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1915 destroyed the hope of Assyrian society for the future


Standpoint of Turkey

1915 destroyed the hope of Assyrian society for the future

Feyyaz Kerimo


Feyyaz Kerimo

Writer and teacher

According to Feyyaz Kerimo, writer and teacher living in Sweden, the 1915 genocide had irrevocable effects on Assyrian identity which is made weaker and fell apart today. While, last events occurred in Iraq and Syria caused new immigration waves, an idea to return to Turkey is far away for new generations who were born and grown up in diaspora.  

Today, how Assyrians define their identities? Are there any changes occurred in recent years in this definition ?

Generally, the concept of national identity, occurred especially around language and history with the Renaissance. It expresses a common ground around some characteristics. As far as I am concerned, a national identity is firstly a “problem of belonging”.

Assyrians are identified as a “minority”, a “religious minority” or usually (even until today) a “community” in their own homeland Bethnahrin (Mesopotamia in Assyrian language). For example, the description of “community” is expressed by spin-doctors of government consciously in Turkey, because it is found beneficial. Such descriptions are not realist and real since they allow us to withdraw from our rights and freedoms as a people even if partly.

Since Assyrians were always left behind in territories where they live, they had to express themselves around the “church” and the “religion” which is the only organization that was remained standing. As going in compliance with the grain; they identified themselves as “Christians” among a Muslim majority for last 2000 years. Thus, Assyrians reply as “I am Christian” to the one of the fundamental questions of sociology as “Who are you?”. Because the only characteristic that distinguishes them from the majority of the society (Muslim) is being Christian (to the best of their knowledge).

But, Assyrian society faced with the same question when they went to diaspora after they were urged to emigrate from their homeland. For them, Europe was Christian and their own “homeland”. When they faced with this question, for example in Sweden,  they answered again as “I am Christian”. But, this time, they faced with the same question, again: “Okay, I understand, but who are you?” said Swedish. Because for a Swedish person, the religion is not one of distinguishing characteristics of an identity.

That time, Assyrians understood that, they need some other characteristics in order to express themselves other than being “Christian”. Thus, Assyrians, embarked on a quest of identity collectively in Diaspora. And this quest, which is not seem and improved so healthy,  caused a “polarization” among the Assyrian society.

If I would explain generally: There is a party which asserts that they are Aramaic since they speak Aramaic language; and there is another party which say that they are grandchildren/generation of Assyrians who established empires in Old Mesopotamia. Due to some fanatic “Aramaic” or “Assyrian” (such like supporting a football team) among these parties, this problem came to the point that these two parties denied each other. Today, the number of people, who make the same thing, is not very few.

When we mentioned about the Assyrian identity; in my opinion, all of those who live in the same territories (Mesopotamia) for six thousand years and those who speak in the same language (Western and Eastern Assyrian language) and have  a common cultural history within the historical process and who identify themselves as Assyrian, Chaldean, Assyrian, Aramaic, Maronite, Melkit, Yakubi, Nastouri, etc,  are children of the same and one community.

Today, the basic problem in the Assyrian identity, is such that, a common sense of belonging was created by basing the Assyrian national identity, which is also cut into small pieces, weakened, assimilated and atomized,  on an actual historical perspective.  This is, in consequence, a problem of conscious and illumination. This is also in the level of crawling in our country.  .

Here, in this context, identity depends on both “the conscious of me” and the “continuity of it”. In other words, it is not enough for people to know that who they are today. They have to reach to the conscious of “Who we were yesterday, who we are today and whom we want to be tomorrow”.  This awareness stipulates the revealing common sense of belonging that could reveal itself as in form of some symbols and the adaptation   - the comprehension - by the public. It is possible to show the envisagement of a common future with history, culture and language with all dialects in terms of Assyrian identity  and 1915 Genocide that they suffered from.

But even all those characteristics exist, if you have no awareness to protect and improve them, none of those make any sense or have any importance. The most important problem in Assyrians is unluckily that!

We know that Armenian Genocide makes a break in the Armenian Identity, that it plays a determinative role in the identity. Does 1915 Genocide has a similar determinative role on Assyrian Identity? 

Assyrians call 1915 Genocide as “Seyfo”, “Seyfo” means “Sword” in Assyrian language. Because, in 1915, Assyrian society were slaughtered and “put to the sword”. Hundred of thousands Assyrian women, men, children, old, young people were slaughtered brutally and bloodthirstily; they were exiled to Syria, Caucasia, Ira and Iraq, they were raped., they were became “Muslims”, their properties were disseized, their churches were fired/destroyed. And this was not enough, their centuries old church archives were fired and destroyed. And may be, the most important thing was that, a “fear” that breaks every bone in their body and blood was spread into Assyrians.

