Recreating Memory in Syria: Zarzour, its Mosque, and its Shia


Location map of Zarzour and its Hussainia (Sources: Google Earth, Lens of a young kafartakharimi)

Since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, news were rife with stories of damages inflicted to religious buildings, first as the work of the Syrian Regime, then as of the Rebels. These damages range from destruction due to fighting, to looting, and to vandalism (i will not use the word desecration, since it’s a larger subject than to be addressed in this post.)

However, a more significant event happened in the village of Zarzour in the winter of 2012-2013, that went nearly unnoticed.

Zarzour is a village of around 3,000 inhabitants, 25 km to the west of the city of Idlib. A sizable part of its population are Shia Islam.

In “Current Trends in Islamist Ideology: Volume 8,” Khalid Sindawi argues that originally most of the inhabitants were Sunni Muslim, and “[t]he first conversions to Shiism in the village occurred in 1945, performed by Muhammad Naji al-Ghafri, himself a convert to Shiism. His missionary activities were supported by the Iranian embassy in Damascus, which maintained regular contact with him and financed the construction of a husayniyya.” However Sindawi’s argument is based on dubious and anti-Shia source.

Note that a Hussainia is a variation of a Mosque for Shia Muslim. The main difference with a Mosque is that it is mainly associated with the remembrance of Ashoura.

It’s not my intention to examine the history of Shiism in Zarzour. What we know, is that a good part of its population is Shia, and, even according to anti-Shia Sunni extremist sources, they existed there at least since the 1940s (i.e. before the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and before Hafez Assad’s coup in 1970.)

On 12 December 2012, several FSA brigades stormed the village of Zarzour. Soon after, gunmen performed prayers on top of the Hussainia, while one of them was waving a black flag, apparently a salafist banner. The video showing the scene was stamped with the logo of Liwa’ Zi’ab al-Ghab (brigade of the wolves of the wood) which is part of Hay’at Himayat al-Madaniyin. The Hay’at states that it is a “nationalist independent commission that collaborates with the FSA” and includes several FSA brigades, and “it works to free Syria and transfers it to a civil state.”

In another video, the brigade of Amr ibn Moad Yakrob al-Zubaidi claimed the responsibility of the destruction of the “Rafida and Shia nests.” this brigade declares clearly on its Facebook page that it is part of the FSA.

During the prayer ceremony, the hussainia was set on fire, amid celebrations. Flags of Hezbollah can be seen burning on the ground, and another video says that the “impure” Shiaa were kicked out by the FSA.

To justify this attack, some claimed that the Hussainia was used as an ammunition depot by the Syrian Regime.

While the Hussainia was in fire, several videos show a tag on its wall, ironically stating “No and one thousand no to sectarian strife”.


Screen capture of a video showing the tag “No and one thousand no to sectarian strife” on the wall of the Hussainia in Zarzour.

Nearly at the same time, the minaret of another but smaller Hussainia in the same village was destroyed by another FSA brigade, the Ahrar al-Jabal al-Wastani, which belongs to the brigade of Ahfad al-Rassoul.

While the FSA is a loose coalition of a multitude of fighting groups, some are opportunists, others are islamists, and many have already defected to the more powerful islamist formations, we also have to acknowledge that the FSA leadership or other FSA brigades rarely condemn or oppose such acts.

Weeks after, in a video published on 27 February, the Hussainia was converted into a Sunni mosque, under the name of al-Farouq Omar. In later videos, uploaded respectively on 16 April and 15 August, the name was changed to the mosque of Aisha Umm al-Mu’minin. In the second video, a banner of Brigades of Suqqur al-Sham (the Sham Falcons brigade) which is part of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), was hanged on the construction.

Another change also took place between the February 27 and the April 16 videos, and that on the level of the discourse towards Shia residents in the village. While in the former it was claimed that the Shia were originally Sunni villagers from Zarzour who were converted to Shiism 80 years ago, in the latter the Shia are considered as wealthy foreigners, mainly from Kuwait or Qatar.

Several Syrian activists and revolutionaries expressed their dismay for the burning on the Hussainia, committed by what it should have been the moderate and secular army of the revolution. Some news media covered also this attack, and the incident attracted the condemnation of Human Rights Watch. But nearly none of them addressed the latter issue of conversion.

This conversion marked a landmark in the course of events in Syria. Contrary to destruction or vandalism, it represents the attempt to wipe out the memory, and to create a new one. And not only the memory of the place, but also of the people. The evolution of the discourse depicted Shia as foreigners, with the implication that they were never part of the Syrian people, and they will never be. These foreigners are also portrayed as wealthy, which means not only they are disconnected from the realities of the impoverished majority of Syrians, but that they also took advantage of the Syrians to enrich themselves.

And maybe this language of distanciation and that recreation of memory, are among the major alarming changes in Syria, that only few are paying attention to.

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Follow me on Twitter: @hisham_ashkar

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