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Shopping tips, donkey jokes and gossip: Syrian diaspora logs on to revive ritual morning chats

(Florence Lo/Reuters)

BEIRUT — Suspended in their global diaspora, Syrians have begun returning to an Arab morning ritual of trading gossip and catching up over coffee, a practice that now offers a reassuring sense of normalcy.

But instead of finding a comfortable corner of their home or building to chat over their tiny cups of cardamom-laced brew for the daily “sobhiyyeh,” they are waking up and logging on.

The sobhiyyeh may have migrated to Clubhouse, the audio social media app, but the topics in one recent chat were typical — jokes about a news item on donkeys stolen in Saudi Arabia; the best places to buy hareesa, a syrupy semolina dessert; the best oil-pickled eggplant sandwich in the Syrian city of Homs.

But one woman now living in Montreal shared that she had been on an impossible hunt for hareesa. A fellow from Homs, now in Europe, lamented he hadn’t tasted his favorite sandwich in years. The chatter grew bleak, a frequent turn in the nostalgic conversations among exiled Syrians.

The men and women in this Clubhouse “room” have never met, but they have quickly become intimate pandemic companions. The absence of text or imagery produces a sense of security, though perhaps a false one in groups that grow too large.

Obai Sukar, 38, a resident of Michigan who said he juggles five jobs, craved a break from the constant stream of English his work requires. He wanted home to feel closer.

When he entered a room of Syrians discussing nothing in particular, he stayed muted until someone noticed him and said hello. “I have 15 minutes for my lunch break, and I thought I’d spend it with you,” Sukar said in a soft voice. Warm voices, all in Syrian-accented Arabic, greeted him.

A week earlier, the others had found out that Sukar spent a decade working as a sound engineer for Spacetoon, one of the Middle East’s most popular children’s TV channels. For the Syrians, the shy Sukar dripped with cool; Spacetoon had shaped a whole generation with its Arabic-dubbed Japanese anime shows and poetic theme songs.

“You’re a celebrity to us,” said 25-year-old Salma, her sentence punctuated by her musical laugh.

Syrians cite many reasons for flocking to Clubhouse. It is immediate, unfiltered, spontaneous — and voice-only. Sukar said he does not worry about being judged for his messy hair or for still being in bed. “There is only the idea you are communicating with your voice,” he said. “That’s what appealed to me.”

Much of the Syrian diaspora is relatively new, composed of millions of people who fled a war that has torn the country apart since 2011, when protesters sought to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

Salma, who asked that her family name be withheld for her safety, recalled a Clubhouse discussion about the three-year siege of Homs, when government artillery, mortar and rocket fire leveled rebel-held parts of the city, altering whole neighborhoods beyond recognition.

“I’d read about the siege. I’d watched the videos. But I’d never listened to someone’s perspective from the inside,” said Salma, who now lives in New Haven, Conn. “And then he was talking to someone who was out [of Homs]. He was asking him, ‘How did you see us, from the outside?’ ”

It was on Clubhouse that she befriended another Syrian girl living abroad — and then found out that their grandmothers were best friends back home and that the girl’s great-aunt had taught Arabic to Salma’s mother. These connections make it feel as if home is within reach.

“I feel like with life in the diaspora, whether you like it or not, you feel distance from those memories,” Salma said. At the same time, she said, she feels like an outsider among Arab Americans raised in the United States. They grew up watching Cartoon Network; she grew up on Spacetoon.

Clubhouse works only on ­iPhones, which are unaffordable for most people in Syria as the country faces a worsening economic crisis. Even among the wealthy in Syria, the app has not garnered much attention, and long, daily Internet cuts make Clubhouse less accessible there. So among Syrians, it is mostly those outside the country who are using the app.

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It has gained popularity elsewhere in the Middle East, where some governments are already showing discomfort with the unregulated conversations. Users in the United Arab Emirates last week reported disruptions and lags in the app. Egyptian television said the application supports “terrorist cells,” claiming it is a danger to national security.

For Syrians, Facebook has been the most popular social media platform since 2011, when protests swept the country and videos of protests filled timelines. Since then, feeds have been peppered with photos of dead babies and bombed-out buildings.

Taha Bali, a Syrian who lives in Boston, said Clubhouse offers a respite from Facebook, a tainted platform for many Syrians on which fights and bad blood are endless. He said Clubhouse’s live conversations humanize interactions. “I think when people are using their own voices, it is much harder to be abrasive, to be inappropriate,” he said. “You still carry that basic expectation of some sort of social decorum.”

The unfettered nature of conversation inspired one 27-year-old to open a room on LGBTQ and feminist issues. This Syrian, who comes from a conservative country where most families shun LGBTQ individuals, said the reception was “incredible.” The Clubhouse conversations helped ease his sense of isolation, which for queer Syrians goes beyond those of war and the pandemic.

“I knew I wasn’t the only queer, progressive Syrian who is active in the political scene,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be revealed as LGBTQ. Clubhouse connected him with like-minded queer Syrians all over the world.

For Salma, the app is a window into the varied experiences of Syrians around the globe. Someone working comfortably in the Persian Gulf, for example, has a wildly different life from an ex-prisoner in Germany advocating for human rights or an asylum seeker in Canada.

But the application also makes clear what they have in common, giving her a fix of Syrian songs, recipes and chatter.

“They make me feel at home,” she said. “But they also help reinforce the memories I have, so I don’t forget them.”

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