Saturday, April 30, 2016


"I don't get it. If Macedonia is Greek, how come the Macedonians don't speak Greek?" the elderly Assyrian man asked. I launched for the third time, into a detailed historical account of the history of Macedonia, from times ancient, through to Byzantine, Ottoman and beyond. Half an hour later, the elderly man smoothed his luxurious moustache and asked: "So the Macedonians are not Greek. Then why are you Greeks saying that Macedonia is Greek?"
Explaining what Macedonomachs around the world term "historical truths," should not be so difficult. It was time to change tactic. "Put it this way," I answered. "What if I told you that you are not Assyrian, but rather a Chaldean?" My aged interlocutor turned various hues of purple. I was convinced that even his white moustache had turned a darker shade. "What?" He spluttered. "That's garbage! There is no such thing as a Chaldean people! There never was. This is an identity that was made up in order to divide our people! Look at the history.."
Scholars generally agree that historically, there was no such thing as a Chaldean people, just as most scholars agree that the ancient Macedonians were not a people, but rather a sub-set of broader Greek tribal confederations. Yet tell the approximately 700,000 Syriac-speaking people that identify as Chaldeans that they are in fact Assyrian and tell the millions of Slavonic-speaking people that identify as 'Macedonians' that they are in fact Bulgarian and pandemonium ensues. It seems therefore that we are not the only people struggling with what we term, 'historical distortions,' or in Greek: «πλαστογράφηση της ιστορίας.»As is the case with many people whose origins lie in western Macedonia, theoretical discussions of identity are keenly felt within many Assyrian and Chaldean families, who are compelled to 'choose sides,' providing useful parallels with our own "name dispute," but also making such choices all the more sad and poignant.
Variously described as Syrians or Assyrians in ancient Greek texts as far back as Herodotus, ( I derive perverse pleasure out of telling Assyrian friends that it was we Greeks who put the Ass into Ass-yrian), the modern day Assyrians who, up until the Assyrian genocide perpetrated by the Ottomans, the genocide of Simele perpetrated by the Iraqi army and the genocide perpetrated by ISIS, resided in the lands of Mesopotamia shared between Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, trace their ancestry to the ancient Assyrian Empire. Conquered by the Persians, who subjected them to immense persecution for their religious beliefs, conquered in turn by the Muslims who unleashed even more vicious persecution upon them, theirs is a story of survival despite overwhelming odds. Along the way, they played an immense and now largely uncredited role in preserving ancient Greek civilization, for it was the Assyrian monks who translated key works of the ancient orders for the benefit of their Arabic masters, in time for these to be appropriated by the Crusaders and brought to the West. Furthermore, up until the 17th century, the primary liturgical language in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, was Syriac, the language of the Assyrians and saints such as Saint John of Damascus and Saint Ephraim the Syrian, were native speakers of Syriac.
The Syriac-speaking peoples have entered into the twenty-first century not as one but as three distinct peoples. Their identities have been largely created by those that have ruled over them and reflect religious, rather than ethnic or linguistic differences within an otherwise relatively homogenous people. Syriac speaking adherents of the Nestorian Church of the East, once widespread from Byzantium to Mongolia, as well as former members whose ancestors converted to Protestantism, generally identify as Assyrian. They can point to a long, documented history of a continued presence in their ancestral homelands. Interest in them and fascination with their links to ancient Assyria emerged in the nineteenth century when British missionaries and archaeologists 'discovered" them, along with ancient Assyria during their excavations in the area. In many respects then, the western reconstruction of the Greek and Assyrian identities has followed surprisingly similar paths.
Whereas up until the nineteen thirties, the members of the Monophysite Syriac Orthodox Church identified themselves as Assyrian, due to pressure from Syria's Baath party, they began to refer to themselves as Arabs and lately, as "Arameans." In Sweden, where a large Syriac Orthodox expatriate community exists, the community is split down the middle, with one half supporting the Assyriska football team (and hence stating their affiliation with the Assyrian identity), and the other half, the "Aramean" Syrianska football team, in a manner reflecting similar debates about ethnic identity in the early history of the Heidelberg United soccer club here in Melbourne.
