Symbols of the Revolution

As our time in Hatay came to an end, the Syrian refugee who had been working with us gave us gifts of handmade scarves to honor the Syrian revolution. Her generous gift prompted me to look into other symbols of the revolution.

The Syrian flag has red, white, and black stripes with 2 green stars in the center. Demonstrators and members of the Free Syrian Army often wear clothing displaying the colors of the flag.

The word al-thawra, an arabic word for revolution is also a symbol of the Syrian revolution and the Free Syrian Army. You can find al-thawra stitched on garments, engraved on jewelry, and in art pieces like this one, presented to us by an artist in one of the refugee camps in Hatay.


After spending a weekend in Hatay and really delving into the Syrian conflict, I heard the word “Alawite” being thrown around a lot. Who are the Alawites? Are they Muslims?

In Hatay I observed people of many different faiths engaging socially as friends and business partners. I even snapped a picture of these three men who are good friends– One is an Alawite (left,) One is Christian (middle,) and one is Sunni Muslim (right.)

While walking around Antakya, I asked casual questions about what it meant to be Alawite. One man I met at a jewelry shop, Mehmood, was a practicing Alawite, or Alawi. He explained that Alawites are a branch of the twelver sect of Shi’a Islam.

In a nutshell, it seems the schism of Sunni and Shi’a Islam is rooted in a disagreement of the succession of the caliphate after the Prophet Muhammed’s death. The name Alawite is reportedly derived from the name Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the last of the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” of Islam. Shi’a Muslims apparently regard Ali as the first Shi’a Imam.

Our translator Mehmet gave us his interpretation. He said Alawites do not attend “normal” mosques, and he understood that many do not believe in the literal meaning of the Qura’an. They supposedly do not pray five times a day as observant Sunnis and Shi’as do. It is hard to strictly define what observant Alawites do and do not do, since their practices vary across nations and even neighborhoods and are highly disputed among other sects of Shiism.

Alawites are most highly concentrated in Syria, mainly in the cities of Hama and Homs. The current President of Syria, Bashar Al-Assad, is Alawite. While concentrated in Syria, Alawites reportedly make up only about 12% of the Syrian population.

Alawites in other countries are sometimes referred to as Nusairis or Ansaris.There is also a religious population in Turkey known as the Alevis. I find the distinction between Alawites and Alevis to be unclear.

In my quest to define what it means to be Alawite, a few people told me Alawites and Alevis were one and the same, while others told me they are separate faiths within the spectrum of Shiism that should not be confused. Even in my research, some sources claimed they were the same while some firmly refuted the same idea. A few of my questions regarding the Alawite faith are still unanswered, so my quest continues. I’ll keep you updated!

The Month of God

Today marked the first day of Rajab, the seventh month on the Islamic lunar calendar. The name Rajab is derived from the Arabic word rajaba, which means “to respect.” The two months before the holy month of Ramadan, the 9th month, are considered sacred months in which battles are prohibited. I find this fact interesting as we pack to leave for Hatay, the border region between Turkey and Syria, where many victims of Syrian political unrest seek refuge.

The Prophet Muhammed is quoted as saying, “God gave us twelve months in the year, eleven of which are ours and one of which belongs to God. What rewards God will give his servants in His month, no one knows, not even the Prophet(s).”

Some celebrations can be seen during the month of Rajab, especially by those who follow the “Twelver” sect of Shi’ah Islam. The more common practice during Rajab, however, is simply more strict observance and steadfastness in faith.

Ay Yildiz and Old Glory

In Istanbul, every day is the Fourth of July, so to speak. Even though Turkey actually declared its independence on May 19th, 1919, the amount of flags you can see waving on any given day is comparable to what you see in the US on our barbecues-and-fireworks holiday.

The crescent design of the Turkish flag is inspired by the old Ottoman flag, which also featured the color green. The new Turkish flag, however, incorporated the color red to symbolize the new secularism brought on by the beloved national hero Mustafa Kemal, who is often simply referred to as “Ataturk.” Images of Ataturk are often juxtaposed with the Turkish Flag. As the honored “Father of Turkey,” he is compared to Presidents Washington, Lincoln and Kennedy.

The Turkish flag is called Ay Yildiz, or Moon Star in the Turkish national anthem, much like how we refer to the American flag as a Star Spangled Banner. The vertical crescent and star are symbols of Islam, the dominant faith of Turkey. Flag etiquette in Turkey is also similar to the United States. The national flag flies above all other flags, it should not fly tattered or torn, and should not touch the ground.

I find it interesting to contrast the patriotism of my country, the USA, with that of Turkey in regards to flying a flag. While we proudly display our flags all over our communities for one day over the summer, the Turkish flag can be seen on almost every building, federal or not, every day of the year.

Cross-Cultural Connection: Kids are Kids

Yesterday morning after our delicious breakfast of Turkish pastries, we were given a crash course in foreign correspondence via Skype by NPR journalist Kelly McEvers. A piece of wisdom she gave us was to look for certain universal signs that we all share in human experience. Across the globe, the birth of a baby is a joyous occasion. A funeral is a day or days of mourning. The universal I have caught on to while in Turkey is that no matter where you are, children are children.

Whether you are taking a stroll through Beverly Hills or roaming the Tarlabasi in Turkey, when you see children, you can expect certain similarities. Even with the supposed overexposure of technology in some populations, when a child sees a piece of unfamiliar technology, their interest is piqued, and so begins their pursuit of their “new toy.”

I noticed this in our evening trip to the Tarlabasi, an impoverished and neglected neighborhood in Istanbul, comparable to an inner-city housing project in Chicago. As soon as my fellow reporter and roommate, Caroline, set up her tripod and camera on the street, she was swarmed with curious children anxious to look in the viewfinder. The less reserved ones insisted Caroline give them the camera, so they could take their own pictures. One boy asked me to take a picture of his soccer jersey then proceeded to show me his soccer skills by kicking a small ball across the street.

As we grow up and become more inhibited, it is a lot easier to spot cultural differences in the way we conduct ourselves, but this is just not the case with kids. All children like to play, and all children visibly display their fascination with new and unfamiliar toys. If you would like to put my observation to the test, next time you see a small child, whip out your cell phone and see what happens.