Assyrian Aid Society of America’s third annual “King Ashurnasirpal Dinner Gala” hosted among artifacts of popular Mesopotamian gallery
June 2019 | By Joe Snell | Photos by Joe Snell
CHICAGO – Members of the Assyrian Aid Society of America (AAS-A) and guests gathered at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago on May 25 for the Third Annual King Ashurnasirpal Dinner Gala, an evening that showcases Assyrian history while also encouraging support for future projects.
“We wanted to link something here in Chicago with the homeland,” said newly elected AAS-A Vice President Renya Benjamen. “What’s really unique in this city is that we have this gem of the Oriental Institute, which was one of the first to start excavating in Iraq and find the ruins of Nimrud. This is a special event to bring our guests to a piece of the homeland and link what’s important for us, which is our people, our homeland, to the people of Chicago.”
CONVINCING THE MUSEUM
In 2016, as the President of the Chicago chapter of AAS-A, Renya attended a private “curator talk” at the Oriental Institute, a research organization and museum at the University of Chicago founded in 1919 and opened to the public in 1931 that is devoted to the study of the ancient Near East. After the event, she approached museum curator Kiersten Neumann and proposed a dinner event hosted inside the Mesopotamian gallery. The museum was initially reluctant because they didn’t open their space to public organizations.
“I told her this is affecting the people that are directly impacted by what was destroyed in Iraq,” Renya told the Journal. “It would be such a monumental event to hold something here to appreciate what you’ve preserved and also to appreciate that we have to preserve what’s remaining.”
Neumann, a PhD in Near Eastern Art and Archaeology, has spoken at Assyrian lectures in San Jose as well as on the Berkeley campus. She was keen on developing new programs at the Institute specifically targeted towards Assyrian history including family programming, academic sit-down lectures and gallery talks focused on particular objects. The dinner gala, she told the Journal, was an opportunity for the Institute to see another perspective on Assyrian history.
“I’ve always found it very interesting when I give a tour to someone from the Assyrian community and to understand their associations with objects in the museum and the stories they have related to an object or to an event,” Neumann said. “The Lamassu I know from my perspective of archaeology and the ancient cuneiform text, but being able to engage with someone who has a different perspective or other stories about history is equally interesting… We have a large community of Assyrians here and I think that’s something that is important for us to continue to develop.”
In 2017, AAS-A became the first organization to host a dinner inside the museum.
In order to use the space, AAS-A has to go through an approvals process with a museum committee that includes reviewing everything from the layout of the tables to controlling the humidity of the room with a designated door handler to limiting the number of guests to 70. The committee even monitors the decibel level of the microphones. No dark drinks or sauces such as red wine or whiskey are allowed and items entering the space go through a rigorous check by museum staff. The first year of the gala, for example, the museum had to individually inspect ever flower that would serve as a centerpiece to make sure there were no bugs that could damage the exhibit.
The name “King Ashurnasirpal” was selected by AAS-A, Renya told the Journal, because King Ashurnasirpal II was an Assyrian king who, after rebuilding Nimrud and celebrating his inauguration in 879 B.C, arranged a large palace banquet for all city residents.
Opening remarks at this year’s event were provided by Renya and AAS-A Chicago Chapter President Sonny Khoshaba in the museum’s Edgar and Deborah Jannotta Mesopotamian Gallery. Special addresses were made by AAS-A President Ashur Yoseph and Assyrian Aid Society of Iraq (AAS-I) President Ashur Eskrya.
Two recognition awards were presented. Peter Bityou, who recently retired from AAS-A, was honored with a plaque for his nearly 26 years of work for the organization. Most recently, Bityou pushed the organization’s name in DC and their work with USAID. Dr. Rouel Gewargis was also recognized for his long-time service to the national organization.
The Assyrian Aid Society of America was founded in 1991 as a non-profit and now has eight chapters in major Assyrian communities across the country. According to their website, the goal of the volunteer organization is to help Assyrians in need and promote culture and heritage. The AAS-A works to fund specific projects, including monthly contributions for Assyrian schools and helping pay teacher salaries in Northern Iraq. They also work on special shorter-term initiatives including building an irrigation channel for an Assyrian village in Northern Iraq.
CHOOSING A THEME OF ‘CONTINUITY”
The theme of ‘Continuity’ was chosen for this year’s event because Renya said Assyrians have a responsibility to continue the preservation of the community.
“If we’re proud that we have people living in the homeland, seeing what they accomplish, seeing what they preserve, then we have a responsibility to ensure that it can continue,” she said.
The theme was highlighted in the dinner menu, catered by Assyrian Kitchen. Atorina Zomaya, founder of the Chicago-based business, based her dinner choices on three Mesopotamian clay tablets, known as the Yale Culinary Tablets or the “world’s oldest cookbook.” Zomaya and chef Dan Sarkiss molded these recipes to today’s palette. As the courses progressed, they became more and more modern.
Keynote speaker Dr. Alda Benjamen, Kluge Fellow, Library of Congress and Consulting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke about the role of language in preserving the Assyrian history. Dr. Benjamen’s research is focused on the intangible (i.e. oral narratives, traditions, agricultural knowledge) history of minorities, particularly the Assyrians, during the 1960s through the 1980s. She urged the audience to begin documenting stories within their own families.
“I think often we care about documenting the lives of figures and events we deem significant but undervalue the experiences of the so-called ordinary people which are in fact very important,” Dr. Benjamen said. “Talk to your grandparents and family members and try to preserve their stories. Take an interest in the elderly people in your community. Ask questions about where they come from, what life was like, and what kind of traditions they practiced.”