August 2019 | By Joe Snell | Photos and Video by Joe Snell
CHICAGO – By the early afternoon of the first day of the Assyrian Food Festival of Chicago, the Morton Grove Park District was already swelling with thousands of Assyrians and non-Assyrians waiting in lines for kebabs, listening to live music and watching traditional dancing.
When the dust had settled late Sunday evening, organizers estimate nearly 10,000 attendees across two days.
“Due to the fact that we don’t have a country of our own called Assyria, I think this is the best way to tell everyone out there that Assyrians still exist,” said Maureen Nano, a member of the festival’s executive organizational committee. “We’re close to a 7,000 year old culture and we are still alive, what better way to showcase that?”
The festival, which mixes authentic food, live entertainment, vendors and activities for children, began in 2017 (read more here) and is hosted by the Assyrian Church of the East (ACOE) Diocese of the Eastern United States.
This year’s event was held on Aug. 24 – 25 and attended by His Grace Mar Paulus Benjamin alongside Mayor of Skokie George Van Dusen, Mayor of Morton Grove Dan DiMaria, Illinois State Senator Ram Villivalam and State Representative Yehiel Kalish Assyrian singer Malden Ishoeva also traveled from Russia to perform on Saturday evening.
Allen Yalda set up a stand at the festival for his new business, ANU Coffee. The brand mixes Assyrianism with coffee and tea by branding every product with Assyrian names, phrases and logos.
Years ago, Yalda said, an American professor asked him why he was proud of being Assyrian. Yalda responded that it’s not about nationalism but it’s a way of living. He hopes to showcase that lifestyle through coffee brand.
“The hospitality of Assyrians – there is nothing like it,” he said. “I’m bringing coffee and tea and products that everybody can use and drink, but I’m bringing it with that love and passion of Assyrians when they provide hospitality.”
Only Assyrian money is accepted at the booths and festival-goers must exchange American money for $1, $5, $10 and $20 Assyrian bills.
“The main thing with the Assyrian currency is to basically transform the festival into Assyria,” said festival volunteer Lina Eshaya. “We don’t have a country today… so it’s as if they’ve now arrived to Assyria.”
Rachel Sarah Thomas, a singer based in Chicago, was one of the festival’s opening performances. Thomas began getting more involved in the community in 2015 when she saw ISIS videos of beheadings and the Lamassu being destroyed. Singing, Thomas said, is her way to express her feelings.
“[This festival] makes us visible and in being visible, your identity even within yourself is strengthened,” Thomas said. “My instinct was to create. It’s an act of creation. You’re making something new and you’re asserting yourself because they’re trying to diminish you.”