There is a stench to poverty and it still lingers in the corners of the houses of Alawites in Syria. Forty years have gone by , yet it is still there – never forsaking them.
Not much is known about the history of the Alawites not because there isn’t much but because so few have documented the lives and tragedies of these people. You can find it if you search well in certain books, but you are more likely to come across it in a more honest way in the eyes of the older generation. It is all there- hardship, denial, deprivation and yes fear too.
How they came to live on the harshest of mountains in Syria where only beasts lived is a question with more than one answer. Different sources tell different tales – but it amounts to the same. Massacre after massacre, each time by a different foe, but mainly by the Ottomans, resulted in the Alawites fleeing the cities where they used to live and seeking sanctuary in the cold mountains. It was very much a policy of displace and then replace. The Alawites were displaced from their urban dwellings and quickly replaced by other inhabitants. The end result was that they lived in almost complete isolation, mixing with their Christian neighbours and embracing many Christian traditions and festivals in the hope of avoiding recognition.
It was only with the arrival of the French occupation that the Alawites of Syria were able to lose some of that fear. Ever the imperialists, the French, gave the Alawites their minimum rights. Rights they hadn’t even dared dream about. The Alawites had their own state(surprisingly many Alawites were against this) and their men were allowed to enlist in the French army- a chance grabbed at by many young men of that area, for it gave them an opportunity to earn money and travel. However French dreams of strengthening the minorities to the point that they would rise and fight against a unified independent Syria failed miserably. Saleh Al Ali(an Alawite from Tartous) was one of the foremost revolutionaries demanding a unified whole Syria free from French occupation.
In 1946 Syria gained its independence but the Alawites continued to be poor, not in the same fierce way that they had been before, but very poor nonetheless, protected by the very things that they were victim to- poverty and isolation. They continued their existence on their savage mountains always fearing to venture into cities for they were ridiculed and mocked for their bad sense of dress and their rough accents.
With the birth of the Ba’ath( which means renaissance or resurrection) came hope for the poor and the downtrodden. Ba’athists ideology is based on socialists principles and enlightenment. It is a secular ideology in which the ruling class is replaced by a revolutionary progressive class. For the poor of Syria of whom the Alawites represented only a minority, it was like a walk to freedom.
Events turned rapidly in Syria and coup followed coup and it wasn’t until 1970 that Syria settled down under president Hafiz Al Assad- a Ba’athist from the Alawite mountains. It was a chance for Alawites to better their lot and they came in their hordes to the cities seeking government jobs and enlisting in the military academy as they always had.
That some used and abused their power(as all do who come to power) is undoubted and that there was corruption and cronyism is undoubted and that there was a lot of fiction and fabrications spun around the Alawites is undoubted too ! Fabrications of sexual abandonment and impiety, of strange pagan customs and unholy alliances evolved and flourished. The Alawites were easy targets with their ignorance of the mannerisms of city dwellers and their rough accents – but they were easy targets too because it was thought that they crossed the line that the rest of society didn’t dare cross.
Their villages became relatively better places to live in with electricity and running water. Schools were built and roads were paved. Their fear of mixing with the other dwindled but never ever disappeared.
With the arrival of the Syrian ” revolution” in 2011 the Alawites found themselves facing their ancient fears again. But they were not the only ones this time. They were joined by other minorities like the Christians, the Druze , and the Ismailies. Secular Sunnis also joined in this fear. The Syrian ”revolution” from the beginning failed to offer assurances to these minorities. Sitting in European capitals, the opposition offered the minorities honeyed words but on the ground, the picture was completely different .Minorities were targeted. The Druze in Jaramanah, the Christians in Ma’loula and the Alawites in their coastal regions.
In August the Alawites were attacked in the places they had considered as the safest-their mountainous villages! It was as if all their nightmares had returned. The younger generation were able to identify the truth of what happened to their ancestors for they saw a repeat of it themselves. Their villages (Abu Makeh, Obin, Beit Shakouhi, Bloutah, Hamboushieh to mention only some) were raided, their houses burned, their men killed and their women raped! Oh, but there was a condition to the rape of Alawite women! They must not be pregnant!!So wrote a Kuwaiti, who funded these armed terrorist groups Dr. Shafi Al Ajamy on twitter on the 4th of August-they must not be pregnant lest there be a mix-up in lineage(scientifically incorrect)!! Hundreds of Alawites continued to be massacred in their villages until the Syrian Army arrived and the villages were liberated from the armed terrorist groups.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights-apparently Observatory for only some Syrians and not all- hardly dwelled on what had happened and what was even more surprising was that the media in Syria didn’t give these massacres their due. It was as if they were too ashamed to talk of what they had thought would never happen again. No serious attempt was made to publicize these massacres and they were hardly mentioned in Western media. No official complaint was made against the “Syrian National Coalition” which harbours these armed groups and no request for an official investigation was made either, for what happened in Syria was ethnic cleansing no mistake about it. Ethnic cleansing carried out with the blessing of the West and the funding of Gulf countries and Saudi!
Today the Alawites of Syria remain afraid and generally misunderstood-for them what is happening in Syria is a war and they are the targets and the fight is over their very existence. Like an abused child they have nowhere to turn to and like an abused child they keep their secret well and just as in olden days when they were too afraid to talk –their fear has revisited them!
Reem Haddad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org