his opinions. He then told me that many Kurds feel that Islam was something forced upon them by the Arabs in the past and that the idea of rejecting Islam is especially popular among the Kurdish youth today. I next asked him if he felt Syrian and replied by saying that he wished to be Syrian but felt he didn’t because of the poor treatment of Kurds as a minority group. He told me how he used to search online to meet other minority groups such as Basques in Spain to talk with them and share experiences as members of minority groups. So he was delighted to know that I was a Bahá’í and a minority both ethnically and religiously. He also recounted how he felt treated as an exotic specimen by some foreigners. He told the story of how in bed with an American, for he has a penchant for bedding foreign girls, she looked into his green eyes and remarked how she could see the mountains in his eyes, referring to the luscious tree covered mountains of his Kurdish homeland, to which all of us at the table laughed. The Kurdish guy felt cheapened by the experience as he felt he became an item of touristic fancy.