I’ve written many stories about the local Assyrian American community’s struggle for recognition. When I wrote about a concert of Assyrian folk music only in February, it seemed as if Assyrians would finally have some formal representation on their homeland. Today, only five months later, their rightful lands, the Nineveh plains have gone to Islamic extremists, and frankly, no one cares or listens. The largest paper in Southern California, the LA Times, has rarely bothered to write about us (I wrote about Assyrians there as an intern in 1996). What people don’t realize is that when a terrorist group eliminates a people, that terrorist group won’t stop unless they are held accountable. It will hunt down all they deem different. By the time our (Assyrian) plight is recognized, most of the Middle East will be in the hands of extemists. Women will have no rights. And I’ll be here to say: I told you so. In the meantime, for what it’s worth, here’s a story about how Assyrian folk music has managed to survive (Daily News, Feb. 26, 2014). The concert was organized by the Assyrian Aid Society.
Their songs were born in Mesopotamia, where villagers sang of the mystery behind a woman’s deep gaze, their love for their vast, verdant land between two rivers and the mountain ranges that stretch toward the sun.
Now, thousands of years after those folk songs were created, some of the same melodies that survived time, wars and assimilation will be heard Saturday in Glendale as part of a fundraising concert and dance performance held by the Assyrian Aid Society of America.
“This folk music is still very strong in our culture,” but has not been widely heard in the Western world, said Sargoun Issa, president of the Assyrian Aid Society’s Los Angeles Chapter.
Since 1991, the nonprofit, along with its national and international counterparts, has worked to rebuild homes, fund schools and provide medical needs to Assyrians in Iraq affected by the two Gulf wars. But Saturday’s event also is a fundraiser to provide humanitarian aid to the Assyrian refugees who have been caught in the middle of Syria’s civil war.
An estimated half-million Assyrians fled to Syria in 2003 during the second Gulf War because of a surge of Islamic extremist attacks against them and other Christian minorities.
Now, Syria’s current civil war has forced many of those same families to return to the borders of Iraq. But their plight has been largely ignored and they remain an invisible minority. Assyrians are the indigenous people of Mesopotamia, presently Iraq, where the last and largest concentration of Aramaic-speaking people in the world have lived for thousands of years. Because many Assyrians call Iraq and Iran their homeland, they have been confused with Arabs and Persians.
Some relief may come in the near future. Last month, the Iraqi Council of Ministers approved a plan to establish three new provinces in Iraq, one of them the Nineveh Plains, which holds the largest population of Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs. The legislation may make way for Assyrians to form a self-administered region.
Still, even after a mass exodus from their homeland and even within the diaspora, Assyrian music has managed to survive.
During a rehearsal for Saturday’s performance, musicians warmed up on a zornah, or wind pipe, and a dowlah, a drum. Mehdi Bagheri, who is from Iran, practiced on a kamacheh, a small, cello-like instrument.
Singer Sargon Youkhana said his songs celebrate the beauty of everyday life, a theme all people, no matter who or where they come from, can relate to.
“Music doesn’t have an ID,” Youkhana said. “It’s for everyone.”
Singer Helen Saint Vincent said her goal is to expose more people to traditional folk music before it is forgotten.
“I want to rebuild this forgotten music,” Vincent said. “We (Assyrians) are an old nation, but we are scattered, and we have no land. We shouldn’t forget our music because this is part of world history.”
Saturday’s performance is one of two arts events sponsored by the Assyrian Aid Society. An exhibit featuring works by several artists from Iraq, Iran, and Syria will open Friday in Montrose and run through Sunday.
Artist and poet Paul Batou said the themes presented in the work transcend differences in religion and ancestry.
“Artists from those countries are sending a message of peace using the colorful art that explores the culture and beauty of their homeland,” Batou said. “These artists believe that peace, art and education are the keys for change, a change needed for beauty to overcome hate, love to overcome war and destruction.”
Issa said the goal behind these events is to raise awareness of the Assyrian culture through the arts, so they are not lost.
“This heritage doesn’t just belong to Assyrians, but to all humans,” Issa said. “When we lose a part of a nation’s culture, all human beings lose a part of human heritage.”