New Trends Disturb an Old Balance

new-trends-large1.jpgBy Obaida Hamad
Photos Phil Sands
Aleppo is one of the oldest cities in the Middle East and has for hundreds of years been a global centre for trade and culture. It has also long served as a model for peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christians and other religions.

Today, however, the arrival of new communities from the countryside is changing the social make-up of the city.

Original inhabitants of Aleppo – Christians, Muslims and Jews – live side by side in mixed neighbourhoods like Jamaliyah. But as the city has expanded, its fabric has changed. Areas that were once outlying suburbs have now been absorbed into the city itself and, unlike the old neighbourhoods, they are not mixed. Al-Furqan, a new and wealthy part of Aleppo, is virtually exclusively Muslim, while Surian Jdeideh is known as a Christian area. Newcomers from the surrounding villages and the Jazeera area have also moved into the city, bringing with them conservative ideas. Many of them have never met a Christian before and, as a result, consider them to be foreigners.

“Original inhabitants coexist with Christians and are more open than those who came from the countryside and who have never met or lived with Christians,” Boutros Marayati, head of the Armenian Catholic Church in Aleppo, said. “They don’t have the same position as the Aleppans. They don’t know what a Christian is and maybe they feel we are not original citizens, that we are from Europe and maybe these people adopt a fanatical position. They don’t want to coexist. It’s not all of them – some of them.”

Coexistence threatened

butros1.jpgModerate Muslim leaders in Aleppo are also concerned about a trend they fear could lead to an increasingly segregated society prone to extremism. Such tendencies are being fuelled, they say, by a few intolerant preachers and community leaders who have arrived from rural areas and who espouse a more radical form of Islam.

“I’m afraid for the future,” Mahmoud Ali Akam, one the city’s senior Islamic figures and a member of one of its oldest families, said. “We cannot control the newcomers who live around Aleppo, we cannot control their speakers.”

Akam, who preaches at the Tawhid mosque in the Christian-dominated Aziziyeh area of Aleppo – a mosque located between two churches – said he was trying to counter the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam.

“In our Friday speeches we talk about coexistence and unity to counter their talk,” he said. “We always come with evidence that when Christians and Muslims were living together Islam was strong; that Islam is stronger with coexistence, not weaker because of it.”

Not far from the city centre lies the neighbourhood of Beni Zaid, an impoverished illegal settlement for newcomers that stands in stark contrast to the surrounding areas. It sits uneasily in modern Aleppo, like a village, complete with traditional habits, fashion and tribal practices. In old Aleppo churches and mosques stand together. In Beni Zaid – named after a Jazeera tribe – there are no churches, just dozens of small mosques. The infrastructure is rudimentary; roads are not paved, there is no running water, no sewers.

Most of Beni Zaid’s residents are uneducated and the children do not go to school. Adults try to find menial work in restaurants, factories or as drivers. Those who fail to get a job live by scavenging from waste dumps.

“These places are hidden from the view of original Aleppans, they just don’t know about these poor suburbs because they never have to come here,” Khalid Zinklo, correspondent for the daily Syrian newspaper Al-Watan, said. “These areas have problems with poverty, and there are all the associated issues, perhaps drug abuse and conservatism, the things that happen in deprived areas.”

Mar Gregorious Yohanna Ibrahim, head of Aleppo’s Orthodox Syriac community, said city leaders had to vigorously push the ideas of tolerance and coexistence.

“There is coexistence but that doesn’t mean everyone agrees,” Ibrahim said. “Our enemy, both Muslims and Christians, is one and the same: ignorance. We have to continue our participation together as a single community, not divided religious communities. Dialogue should be encouraged, in schools, hospitals and in the theatre of daily life.”

Fears overblown

mouhammad-ali-akkam1.jpgWhile perhaps more conservative than Aleppo’s traditional families, there is disagreement about whether recent immigrants pose a threat to the city’s tolerant nature. Even some senior Christian figures are sceptical about the claim.

“Christians are a minority and can have a minority complex about this,” Reverend Haroutune Selimian, president of the Armenian Evangelical Community, said. According to Haroutune, newcomers might be conservative, but that does not make them extremists.

Likewise, Mohammad al-Shami, the former director of Aleppo’s Religious Affairs Department, said his city’s religious devotion ultimately guaranteed tolerance and coexistence between Muslims and Christians.

“If some people believe Aleppo is a fanatical city, I say ‘yes’,” Shami, who has served in the post for some two decades, said. “But what does that mean? When Christians are committed to their religion, Christianity teaches them how to respect and love the other. If Muslims are committed to Islam, Islam also teaches them that all creatures are from God and the person who is closest to God is closest to the people. So how can Aleppo be an intolerant city when it is full of sincerely religious people?”