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For some young Syrians, war brings unexpected

Rasha Elass is a journalist and Global Fellow at PS21.
She has spent the past two years covering the uprisingturned-civil-war from inside Syria and now divides her
time between Washington DC and Beirut. Follow her on
Twitter: @RashaElass
Razan has a secret. She fled Damascus to Beirut at the
behest of her family in mid-2013, then began to discover
First she took off her hijab.
Then she found herself sharing an apartment with two strangers, both Syrian, but one of them
Living with a roommate would have been weird back home, not to mention a male roommate.
Its not something I ever would have done, said Razan, who is 28 years old.
And the hijab? Its a personal choice, but a different sort of personal choice now that Im away
from home. Im anonymous here, away from family and neighbors and old friends from school
who knew me all my life. And so, Im making different choices, Razan said.
She has not shared these things with her family, who remain in war-torn Syria.
Razan is part of a quiet trend among young, middle-class, educated and displaced Syrians who,
for lack of a better word, are reinventing themselves. They are overlooked by the media, which
focuses on more obvious stories like the strife of Syrian refugees. And they go unnoticed by
academics, who rely on data and research that is too difficult to conduct in the current volatile
The trend is not about the hijab, which Razan points out is the obsession of the Western world,
not our world. It is about youth weaving a new reality, an alternative future for themselves and
their region, even while their voices go unheard amid the loud and violent wars that surround
In Beirut alone, dozens of exiled Syrian musicians perform to standing ovations, drawing from
their unique training in pre-war Syria, with its combination of Cold War Soviet influences,
classical Arabic musical training, and Sufi mysticism. Now they cross-pollinate with their
Lebanese counterparts, a complimentary bunch who lament having lost their heritage at the
expense of trying to acquire the newest and trendiest in global techniques.
A similar story unfolds with exiled Syrian artists, many of whom have recently shot to
international fame, with their pained expressionist canvas and unusual sculptures. The same goes

for Syrian writers, poets, childrens books illustrators, rights activists, journalists, burgeoning
intellectuals, and ordinary young folks. Political oppression stifled their impulse to hold public
debate with each in pre-uprising Syria. But war, poverty, mourning, a fear for life, displacement
and expiring visas distract them from holding one now.
Ask a Frenchman
They are the people that build societies, and without them a nation has no future. At no other
time has it been so imperative that they tackle the issues at hand, along with their contemporaries
from all over the Arab world, especially with the rise of extremists like Islamic State, with its
seductive promises of heroism and belonging.
So, what does it mean to be a citizen in the Arab world in 2015? And when does belonging to a
state trump belonging to a clan, sect, or religion?
What is the ideal model for the contemporary state? Should it be totally or partially secular?
From which historical, philosophical, or religious context should it derive its values?
Noha el-Mikaway, the Middle East representative at the Ford Foundation, says Arab youth today
are in a better position than ever to tackle these questions, but have not yet risen to the challenge.
Unlike previous generations, young Arabs are not beholden to a Western (colonial) model that is
imposed upon them. And they have everything. A common language. Technology. Social
platforms. But for some reason, they dont own the narrative yet, she said.
Ask a Frenchman what it means to be French, and hell say: Equality. Liberty. Fraternity.
Ask an American teenager what it means to be American, and shell invoke the Founding
Fathers, separation of church and state, and the U.S. Constitution.
Ask Syrian school children, or Lebanese, or Iraqi, and each one will give a different answer
depending on their politics, ethnicity, or religion.
Perhaps this explains why the Arab Spring has been a revolution without an idea, a movement
devoid of an ideology. Or why, the instant the state falls apart, its inhabitants automatically fall
back on their clan, sect, or religion.
This happened in Iraq after the US toppled Saddam Hussein and his governmental institutions. It
happened in Libya after the death of Moammar Qaddafi. It has been happening in Syria since the
It also happened in the mid-seventies, when Lebanon first descended into a 15-year civil war.

A Glimpse Into The Future?

Some say Lebanons past war ensures that its people today will not allow their country to fall
into the abyss, and that Lebanon opted out of the Arab Spring because there was no government
against whom to protest.
In some ways, perhaps Lebanon is a glimpse of where parts of the Arab world might inevitably
be headed over the next decade after the war eventually dies down; entrenched sectarianism kept
in check by warlords who no longer want to fight each other, and a backdrop of thriving but
insular communities that do not talk to each other.
School children in Lebanon learn different ideas about who they are as a nation. The countrys
education ministry is yet to approve an official narrative of what happened during the countrys
civil war, so kids learn different versions of history and identity depending on which school they
attend, of which there are many.
A Maronite Christian ninth-grader likely attends a French lyce, speaks mostly in French, and
maybe snubs his Shia Muslim neighbor who learns excellent Arabic in the countrys public
school system. The daughter of an upper middle class Sunni Muslim family likely attends an
international school (or the American school or now, increasingly, a German school). She will
graduate at least bilingual, and will think of herself as a citizen of the world, which in her mind
also means Lebanese.
Zoom out of Lebanon, and a similar picture emerges.
Arab kids growing up in the wealthy Gulf attend American, British, French, or International
schools, learning everything but a common Arab history and sense of identity. Rich kids in
Jordan and Egypt get similar educations to each other, but are divorced from the rest of the
people in their respective countries. Increasingly, Arab kids graduate from elite schools and are
fluent in foreign languages, but they cannot read or converse in their own.
Only interested in security issues
Life was not so for their parents. The political generations of the fifties, sixties and seventies
championed things like Pan-Arabism and socialism, ideologies that have since died. This
generation, the one that protests in the streets, has not found any alternatives.
Many Syrians cannot even agree if their future country should be called the Syrian Arab
Republic, the Republic of Syria, or even just Syria, a debate that lasted a hot minute before
Islamist militants hijacked the countrys uprising.
It helped that money, moral support, and arms started flooding mainly from donors in the
Arabian Peninsula, with Salafi Islamic ideological strings attached.
It helped also that the Assad regime released many known terrorists from prison with the aim of
inflaming extremism, so as to bolster himself as the only viable alternative to ruling Syria. Or

that during 45 years of Assad rule, school children were taught that being patriotic meant loving
Assad, not engaging in civics or nation building.
And lets face it, the regions two hegemonic powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, have lit their
backyards ablaze in their thirst for influence, igniting a devastating war between Sunni and Shia
Muslims that promises to leave nothing but scorched earth in its aftermath, and a humanitarian
crisis on a scale not seen since World War II.
Arab media can barely keep up with the news, from Assad bombing his people to Yemen
teetering on the brink, not to mention the increasingly surreal and brutal video productions of
Islamic State.
It is no surprise that Arab media hardly notices the subtle dynamics in the region, like youth
breaking cultural taboos and cohabitating without marriage, or living life as an openly gay Arab
or Muslim.
And any other issue, like poverty, environment, culture, employment, and other very important
things, the media does not care about these issues, said Layal Bahnam, an advocate of freedom
of expression at the Beirut-based Maharat Foundation. She was referring to media outlets in
Lebanon, long considered the regions most tolerant country of free speech. But these days
theyre only interested in security related issues.
For Razan and her contemporaries, the priority in these tragic times is to stay alive, and hope that
their loved ones survive the war. But perhaps once the guns quiet down, she and the rest of the
Arab youth will start to hear each other and have a conversation, not just about the hijab, or
negotiating social mores, but about who they want to be when they grow up.

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