It is the Catholic Syriac-speakers who identify not as Assyrian but as Chaldeans. This is because the Chaldean Catholic Church was founded as a Uniate church for Assyrians, in Cyprus, in the sixteenth century. In choosing the term Chaldean, the Catholic church sought to link the Assyrians with the lands from which Abraham came, according to the Bible. Most members of this church are descendants of Nestorians who converted to Catholicism en masse in the late nineteenth century in the hopes that adherence to a 'western' church would save them from persecution. As such, their former affiliation should be almost within living memory. Indeed, the late Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Raphael Bidawid, commented in 2003: The name 'Chaldean' does not represent an ethnicity... We have to separate what is ethnicity and what is religion... I myself, my sect is Chaldean, but ethnically, I am Assyrian." Nonetheless, apart from a few exceptions, Chaldeans today are convinced that they are not Assyrian, instead drawing their heritage from the (ethnically similar) Babylonians who, paradoxically enough differ from the historical Chaldeans. Indeed, most will react with anger or incredulity when taken through the historical evidence indicating that their chosen identity does not accord with history or ethnography, citing spurious folklore or discredited history in defence of their claim. It is quite amusing to sit in on a heated debate between a Chaldean and an Assyrian about the ethnic origins of Nebuchadnezzar, until it becomes disquietingly apparent that the same vitriol, the same appeal to emotions rather than to logic and the same distortion of historical sources takes place as in an argument between an Greek, a FYROMIAN and an Albanian about the ethnic origins of Alexander the Great and his Adidas footwear.
Patriotic Assyrians lamenting the sundering of their diverse tribes cannot understand why the world, and especially friendly countries such as Australia which play host to both communities, allow the Chaldeans to persist in their historical delusions, much as deeply perturbed Greeks find it strange that despite constant re-hashings of the historical evidence, the world continues to indulge those who ethnically identify as 'Macedonians,' their fantasies, even joining in, by agreeing to call them by their desired names. In the meantime, while Assyrian and Greek uber-patriots become enraged each time the mainstream media refers to 'Macedonia' (ie. FYROM) or the Chaldeans, these appellations are so widespread that even Greek politicians are now referring to FYROMites as Macedonians and then excusing themselves as having made a 'gaffe.' Whereas enlightened Greeks offer 'Slav-Macedonian' as a compromise solution, enlightened Assyrians refer to an 'Assyro-Chaldean' identity, in an effort to bridge the gap, an effort, the majority of Chaldeans reject, primarily because they have no need of an Assyrian identity and possibly, because the 'Assyro' is placed here before the 'Chaldean.'
The fact of the matter is that ancient history used as an anachronism to imagine a nation, is not the only determinant of ethnic or national consciousness. Politics too plays a major role as can be evidenced by the existence of a German, Austrian, Swiss German, Luxembourgish and Liechtensteinian national identity, for a multitude of German speaking peoples, or a separate Ukrainian, Belarussian, Rusyn and Russian ethnic identity for speakers of dialects of the Russian language. Similarly, of late, we are witnessing the possible birth of a "Cypriot" ethnic identity, with more and more Cypriots distinguishing themselves from 'Greeks,' especially in the diaspora. As such, while there may not have been a 'Macedonian' or Chaldean ethnicity or consciousness in the past, it cannot be doubted that one exists now, valid or otherwise, because the world has deemed it expedient to allow its creation and millions have subscribed to it and have lived within it, for at least three generations, enough time to allow historic delusion to become overlooked and the comparative reality of living with a manufactured identity to become history itself. Indeed, if Malcolm Turnbull's smug asides are to be taken seriously, Australia is a haven for all those fleeing the conflict arising from such delusions.
While naming or shaming those who make slips of the tongue is fruitless and counter-productive in the face of the inexorable grind of the steamroller of delusion, both the Assyrian and the Greek communities will fight the good fight, for morally, they can do naught else, continuously hoping for "historic justice," as one fervent patriot put it recently, as the world and the new ethnic identities that are constantly being formed, constructed, dissolved and re-imagined, pass us all by.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 30 April 2016