Language as politics: Nineb Lamassu promotes heart of Assyrian identity

The Assyrian Journal | May 2018 | Photos contributed | By Robina Lajin

Cambridge, England – Nineb Lamassu cannot take credit for his passport reading Assyria. As a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge, Lamassu says his wife Susan did the convincing with Australian passport officials to change their place of birth.

Today, Nineb fights for Assyrian rights, including the right to name Assyria as a place of birth, through his PhD work on language studies as well as through a number of authored books, an Assyrian language publishing company, Enheduanna Publishing, and an app designed for Assyrian language books.

“Assyria is in your head,” Lamassu said. “If you don’t believe in Assyria and don’t keep it in your heart, it can never exist on the ground.”

Books

A PASSION FOR LANGUAGE

Born as Nineb Giwargis Toma Al Bazi in the ancient Assyrian city of Arrapkha (modern day Kirkuk), Nineb grew up in a refugee camp in Iran. His close-knit community kept their Assyrian traditions alive and promoted higher education, including putting up white cloths to hold church services and teaching children the languages of Assyrian, English, and French.

Lamassu and his family later moved to New Zealand and then Australia, where he met his wife Susan, a daughter of the late singer George Homeh. They finally settled on England, where Nineb changed his surname to Lamassu.

“I wanted a name from our homeland of ancient Assyria,” he said. “When my wife and I got married and had a son, we didn’t want our son to have my last name which is of Jewish origin or Susan’s last name which is of Persian origin. We wanted him to have an Assyrian last name.”

While in the UK, Lamassu studied Ancient and Eastern Studies in Archaeology and Ancient Languages at London’s Global University, where his work included excavating archaeological sites in Turkey and studying language courses consisting of Akkadian, Sumerian, and Biblical Aramaic.

His first Master’s Degree was in Biblical Aramaic and his second was in Modern Aramaic.

Preserving the Assyrian language is what Lamassu considers his passion. In his opinion, by losing the language – which according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is already endangered – Assyrians will lose their identity.

“Language is the one part of our identity which is forgotten the easiest,” Lamassu said. “Language is not only teaching how to speak but it is also in our literature.”

He hopes that reading Assyrian literature will one day be so common in our communities that it could reach the level of international literature.

“Assyrian literature must move us back to Assyria,” Lamassu said. “It must make every Assyrian man and woman say, ‘Wow, what a beautiful language.’”

For Lamassu, one thing missing in the global Assyrian community is a way to make the youth fall in love with the language.

Lamassu refers to Bet Kanu, an Assyrian organization that uses cartoon videos and games to teach children the language in a playful way, as a powerful tool for the youngest demographics.

The current language tools in place, he says, fail to address an age range of Assyrians.

“We have a huge gap between children, adults, and older adults. This gap is called the youth. We must use more creative ways to make our youth fall in love with the language,” he said.

In order to preserve the language at a local level, Lamassu believes that communities must begin hosting workshops, online lectures, promoting apps and engaging in social networks.

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LANGUAGE IS POLITICS

To support his work with the Assyrian language, Lamassu says it is important to get involved in politics. Every Assyrian, he says, is born political because of the oppression they experience by being denied an identity and certain rights.

During the Baath regime in Iraq, for example, he points out that it was forbidden to partake in anything related to the Assyrian heritage.

“The fact that you would speak the language and write in the language was a political act,” he said. “Language is politics.”

Lamassu calls on all Assyrian academics to be brave enough to speak up for their people, even in spite of risking their reputations or losing their high-ranking positions.

“I did not become an academic to earn money,” he said. “I became an academic to serve humanity and my people in particular.”

In order to accomplish this, he believes Assyrian organizations need to change their tactics and better utilize tools such as social media. According to Lamassu, only if Assyrians get their hope and faith restored, then they will have a chance to someday have a country.

“We need to reach Assyrians who do not care about their people and to do that we need integrity, sincerity, and practical ways of how to implement the vision,” he said. “We must understand that times have changed and we should change with them. We must not have self-interest and we have to find creative ways to move forward.”


Lamassu is running as an independent candidate on the ABNAA Al-Nahrain List 154. Parliamentary elections will be held in Iraq on May 12, 2018.

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