By Joe Snell | October 2022
Wine making in the Assyrian village of Dehe is a tradition that goes back centuries.
But as hundreds of people departed this northern Iraqi village in recent years due to armed conflicts and a lack of job prospects, some feared the tradition had left with them.
With the support of Assyrians in surrounding communities, a new wine festival seeks to retain Dehe’s storied history, pass it on to young people and keep the wine flowing.
“The people of Dehe don’t have support, they don’t have young people anymore,” said Maryam Shmoil, an Assyrian from Iraq who leads the youth and women empowerment organization Assuritu. “If we don’t support each other, there will be no more Assyrians there.”
Every corner of Dehe, a village in the Sapna valley near Iraq’s border with Turkey, is brimming with stories. On one street, a church dates back to the 5th century, another to the 10th century. And during the Seyfo genocide in World War I, many Assyrians fleeing Tyari, an area in the Hakkari region in Turkey, sought refuge here. Its population continued to grow, and by 1961, over 600 people called Dehe home.
But the village was destroyed during the Anfal campaign, an operation carried out by Iraq’s Ba-athist regime in the 1980s. All families in Dehe reportedly fled. People slowly returned in the 1990s and early 2000s, culminating in an initiative to build 56 new homes and other infrastructure. It’s estimated that by 2012, about 250 people moved back.
But ongoing Turkish bombings into northern Iraq have since scared many away. Today, fewer than 30 people live here, and nearly all young people are gone.
Winemaking in the Middle East dates back to biblical times. Assyrians in the ancient empire beginning in 2,500 BC were renowned for their expansive planting of vineyards and the production of wine. It was a major part of the ancient empire’s economy.
Assyrians today continue the tradition, gathering grapes in home gardens and monasteries to produce simple blends. Some villages, including Dehe, continue the traditional methods of semi-drying grapes under the sun before gathering them to be squashed in a hawisla, or large bucket. And the traditional fermentation process takes about 40 days, unlike the two-week period that is used today by introducing different strains of yeast.
Shmoil had the idea of hosting a festival in the village two years ago to support those still in the area that were making wine in the traditional way and to pass on its heritage to younger generations.
“Our youth are far from our traditions,” Shmoil said. “We are developing and improving things, but we need to do this without forgetting our traditions. We have to learn and protect it.”
After a year-long delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s event, organized by Assuritu and the Kolokhta Association, took place on Sept. 16-17. The first day began with introductions and activities for about 30 participants that had arrived from nearby communities including Duhok, Sapna, Bebedeh and Khomaneh. Yousif Odisho, an Assyrian from Bebedeh, presented a lecture about the references to wine in Assyrian literature.
Participants then heard about Dehe’s history and how its people are living today. In the evening, participants split into groups to collect both black and white grapes.
Local villagers began the second day with workshops on the ancient and traditional winemaking processes. A new hawisla was then built and the collected grapes were loaded inside. Groups took turns stomping them, sometimes dancing khigga while doing it.
Some of the elderly people of the village gathered to watch in amusement and clap along to the music.
“A man from the village came up to me during the event and said bisema raba (thank you very much),” said David Gewargis, an Assyrian based in Duhok. “You could tell they were really happy to see us and to see youth being active, gathering, dancing and having fun and doing an activity.”
The experience brought tradition to life for Gewargis, who has never witnessed the winemaking process first-hand despite his mother being from a village in the Sapna Valley.
“We go to Assyrian houses and they tell us they make wine and start explaining it, but to actually witness the process step by step is different than when you hear about it,” he said. “You’re closer to the tradition and you’re passing on that knowledge, that heritage.”
The wine will now ferment for 40 days before villagers package it for selling.
This year’s festival was simple, Shmoil said, and that’s why she’s reluctant to call it the first annual event. Instead, it laid the seeds for a much larger week-long gathering in the future, and one that travels to different villages each year, including Barwar and Nahla.
Moving the event to different sites is important, she said, because Dehe isn’t the only Assyrian village with a declining population and unique traditions.
“This village has a great history,” Shmoil said. “If we want to protect our identity, we have to protect our villages.”