In my opinion, the most important break in the Assyrian identity due to this trauma shows itself firstly in the damage occurred in “collective memory”. Since, nearly all written resources were destroyed, dates and events (especially genocide) was passed down by means of traditional verbal lecture and today it is partly transferred as such. 1915 Genocide with its tragic events, injustices and unfairness, which has an important role on Assyrian collective memory, has a determinative role in the identity and awareness of Assyrians. 

This trauma, moreover, caused a “natural” response in Assyrians (since there is no awareness)  against Islam, Muslim, Turk and Kurd that all symbolize the killer. Because, who made an attempt on Assyrians’ lives, cut heads of Assyrians with loud cries saying “Allahu Ekber” and they raped, fired and demolished. I could see the symptoms of this trauma by living it. In the high school where I am working, my Assyrian students reveal themselves with some behaviors when they are majority, such as expelling Muslim students, not becoming friends with them and feeling lack of confidence against them. This clearly reveals that the genocide is transferred from old generations to new generations in oral way. This problem is very remarkable as it shows the size of the fear. 

This trauma implied another break in the identity of Assyrian civilization; “being alone, lack of confidence, introversion” and always “suffering” psychology.  We still heard some words from our old generations such as; “we do not have any rights”, “why even bother?”, “you try for nothing” frequently. Genocide is not only limited with 1915 but involved all 1900s and when it continued in other forms (for example: “Speak Turkish” campaign, surname law, wealth tax, etc. ); lack of confidence for others was on the rise and shows itself as “trust only to the one who belongs to your nation”. 

In the other hand, another break in the Assyrian identity happened in the social structure of the society. As is known, while we are mentioning about the social structure in a society, we mentioned about two sides of it; one is the moral (cultural) and the other is material (physical) side.  What I intend to say when I mention about the cultural side is the social structure of Assyrian society which we called social affairs and consists of social status, roles and value judgments was broken into pieces. Which I intend to say when I mentioned about the physical side is “the residence style (village and city) of the population that constitutes the appearance of the Assyrian nation as a society was destroyed.  Their houses, prayers, workplaces; briefly there is no village, small town and residential area that was not destroyed, stayed not destroyed. The society was exposed to be an “immigration society” during and after the genocide or in a better expression, they were forced to be!

We usually forget that the genocide is gender-based, we could not say or we remain silent since there is no research about it. In fact, an important break that destroyed our identity happened in this area. In 1915 Genocide, women and men were treated in different manner.  Men (including boys) were slaughtered or they were died due to starving or diseases when they were exiled to Deyr Zor or they were executed by firing squad. Women were raped, young girls were forcedly captured and raped and they were forcedly became wives of some Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic, Persian and Azerbaijani men or forcedly employed as servants (I mean as “slaves”) in their houses. Since there is no study on this issue, we do not know how this situation affected women that could survive from the genocide and next generations and how it was transferred to day. And another important issue that we could not know is, how this situation effected the roles and sexuality of man and woman in the Assyrian society.  

Another important break that occurred in Assyrian identity as a result of the genocide is destroying “the intellectual background”. Assyrian society is mostly a villager community. They are engaged in agriculture and stock breeding in order to put bread on the table. Craftsmanship became popular afterwards.  Important Assyrian crafts and masters of that region in several fields such as masonry, dyeing, sculpture, stone-masonry and filigree were born. Some intelligentsia who had an idea of “nation formation” within the public since some missioners came to the region after the second half of the 1800s and Assyrian students who received education in colleges of the region (Elazığ, Adana, Mardin, Antep, Harput, Diyarbakır, vb.) and since some priests who were opened to the “illumination” and also focused and concentrated on history, language and culture.  Assyrian intelligentsia such as Aşur Yusuf, Naum Faik, Feridun Aturaya, Senharib Bali  tried to raise awareness of the public, published newspapers, made speeches and meetings in order to create a “national unity” among the public that was broken into pieces.  They gave importance to the organization in order to crown it with a national action. While, being very near to an Assyrian Homeland, genocide took all these intellectual background from the hands of the public. All leaders, leading personalities were killed immediately or forced to be exiled. All these intellectual background was destroyed as such.

