Coffee with a Sectarian”
Razan Ghazzawi :
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I stayed with this family for a week and there were some uncomfortable yet interesting discussions that took place up. I am sharing this one for now.

Setting : Daraa, household.

Time : Early October 2012

Characters : Women escaping regime violence, moving from one place to another after their house was burned during regime army raid to their village couple of months ago.

We were sitting in the household yard drinking coffee, the place owned by family that left to Jordan due to regime shelling. It was empty, yet water and electricity were available. We stayed in this house for five days.

Woman 1 : “Where are you from ?”
Me : “Well, I live in Damascus, but I am not Damascene, and I have Palestinian origins.”
Woman 2 : “So are you Palestinian ? Do you have the Palestinian passport ? ;
Me : “No, when the Israelis did not allow my grandfather to return to Palestine, he was granted a Syrian citizenship, which was right after Syria got its independence. I have the Syrian citizenship but I was just pointing out the history of my family. ;
Woman 1 : Are you Muslim ? ;
Me : My parents are.”

The women looked at each other then on the floor.

Woman 3 : “So you’re not Muslim ?”
I replied with a shy smile on my face : “My relationship with God is between me and him only.”

I expected silence and uncomfortable reaction coming from them, but I was surprised with the question that followed :

Woman 1 : “You’re a Sunni ?”
Me : “Well, my parents are.”
Woman 2 : “So you’re a Muslim and Sunni.”
Me : “No, I don’t identify myself as Sunni ; religion to me is a personal matter, I normally don’t like to talk about.”

Here, I felt, where I should have stopped, I could not t discuss how I view “God,” because I was sure that thiss would offend them.

Woman 3 (laughs) : “Well, no matter what you say, I am glad you’re a Sunni.”

This was a sentence I couldn’t get out of my head for weeks, literally, for whole weeks. She was glad that I was a Sunni ? I throught that I have just told her I was not, and I even almost told her that I was not a Muslim, still she was glad I am a Sunni ?
I, then, change the position of how I was sitting on the floor.

Me (laughing hysterically) : “But I am not a Sunni. I don’t think we should identify ourselves in these forms. Your reading of Islam is your own approach to religion, you’re free to call yourself whatever you want and so do I, and I am not a Sunni.”

The woman continued laughing at me, while other women were listening carefully, as if they heard such statement for the first time in their lives. This is when I felt that I did the right thing, I was messing it horribly, but I know Iwas doing the right thing.

Woman 2 (with a cynical smile) : “Yes, yes, still, I am glad.”
Me : “Why ? Are you saying that you are happy that I am not an Alawite or Durzi ?”

Let’s do it, I told myself.

Woman 3 : “Yes, I am happy you’re not Shiaa too.”

I was surprised she mentioned Shiaa because they were hardly visible in the revolution, I was talking about Syrian Shiaa at least.

Me : “Why ?”
Woman 2 : “Because they are pro regime, and they are Kuffar*.”

I expected her to pull out the Iran and Hezbolla card but she actually said the word “Kuffar ?”

Me : “Shiaa, who pray five time a day, whose women wear the veil, and who read the same Quran, are Kuffar ?”

I thought I lost it at this point.

Me : “And I know many people from minorities who are revolutionaries, some of them are in FSA, and others were detained and killed.”

I know that when I engage in uncomfortable discussion, my face starts to look weird or rather scary. I tried to control myself as I was very self-conscious about this golden discussion, and how it should have end without causing any fights.

Woman 3 : “But they’re very few. I am from Houla and Shiaa men attacked our village and killed our women and children. And the only right approach to Islam is Sunna. Shiaa don’t pray for God nor do they respect Muhammad, they pray for Ali instead.”
Me : “Shiaa don’t pray for God and don’t respect Mohammad ??! Shiaa are Muslims, they just have a different approach to Islam, and they have the right to do so, as you. We should not force people to follow our own reading of any text, there isn’t one right path. What you’re saying is sectarianism.”

I brought up the word rather fast, but I guess I couldn’t have waited any longer.

Me : “If you are saying that Shiaa killed families of Houla village, does that mean the Shiaa as a whole are the revolutionaries’ enemy and the killers of the Syrian people ? This is sectarianism. You realize that, don’t you ?”

I never thought they would be really sensitive about the word “sectarianism”.

Woman 3 (very fast) : “I was not sectarian before, we weren’t. The regime forced us, the Shiaa are killing us, forced us to leave our homes, if it wasn’t for Iran and Hezbolla we would have won this revolution. I wasn’t sectarian before.

*Kuffar literally means non-believers but is used as an insult.


When woman 3 said “I wasn’t sectarian before”, only then I realized that this is exactly what I should work on, to see it like some kind of revolutionary duty : to work on people who are becoming sectarian because they’re under regime violence and because they don’t meet revolutionaries who don’t share their line of thinking

It is true, the more we exist in these places and situations where people have to face what these women are living right now, the more we actually live with them, the more these discussions l occur and we might be able to change many assumptions.
I left this family letting them know that there is a girl in Syria who doesn’t think she’s Sunni, who doesn’t say much about religion or God, yet she’s against the regime. They called me a week ago checking on me, they like me and I like them a lot, and I like to believe that I was able to change some of their ideas. (or believes)

Razan Ghazzawi
Editor : Nayrouz Abu Hatoum

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