To truly “belong” to Syria, you have to be masculine – especially in a time of war. And throughout the country’s catastrophic six-year conflict, the same macho message has been driven home repeatedly.
The current Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, laid it out boldly in a landmark speech on July 26 2015, in which he emphasised the relationship between sacrificial heroism, militarism, national membership and belonging. As he put it: “The fatherland is not for those who live in it or hold its nationality, but for those who defend and protect it,” pointing out that “the army, in order to be able to perform its duties and counter terrorism, must be supported by the human element.”
The major themes that coursed through the speech still hold sway. Syria is a “fatherland” for which Syrian men should be ready to die; their self-sacrifice requires martial ability and physical strength, both of which are tests of national loyalty. And at the centre of it all is the army, whose accomplishments Syrians are required to appreciate. In other words, the ideal Syrian is a martial man.
And just as these ideas are at the forefront of the Syrian conflict, they will be very familiar to any ordinary Syrian. Assad’s invigorated nationalism is a highly amplified and intensified version of the same nationalist ideology that we have all experienced over the last four decades.
As a Syrian, I encountered nationalism all the way through my primary and secondary school education. The male pupils were conscripted to two organisations affiliated with the Assads’ Ba'ath Party: in primary school, the Syrian National Organisation for Childhood (tala'e'e), and in high school, the Revolutionary Youth Union (al-shabibah). These two organisations would mobilise boys through enforced training and then membership of paramilitary groups.
In the classroom, we sat through a lesson every week about how to become an active Ba'athist by using a Kalashnikov rifle, and how to show our love for both the nation and the leader, particularly through celebrating a physically strong body.
A compulsory 15-day summer camp gave male students extra time to learn about the soldierly life, in an attempt to prepare them for compulsory army conscription when they finished high school. Meanwhile, we female students attended sessions that taught us about the glorious past of our nation – a story told entirely through the heroic deeds of men.
During enforced mass marches to celebrate the “great leader”, at the time, Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, we learned by heart the slogan: “With blood and soul, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Hafez.” We were taught nationalist songs celebrating the heroic deeds of men and their strength and bravery, reinforcing the idea that the nation was built only by men’s accomplishments.
The nation of men
This cult of masculinity necessarily obscures the achievements of Syrian women, and relegates them to a supporting role. Their part in the national story is to respect and revere their protective patriarchs, with Hafez and then Bashar al-Assad positioned as all Syrians’ ultimate fathers, protectors and leaders.
And even to the extent that Syrian nationalism is demonstrated through familial love, this love can only be accomplished in masculine terms – and only by the patriotic men who serve as great soldiers of the nation.
This endless perpetuation of masculine nationalism happens not just in the classroom and the military training camp, but in everyday spaces too. Walking along the streets in any Syrian city, the aura of male strength and heroism is everywhere; khaki is the dominant colour, and portraits of Hafez al-Assad are on prominent display.
With Syria still embroiled in all-consuming conflict, the Syrian people face many scenarios that carry a particular set of nationalistic sentiments. Many hope that even if the current regime survives, it will lose its power to shape and control a national narrative of any sort.
But that only raises the difficult question of what the Syrian nation even is, and how Syrians can organise a sense of national love and belonging in what promises to be a close-to-unrecognisable future.