Here, in this context, the most important break that the genocide made in the Assyrian identity is that the genocide took and destroyed the hope for future from the hands and conscious of public, in my opinion. Thus, Assyrian society has no “common future imagination” today.

Assyrians could not open a school in Turkey for a long time, they could not receive education in Assyrian language. Now, an attempt for a school exists. What are the factors and effects of not having a school? And What does opening a school changes?

Since a permission to open a school, which is given to Assyrians, was turned to “a form of groveling to Erdoğan” by some people and organizations both in Turkey and Diaspora; this permission could not be discussed on a true basis. Because, this permission to open a school occurred after a court decision, not with a special/private government decision. But some Assyrians who took the advantage of this permission, started visits to the government and Erdoğan by expressing their gratitude in the messages such as “We owed Mr.Erdoğan a debt of gratitude”, “We are grateful for AKP Government”. In fact, it mustn’t be forgotten that this government and its police departments which grabbed and disseised lands and territories of Mor (Saint) Gabriel Monastery (Deyrulumur) and had to give back due to international pressure.

Actually, Assyrians have “Minority Rights” as the same in Armenian and Greek societies due to Treaty of Laussanne. Because in the Treaty of Laussanne, some rights are entitled to all Non-Moslems and whose native language is not Turkish, without stating names.  Those Articles 37-44 of Laussanne Treaty cover also Assyrians.  Assyrians were ignored by both Mustafa Kemal and nemesis of minorities, İsmet İnönü. They were not accepted as Turkish, but at the same time, they could not use their rights based on being Turkish. They also were not accepted as a minority and not allowed to use their rights based on being a minority. Assyrians have not been existed in the Republic of Turkey for years.

And immediately Assyrians became discovered in recent years in Turkey. Now, we mention about a potential which nearly two thousand people live in Midyat and villages; 10-15 thousands of Assyrians live in Istanbul.  In the circumstances, we have to ask that: why is it happened now? If you did not give any permission to Assyrians to open a school as of the establishment of Republic until today and even closed ordinary language lessons given in churches by soldiers-police forcedly with threats; and if you even do not allow repairing one Assyrian church today; we ask this question.

Since they do not pose any potential risk in terms of both population and politics in Turkey, Assyrians and residential areas of Assyrians (Mardin and Midyat) are now used as touristic attraction center. Thus, the government and written and visual media of that government make news about Assyrians and do not see any risks in shooting TV series in our houses by means of TV channels. On the contrary, to make a business about Christian Assyrians constitutes a nice color on the showcase of Turkey against Western countries. These are all shown as an evidence of how the Government of Turkish Republic is “tolerant” and “democratic”. Thus, when Prime Minister or the President of Republic takes one of the metropolitan bishop with them when they go abroad. Assyrians become a window-dressing  in these territories after all those years.

Having no schools causes Assyrians to be a society which is illiterate, have feudal values and of which development was prevented and which is consciously kept undeveloped. They could not grow up literate, intellectual generations. This condition causes in Assyrians to be too late in terms of national conscious and national identity. They are far from being an intellectual society who could read, write and speak in their own native language. They are hard put to adopt and comply with modern society in every aspect. Thus, the biggest enormity was made to Assyrians by leaving them without any school. They were prevented from learning their own native language and from speaking, writing and even thinking in their own language. 

Firstly, we have to mention that managers of Tarlabaşı Assyrian Ancient Church, who attempted to open a school, will have their work cut out for them in actually these terms. You open an Assyrian kinder-garden but you do not have any teachers. If you have a course teacher, he/she does not speak Assyrian language. If they know, they have no pedagogical education. If they have pedagogical education, they have no book to teach. In conclusion, the problem is big and opportunities and materials are limited. Thus, maybe it is inevitable to start with opening a kinder-garden first. 

Chance of success of this project is bound to how pioneers in this issue are insistent. Of the project of opening a school would be successful, there would be a glimmer of hope for the future. At least, a young generation, who could speak and think in their own native language, shall be grown up. And these young people shall be Assyrian men or women of letters or educators and teachers of tomorrow, even in partly aspect.  And products that could address to the every field of society shall be occurred in Assyrian language. This will cause both Assyrians and society in which they live to enrich in every field.  A more conscious, more politized Assyrian society will occur.

After those happened in Syria and latest in Iraq, Assyrians who lived in this territory, were again forced to immigrate. We know that a few number of Assyrians of whom grand grandparents must leave Midyat are now refugees in this city. How the Assyrian society is affected by this situation ?

