“One Arab nation… Bearing an eternal message.”

With this slogan, I used to start my school day in a country where the Baath Party dominated the leadership of the state and society. Although it portrayed itself as a leftist party, placing socialism as its third goal, it chose Arab nationalism as the basis for its domestic and foreign policies. At that time, I was a child, and did not know much about the Arabization campaigns and the Arab Belt project adopted by the Assad regime. All I knew back then was that I was not allowed to speak Kurdish at school, and I had to bury all political discussions I heard within the walls of my grandfather’s house.

Years later, as a high school student, I was summoned to the assistant principal’s office and warned for “provoking sectarian tensions” after I dared to teach my Damascene friend a Kurdish curse. My excellence in the Arabic language in the Capital of Arabism did not exempt me, nor did my memorization of nationalist education books, which claimed that the Arameans and Assyrians were Arabs.

The Weaponization of Arabic

Languages in Syria vary as much as its demographic composition. Besides Arabic and its dialects, there is Kurdish, itself with its various dialects, in addition to many other languages such as Syriac, Assyrian, Armenian and others, although some of them are limited to religious contexts. The Syrian constitution, however, does not recognize any minority languages, including Kurdish, but rather emphasizes that the only recognized official language in the country is Arabic – whether in the 1973 constitution adopted after Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970, or the current constitution adopted in February 2012, following the outbreak of popular protests in most cities. The fact that the Kurdish word for ‘freedom’, azadî, was chanted by Arab demonstrators in Homs and Daraa during the first months of the Syrian revolution was most likely of great annoyance to the Syrian authorities.

If language, in its general sense as a set of vocal and written symbols, aims to facilitate communication and understanding among members of a particular society, then one of the most important conditions for its development to become a tool for thinking and knowledge transfer is social and cultural interaction. It was precisely this which the exclusionary approach adopted by the Syrian regime prohibited: instead, the linguistic dominance of Arabic was employed as a means of control, a tool of authority to determine what could be spoken about, and how.

Not content with neglecting other languages, the regime applied the same treatment to local dialects of Arabic. Authorities systematically sanitized the language through audio-visual media, making Standard Arabic the language of education and government institutions, while a softened version of the Damascus dialect (so-called ‘White Dialect’), remained dominant and prestigious. It is this dialect that is used in dubbing Turkish series, and has also been adopted by Netflix. It is not a mere coincidence that regional dialects receive only limited representation and are satirized as a form of political exploitation; that representations of their speakers are often the butt of jokes, characterized by naivety and differing from others even in appearance – in contrast to the coastal dialects, which are associated with authority and security prowess.

As for the Kurdish language, in addition to the above, repression took a political and security direction. The consequences of using the language were not limited to marginalization or bullying: students were often expelled, or soldiers imprisoned. Teaching Kurdish or issuing any type of Kurdish publications was forbidden. In addition, opening any Kurdish cultural centers was prohibited, even in the Kurdish-majority areas in the northeast of the country.

This accumulated linguistic repression had a profound effect. Firstly, and most importantly, it transformed the Arabic language into one of the fundamental pillars of Syrian identity, resulting in a kind of entitlement: it became the duty of members of other ethnicities to learn Arabic, and not vice versa. This pushed many to assimilate to the majority, whether for socio-economic reasons or for reasons of security. For this reason you find many Kurds in Damascus who do not speak their mother tongue, even those who recently moved there.

Secondly, other languages were not given chances to evolve, and in the case of the Kurdish language, it was taught mainly through oral transmission, in particular through popular poems and songs. It adopted numerous Arabic loanwords, and in many cases became relegated to a performative means of expression, with the result that a large percentage of Kurds – including myself – did not learn to read and write in their language. Fortunately, I can now learn it online, which is what I plan to do this year.

In addition to the above, and in the midst of the near-separation between western and eastern Syria, it has become natural for Syrian Arabs to know more about Turkish songs, for example, than about Kurdish ones, despite their similarity in melodies and rhythms, and to know more about the customs of peoples living on another continent than what is happening in the homes of friends they may share a workplace with.

