May 2020 | By Laurisa Sastoque | Photos contributed
In his story Seventy Thousand Assyrians, 20th-century American-Armenian author William Saroyan writes about his encounter with Theodore Badal, an Assyrian in Iowa, who laments the evil doings that history has provided for his people.
“We [the Assyrians] are washed up as a race, we’re through, it’s all over, why should I learn to read the language?” is the shocking question that Badal asks, as he reflects upon a culture pushed to “ancient” bounds. “We have no writers, we have no news,” he says. In turn, Saroyan ponders the ever-shrinking number of writers in his community, and the pressure he feels to write stories that please the American public, rather than “the heart of man.”
Saroyan’s reflection speaks for the crucial work of writers as carriers of culture and memory. As a second-generation immigrant, he looked up to the remaining Armenian authors as exponents of his origins, and sought to connect with fellow immigrants through his works. Saroyan lived just one generation after the ignition of the Assyrian Diaspora, where thousands of Assyrians spread from the “old world” into areas all around the globe.
Today, approximately 100 years after the Assyrian genocide, we remember the writers who, as a product of their history, fled their homeland to disseminate their work and culture in their new homes. Three major exponents of the Assyrian nationalist movement, Naum Faiq, Farid Nazha and Freydun Atturaya, not only shared their participation in the diaspora, but also their passion for writing as an anchor to their background.
The earliest of them, Naum Faiq, was a Syriac Orthodox teacher and a journalist born in Diyarbakir, Ottoman Empire in February 1867. During his early years, he attended a local school where he received instruction in both Ottoman Turkish and Syriac traditions. He taught in his city and nearby villages until 1910. Later, he wrote for a local newspaper called Star of The East, written in Assyrian and translated to the dominant languages of his region like Ottoman Turkish and Arabic. This publication was one of the pioneering journalistic outlets for the Syriac Christian community in the Ottoman Empire.
After facing religious persecution in 1912, he fled to the United States. However, his relocation did not stop him from carrying out his mission. He began to work for more newspapers and magazines including Intibah and Huyodo, even creating his own Assyrian-themed newspaper Beth-Nahrin in 1916. He died in New Jersey in 1930.
The importance of his figure relates to his Assyrian-oriented writings that called for a sense of unity and return to traditions among the community. During his work for Intibah (The Awakening), he wrote one of his most famous poems “Awaken, son of Assyria.”
Through lines such as “Let refuge be taken in wakefulness,” he calls for collaboration against the misfortunes that threaten to shatter Assyrians’ hope. As author Robert Isaf described in his study Awakening, or Watchfulness: Naum Faiq and Syriac Language Poetry at the Fall of the Ottoman Empire, Faiq’s many writings were known to motivate Assyrians to feel closer to their culture in a time of separation.
Famously inspired by Faiq’s writings, journalist Farid Nazha accomplished a similar task as proliferator of culture. Born in 1894 in Hama, Ottoman Empire, Nazha was sent by his father to Argentina in 1911 as religious conflict emerged in his hometown.
After attending university in Buenos Aires, he founded a cultural club called the Ephremic Society in 1934 that appealed to members of the Assyrian community from across Argentina. Through that same society, he founded the newspaper “Asociación Asiria” which spread throughout the world as a medium for discussion of Assyrian affairs, and Faiq himself became a columnist.
A contemporary, Freydun Atturaya, extended his abilities as a poet and a writer to the realms of military medicine and politics. Born in 1891 in Urmia, Persia, Atturaya lived in constant conflict with authorities. This ultimately led to his execution while imprisoned in Tbilisi, Soviet Georgia, in 1926.
Atturaya fled his homeland at a young age, first for Tbilisi and then for the Russian Empire to pursue medicine. Upon his return to Urmia in 1917, he was one of the founders of the Assyrian Socialist Party, where he wrote a manifesto stating his goals of Assyrian unity and nationalism. The imprisonment and persecution that he encountered in his later years were due to accusations of spying for the British government and to unrest caused by his nationalist ideals.
In his famous 1917 poem “Ya Nishra D’Tkhumee” he writes to the Eagle of Tkhuma to help the ancient people of Assyria in their journey and salvation. He declares his devotion for the cause, in the lines “bury my remains as one who sacrificed it all.”
This legacy is visible in Henri Charr’s 2015 documentary “A Man Before His Time,” in which he tells the story of Freydun’s life as a martyr for the freedom of the Assyrians.
A Written Legacy
These three men, all active members of the Assyrian nationalist movement, came to display instances of long-distance nationalism. At a time when Assyrians were attacked on numerous fronts, each faced a duty to create a print capitalism, as defined by nationalism scholar Benedict Anderson, that allowed for a sense of community in separation.
Joseph Hermiz, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, explains, “The exilic experience shared by these intellectuals was the start of what has become a long history of Assyrians in diaspora finding ways to connect with Assyrians in the homeland and being a voice for those voiceless Assyrians.”
Trajectories like Faiq’s are evidence of the raising of the stakes after exile — with the resounding terror of the genocide, Assyrian identity was more threatened than ever. Stories and narratives were, thus, more indispensable than ever.
The message that William Saroyan sends is one of encouragement to authors who aim to write stories about their communities as a means for revival and praise. Saroyan writes,
“You find [stories] where I found them … the part of man, of Assyria as much as of England, that cannot be destroyed, the part that massacre does not destroy, the part that earthquake and war and famine and madness and everything else cannot destroy.”
There will always be a distinction between writing in the homeland and writing abroad. Today, as the Assyrian Policy Institute reports, there are ever-growing obstacles for journalists in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran who aim to tell the stories of Assyrians in their homeland. In their respective contexts, however, each Assyrian carries the duty of participating in efforts to create community in their distance.
Saroyan’s perspective on the many stories that immigrants have to tell about their heritage and their inherent adaptation points at how language and narratives maintain a culture alive.
Faiq, Nazha and Atturaya utilized their writings for this exact purpose when the Assyrian community was undergoing a terrible challenge at the turn of the 20th century. This raises the question, as ever-growing challenges emerge for Assyrians around the world, how many stories are waiting to be told?