When I was in second grade in Damascus, we were made to march like little soldiers and salute our “Eternal Leader Hafez al Assad.” He looked down upon us from an oversized portrait that hung on the wall in our classroom, an emblem of the personality-cult nationhood into which we were being indoctrinated.
Years later, after leaving the country and then returning as a journalist, I would ask fellow Syrians what they understood themselves to be.
“What is Syria? Who is Syria?” I asked anyone who listened. “What does it mean to be a citizen of Syria?”
This produced answers that were as varied as the people I asked.
“Syria is an Arab nation. With non-Arab minorities.”
“Syria is a Muslim nation, with non-Muslim minorities.”
“Syria is both Arab and Muslim.”
“Syria is a secular country, is it not?”
“What’s secularism anyway? An infidel country?”
This conversation became particularly urgent — and divisive — with the start of the uprising in early 2011. Yet still, no one I asked could capture an all-encompassing identity for the nation-state, no matter their feelings about the revolution or the regime. As the uprising turned into a complicated, multiplayer war, people’s answers to the most simple question about national identity remained equally opaque, except now it was phrased in the negative.
“Syria is not Assad.”
“Syria is not Islamists.”
“Syria is not Arab/Muslim.”
“Syria is not secular.”
Still lacking in these utterances was a unified vision — an inviolable truth that everyone could rally behind even when they disagreed on the details.
The closest such thing I heard was the slogan used in the early protests: “The Syrian people are one.” This ideal, of course, never came to pass, and I no longer hear the slogan uttered en masse anywhere.
More time passed, and I stopped asking questions, forgetting about my query altogether — until the insurrection that unfolded in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. A riotous crowd, firm in their delusional belief that the election was stolen from them, stormed the U.S. Capitol, located a short walk from my neighborhood.
Here was America, as divided as it has ever been during my generation’s lifetime (Generation X), yet Americans remained unwavering in what the country stood for. Even while enraptured in their bizarre fantasies and QAnon conspiracies, the rioters never lost sight of the sacred national truths upon which the country is built, namely that the Capitol building belonged to the people. One video after another shows them at their worst, angry and violent, yet they are heard saying: “This is the people’s house. This is our house. The lawmakers work for us.” Despite the rioters’ unhinged aggression, these statements guided them like a calibrated compass.
It is precisely this compass that remains so uncalibrated in the Arab world. Or, rather, it is calibrated along so many different directions that it amounts to total confusion about nationhood and the state.
Ask the French what it means to be French, and they’ll invoke their guiding principles: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Ask the Germans, and they’ll refer to their motto: Unity and Justice and Freedom. And Americans, no matter where they fall on the Trump-Sanders spectrum, can still invoke the Founding Fathers and the Constitution: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
But what could a citizen of an Arab country today invoke as a guiding principle of nationhood? This question goes beyond identity, which for people in the Arab world is clear, whether it is defined by tribe or region or politics, by sect or religion or lack thereof. Yet amid this diversity, there is only a vague and sometimes regressive or confused idea of the nation-state.
Lebanon, in particular, captures this confusion in the narration of its own history. Nearly three decades after the Lebanese civil war ended, the country’s education ministry is yet to agree on what to print in school history books. The result is competing narratives about how the war began and who is to blame — Israelis, Syrians, Palestinians, and/or various Lebanese factions — and it all depends on which school you attend, which usually depends on how your parents vote, which in Lebanon depends on your sect.
In Saudi Arabia, where I also went to school for part of my primary education, my teachers taught us that the relationship between the individual and the state pivots around one thing only: Fealty to the patriarchy. This includes the father of the family, the sheikh of the tribe, the king himself, or, perhaps the ultimate personification of a patriarch, the Abrahamic God.
I recall my own frustration when, in the sixth grade, our religion teacher delivered a lecture about photography being haram — forbidden — in Islam. How so, my fellow students and I wondered, when our school hung pictures of the king himself in every one of our classrooms?
But we were not owed an answer to our query, for that would have been a transgression on the delicate citizen-state relationship that the kingdom was fostering in its schools. Indeed, so extreme is the patriarchal identity in Saudi Arabia that it severs the direct relationship between the state and its female citizens, demanding instead that women seek their most basic human rights, like access to education and medical treatment, through their local patriarch, usually their father or a brother (Mohammed bin Salman’s recent superficial reforms notwithstanding, of course).
There was a time during previous generations when a nascent overarching identity was emerging, having taken root during the final years of the Ottoman Empire when Arabic-speaking populations identified as Arabs and imagined themselves united as one nation. The late Iraqi scholar Sati’ al-Husari captured this sentiment when he said: “People who speak one language must have one heart and one spirit, so they must constitute one nation and therefore one state.” But pan-Arabism, as it is called, and its smaller, less ambitious Levantine ideal of a united Greater Syria are passé, too tainted with Baathism and inconsequential to the millennials of the Arab world.
Is another vision arising to replace these nationhood ideas of the past?
The closest, and saddest, answer I have heard came from a Syrian intellectual whose name I no longer recall. “Young Arabs don’t care about these things. They just want their iPhone and a job in Dubai,” he told me. “Consumerism is the new nationalism.” I laughed and half-agreed with him. The United Arab Emirates, with its indoor ski resorts and mega shopping malls, and a population of compliant consumers, did indeed appear to be among the region’s more stable nation-states.
Cynicism aside, I have not overlooked the current academic discourse on all that is wrong with the Arab world: how Sykes and Picot divided up the region with arbitrary borders, and how the U.S. wars and hegemony undermine the post-colonial healing of nations. There is a lot of truth to these statements, but they cannot be wholly blamed for the lack of vision in Arab nationhood today, even one as basic as: “This is the people’s house.”
Such was my thought on Inauguration Day as I ventured close to the Capitol, oceans and decades removed from the memory of marching in unison at school in Damascus. I stood by the newly erected seven-foot fence with razor wire, facing national guard troops on high alert, and watched the out-of-view ceremony on my iPhone, like the handful of other revelers. Despite sedition and plague, the peaceful transfer of power continued as expected, and no one lost sight of the sacred truth that the building upon which I gazed was, indeed, the people’s house.