None of this was helped in the slightest by rumors or stereotypes which were circulated, intentionally or unintentionally. One time one of my colleagues asked me, “Do you really worship fire?” “No,” I replied, “but we were created from it, so be careful.”

Are Kurds welcomed in Syria?

Of the myriad historical events and political changes which shaped the Syrian state in its current form – not least among them the spread of Islam in the seventh century AD and the suppression of minorities during the Ottoman Empire era – it was the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 which had one of the strongest impacts. By dividing the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence after World War I, colonial powers defined the borders of countries, including Syria, disregarding the diverse characteristics of the inhabitants of those lands and dividing the territories of the Kurds across four different countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

Later, as Syrian national consciousness began to form during the French Mandate period, political life became more active. While this continued after independence from France in 1946, it was quickly suppressed when the Baath Party came to power in 1963, following the dissolution of the political unions with Egypt between 1958 and 1961.

Another event with a significant impact on Kurds in particular was the 1962 census, which deprived tens of thousands of Kurds of Syrian citizenship. This issue has remained unaddressed throughout the Assad family’s rule of more than half a century. By way of illustration, it suffices to mention that while I personally hold Syrian nationality, my cousins are deprived of all their civil rights on account of their father being “stateless.” Since the law does not grant mothers the right to bestow nationality on their children, they had no choice but to immigrate to Europe.

As a result of all of these developments, some individuals, for political and economic purposes, have adopted the idea that Kurds have never been part of Syria, but rather were outsiders who migrated to it at different points throughout history. Although these claims have been refuted by historical evidence and documents, they remain prevalent, whether propagated by the Syrian authorities or even by some opposition factions. This was shown during the Qamishli uprising in 2004 and recent military operations launched by the Turkish army and Syrian factions loyal to it in northern Syria against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

Following in the footsteps of Arab nationalists, Kurdish political currents started to emerge around the dream of unifying “Greater Kurdistan.” Given the impossibility of realizing this goal in light of geopolitical factors in the region, such movements can partly be understood as a response to decades of persecution. Most Kurdish parties in Syria have not raised their demands beyond basic rights, including civil and cultural rights; even the current self-administration in the northeast of the country has never demanded secession from Syria. However, the concentration of oil and wheat fields in those areas makes the demand for a federal system widely undesirable.

Rediscovering Syrian Identity

Defining Syrian identity can be complicated due to the country’s own religious and ethnic diversity. Without a doubt, the determinants set by the Baath Party are sufficient to exclude a large portion of the population, who sometimes seem more committed to belonging to Syria than the latter’s desire to have them as constituents. In recent years however – largely due to the revolution – the question of Syrian identity has been raised more and more in national dialogue. There is a growing awareness of the need to simultaneously recognize the other and rediscover oneself, away from the distortion of history in textbooks or television series, within the framework of a new social contract that builds on differences without erasing them.

In linguistic terms, we have started to see the beginning of this phenomenon with the emergence of new Syrian content on various platforms that showcases diverse Syrian dialects and the cultures they represent – something that was not previously available. With songs and folk tales as a starting point, it has become more socially acceptable to raise questions about different ethnicities and religious beliefs.

Syria’s diversity has always been a double-edged sword: it has given the country significant cultural and intellectual momentum, but has also played a part in fuelling the civil war we have witnessed in the past decade.

In my opinion, the crucial point which should not be overlooked in the context of redefining Syrian identity is that Syrians do not resemble each other: they differ to a great extent, socially and intellectually. It is also essential to debunk the myth of a completely shared history, and to reorient our focus instead on common interests and in coexisting side by side in a state of law which respects its citizens before they respect it.

For now, until that is achieved, I will remain Kurdish, regardless of whether others object to it. I will speak my language that they do not want to understand, I will play the songs that have always frightened them, and I will dance in honor of my grandmother’s colorful robes that used to amaze them. I will remain Kurdish until the injustice – which has no basis other than me being a Kurd speaking my language – is rectified. It is sadly ironic that I needed to master three other languages just to be able to demand my right to learn my mother tongue. From the start, I should have been able to say, freely and in Kurdish: Ez sûrî me. “I am Syrian.”