The problem of immigration is not a new concept for Assyrians. The history of Mesopotamia is full of immigrations of societies and communities from one place to another. In modern societies, the immigration issue has very different reasons and dimensions. Especially industrialization and as a result of it, the urbanization made immigration from rural to urban areas unavoidable and obligatory. In Midyat, when products which were grown up by my grandparents who were engaged in agriculture were not enough to maintain the family, my father must create himself another field of business in Adana and Elazığ. Assyrians must immigrate from their own residential areas to other places in every period and era due to economic, politic, military juntas, social and cultural pressures, ethnical and religious reasons. 20th century wars and other different reasons reveal a condition in which immigration is seen as a way out, an escape by Assyrians.

In the Middle East region, Assyrians were often exposed to massacres for centuries. Massive massacres continue from Bedirhan era until today.. Assyrians is one of the societies who feel the price of having a different religion and different ethnic roots most in their hearts and conscious. Thus, our society, which could not feel itself relaxed as a society as of last two thousand years, are waiting for the opportunity ready with their passports in their pockets. Because, in this territory with lack of  stability and peace, they understand from their experiences that no area or place to live shall be given for them anymore.  

Assyrians, who could not get over from the weakness as a result of being non-organized and weak, have no staying power even in the smallest crisis. They could only find solution in going abroad. This cause a huge immigration once in ten years. Wars that continue for years makes the seek for a peaceful area to live quicker in Assyrians’ conscious. It is enough to mention the fear and violence that was created by Işıd, which cuts heads of people with swords bloodthirstily just because they are not “Sunni Followers”. Assyrians must /forced to immigrate to places far away from the shadows of wars and massacres in order to rescue and live their lives in a honorable way.

Immigration is liken to the erosion which takes the most productive part / layer of the earth. Assyrians, which are the oldest settled public of Mesopotamia, always experience an immigration in each era and send off their most “productive layer” (youth) to the immigration. Thus, Assyrian public mass loose the most productive layer which shall be the locomotive of improvement and progress.

Very few Assyrians in Diaspora, come to their villages and spend at least a few time in a year in their homeland. How much is the thought of “return” common in Assyrian society? What must be changed in Turkey for such a return?

Two years ago, one of my friends, who came from Midyat, brought me a branch of a grapevine. I was very happy and we quickly planted this in our garden. We watered it and put some fertilizer and did our best in order to protect from the cold weather. But, this branch was withered and dried day by day and at last, died. 

In other words, when you take a part a society, a community from their homeland, they always seek for where they come from, they miss and always imagine to return to those places. I took a stone from my grandparents’ house in Midyat to Stockholm. It stays in my study room, on the window ledge against me now. I feel myself stronger when I look at this stone, I remember and realize my history, where I came from, my past and what we lived yesterday and where I live today. But the same stone, makes my desperate longing bigger with each passing day.

Accordingly, the matter of return, is the common dream of Assyrian masses in Diaspora. But, it is only a dream, a longing. It is not seem possible to have it real due to cyclical conditions of today. Each Assyrian young person, who see the violence in Middle East territory, asks us naturally and fairly that “How could you think of returning there?”  When we hear tragic life stories from Assyrians who came here after escaping and survived from the massacre in Iraq or Syria, those ideas undoubtedly removes and are erased from our minds. 

Thus, to expect the matter of return in terms of Assyrians as massive returns from Diaspora to homeland, is not a realistic view. There shall be personal, individual returns happened and these shall be happened also in the future. But, Assyrians grow up their 3rd and 4th generations in Diaspora and those who were born and grown up here do not have any idea to return back. An idea of return is far away from those generations. It is an utopia. It is nearly never seen in the history that societies that are accustomed to high living standards, return. 

When the state of Israel was established and called for who lived in abroad to return, nearly none of those Jews who lived in Western Europe returned. Most of those who returned are those who escaped from the pressure, terror and massacre of World War II and Hitler fascism in Eastern Europe and who looked for a peaceful place to reside.  In the same way, when Republic of Armenia was established after USSR was separated, there was no massive immigration happened from Europe and America to Armenia. There is immigration in such opposite way and today, Armenia becomes emptier with each passing day.

Thus, in my opinion, the fundamental problem is not a problem of return to Turkey from Diaspora. It is more particular problem that those territories must be made an attraction center to live for whom live there in order to stay there and not to immigrate. The fundamental issue is the problem of turning these territories individually a place where people could live as free and equal in peace and tranquility and in a steady manner.





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