“Khigga,” “sharah” and “hareesa” are some of the most recognizable and iconic words to an Assyrian – an ancient Christian ethnic group indigenous to northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey that speaks various dialects of Neo-Aramaic – yet you probably have almost no idea what or who I am talking about.
I am, I suspect, the only Assyrian on campus. When I’m asked about my ethnicity and I say “Assyrian,” in foolish hopes that, by emphasizing the first syllable, the person will somehow understand what I am saying. He or she immediately either responds: “Oh, so you’re Syrian,” or, after at least a five-second pause, the dreaded and all too familiar, “Wait, didn’t you guys go extinct thousands of years ago?”
After this game of 21 questions is over, I usually have to delve into a brief history lesson in which I say that even though the name fell into oblivion with the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C.E, its people were never destroyed. I then hear a faint, “Oh.” They’re already uninterested and I give up.
Unfortunately, this situation isn’t a rare occurrence. It’s become a part of my initial conversation with almost anyone I have met who asks about which ethnicity my name is from.
During the past, and even here at Temple, when I’ve told people that I speak a modern dialect of Aramaic, which was the de facto language of western Asia nearly 2,600 years ago, I have been tested – the person asked me to say a few words in the language, and I complied, saying “shlamalukh,” meaning “hello,” and a few other words, only to have the person to tell me I am lying and don’t how to speak the language I claim to know.
And it’s always been like this. Growing up as one of the only Assyrians in Philadelphia, and as the son of an Iranian Assyrian immigrant, I didn’t expect that Temple would have any Assyrian students, since the total population numbers around 1.5-2 million throughout the world, and the Assyrian population in the U.S. is nearly 110,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It is still recovering from the genocide that decimated half of the Assyrian population nearly 100 years ago.
It wasn’t until a few weeks into the semester that, as I was riffling through the list of cultural clubs on OwlConnect, I became not unsurprised, but upset – upset that, just like my four years at high school, I would again be acting as a sort of emissary whose responsibility was to educate students whenever they ask me about who I am.
With religious and cultural organizations present on campus, students feel free to celebrate holidays, talk about upcoming cultural events, understand and enjoy the music or simply speak to each other in their respective languages about even the most trivial topics.
These clubs are almost essential in helping a student keep their identity. Without them, it is much more difficult and the chance of a student maintaining their identity decreases.
Eventually, the corollary of no clubs and nowhere to share or express one’s culture results in a loss of identity.
And for an Assyrian, identity, an idea so abstract, it is paradoxically one of the most salient and concrete objects they have.
With almost no Assyrian organizations outside of California, Michigan and Chicago, and no organizations on campus, there have been myriad times at Temple where I have thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be much easier to simply stop telling people who I am and who Assyrians are? Are my explanations even worth it?” Some part of me still believes it is.
With such a small population in the United States and throughout the globe, in general, you can see why community is so important.
Some students on campus have asked why I care so much about being Assyrian. I care because no one else cares. When one’s history consists of genocide, nonstop massacres, persecution and oppression, someone has to remember it.
With no Assyrian state, this affirmation of who I am is the only way to connect with others, even if they are thousands of miles away.
Not mentioning I am Assyrian is detrimental because it only perpetuates the idea that we are not here and haven’t been here for thousands of years.
Since no more than 1.2 million Assyrians remain in their homeland across four nations and most of the population lives in the diaspora, throughout the Middle East and the West, I am doing a disservice to myself by not mentioning who I am.
The more I think about those stationary ancient ruins – the stones, monuments and statues of the ancient kings – the more I believe that the Assyrian people, although scattered, are also a part of this phrase: They too are the ruins of Nineveh.
Assyrian activist Rosie Malek-Yonan once said, “I may not have a country, but my country is in me.”
And if giving a short lecture is what it takes to educate one person, and reaffirm that my country is in me, so be it. It’s the least I can do.
Romsin McQuade can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.