Saturday, August 28, 2010


Last week, a monument was unveiled in Sydney to the victims of the Assyrian genocide, a genocide that took place at the same time as the genocide of other Christian peoples in Anatolia, such as the Armenians and the Greeks, despite the objections of Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and the Turkish government. To add greater poignancy, to the occasion, it was unveiled during the commemoration of the Simele Massacre of 1933, where an unarmed Assyrian population was massacred by the Iraqi army. The unveiling of the monument in a public space is a vindication of the Christian peoples of Anatolia’s struggle for recognition of the Christian genocide, as well as marking the first step on the road to reconciliation. If anything, what is to be learned from such terrible experiences is the necessity of survival and preservation of one’s culture. Our own history is replete with examples that could be drawn upon in this regard. What follows is a speech I gave at the Assyrian commemoration function, which touches upon our own experience.
“We were a great people once... But that was yesterday, the day before yesterday. Now we are a topic in ancient history. We had a great civilization. We’re washed up as a race, we’re through, it’s all over, why should I learn to read the language? We have no writers, we have no news- well, there is a little news: once in a while the English encourage the Arabs to massacre us, that is all. It’s an old story, we know all about it.”
William Saroyan’s words, from his story Seventy Thousand Assyrians, were written in 1934. They were written as a response to the Simele massacre, a crime so heinous, that it caused the scholar Raphael Lemkin to coin the term genocide – in relation to that unspeakable occasion. These words could just have easily been written today, they are so topical and relevant. Indeed, some of the laments in that story, are echoed among members of the Assyrian community here in Australia, when they question why it is that such a great race is on the brink of extinction.
The lasting effect of the Simele massacre and indeed all the massacres that preceded it and which came after it, is that it has created a feeling of despondency – that Assyria has been lost – that it will never rise again and that there is absolutely nothing that anyone can do about it.
William Saroyan addresses this point as well in his story. In it, there is no hope or optimism:
"Dream? Well, that is something. Assyrians cannot even dream anymore. Why, do you know how many of us are left on earth?"
"Two or three million," I suggested.
"Seventy thousand, That is all. Seventy thousand Assyrians in the world, and the Arabs are still killing us. They killed seventy of us in a little uprising lastmonth. There was a small paragraph in the paper. Seventy more of us destroyed. We'll be wiped out before long. My brother is married to an American girl and he has a son. There is no more hope. We are trying to forget Assyria.”
We need to combat this feeling of despair. When there is no hope and there is no remembrance there is only death.
That is why in my opinion, commemorative events such as this one, and the erection of the genocide monument are so important. Because it is important to remember. Remembrance is the vine which nourishes the grapes of our day to day existence. It is the past that provides us with our identity and determines the nature of the path that we will take into the future, as a nation and as individuals.
Furthermore, it is imperative to dream. My ancestors had a dream. They dreamt of liberty, not only for themselves, but also for all the Christian peoples labouring under the repression of intolerant Islamic regimes. In that dream, as one of our poets, Giannis Ritsos wrote, there was no word that could measure up to the stature of freedom. No one believed that we would ever achieve freedom, We were a nation on the brink of extinction. Most of our people had become Islamized. Those that had not lived a wretched existence, in ignorance and poverty, losing more and more of their culture every day in constant fear of their lives. Does that remind you of anyone?
I say this for a specific reason. The Greek revolution took place at a time when it was considered absolutely impossible for such a small nation to achieve freedom. These people had neither the money, nor the weapons nor the diplomatic support, nor the numbers to have any hope of success. Indeed the Simele massacre reminds me of the massacre of Chios. The Turkish army landed on this island and proceeded to slaughter 30,000 people and to enslave another 50,000.

Yet they had one thing that made them more powerful than they themselves knew. They had a dream and that dream was a dream of survival, a dream of freedom that no amount of persecution or massacre could ever diminish. It was a dream that was nourished by their belief in Christ and a deep knowledge of an ancient, unbroken past.
This impossible regeneration of my people did not have its roots in Greece. It had its roots outside of Greece, in the immigrant communities that were formed by refugees who had to flee their homeland in the face of Islamic persecution. These people embraced the dream. They protected it. They never forgot who they were and they never lost hope. And when the time came, one, two, three hundred years later, it was they who raised the money, they who inspired the masses, they who fermented the great revolt that resulted in the emergence of Greece. They were a group not that different from the people in this room. They hung on. They remained steadfast. They passed their language and their religion down to their children because they knew that God would not abandon them.
When I leave this room tonight, I want to be certain that we will be dreaming the same dream together. I want to be certain that people like my wife’s cousin, who was blown up by a bomb in Baghdad three years ago, did not die for nothing. I want to know that despite what Saroyan wrote, there is reason to hold on to ones language, culture and a long and proud history no matter how painful that history is. Because yours is the path of the dreamers and the future of your nation depends on the dreams that you will dream here today.
Let the Simile martyrs be the blood and bone from which your dreams will grow. Let those dreams blossom into the buds of continuity – so that those who would destroy you will know that nothing can destroy you. God rest their souls and God give you strength because their battle is not over and we are all called, to stand in their place.”
Dreams after all can come true. Who would have thought, so many decades after the genocide that Pontians would be now flocking to their homeland, to Panagia Soumela, to partake in the liturgy, as their ancestors did before them. But that is a topic for another time...

NB. On 30 August 2010, the Assyrian Genocide Monument in Fairfield, Sydney was desecrated. An Islamic star and crescent was painted on its peak and on the pedestal below, slogans such as "Fuck Assyrian dogs" and "Fuck Assyria." This is a grave offence that indicates that even so many years later, there exists a minority that condones crimes of genocide, or attempts to deny them.

First published in NKEE on 28 August 2010