My fellow fourth grader, Thomas, ran his chewed fingernail over a world map and screamed, ‘There’s no such thing as Assyria.’ That’s when I realised that having clear geographical boundaries was needed to legitimise one’s cultural identity.
To a room full of primary school kids, I was just an Arab from Arabia lying about being Catholic. I thought that this inability to navigate diasporas was limited to children who didn’t understand history, until I grew up into an adult who had to regularly explain what an ‘Assyrian’ person is and how this is different from whatever Middle Eastern nation was on the news that week. In the last three years, this country has mainly been ‘Syria’.
Syria is a country bordered by Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. The national language is Arabic and as with many countries in the Middle East, it is home to a variety of ethnicities and religions including, but not limited to, Syrian-Arabs, Assyrians, Greeks, Armenians, Kurds and Turks – all of whom align with varying religious identities.
I am not Syrian. I’m Assyrian – Sūrĕta Atūrĕta. Assyrians have existed for an estimated 6000 years. At its peak, the Assyrian empire spanned across what we now know as Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon as well as parts of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Following the collapse of the empire, we became a diasporic people spread throughout the Middle East, the majority of us living in Iraq but with significant numbers in Iran, Syria and Turkey.
The Assyrians continued to build communities and engage in a language and cultural and religious practices completely distinct from our neighbours well into the 20th century. Between 1914 and 1923, an estimated 300,000 Assyrians were massacred by the Ottoman Empire, along with 1.5 million Armenians. Following this was the Simele massacre in 1933 where more Assyrians were killed by the armed forces in Iraq. Currently, the greatest population of Assyrians can be found in sections of the north of Iraq: Mosul, Dohuk, Tel Keppe, Alqosh, Batnaya, Karemlash and Ankawa. Since 2014 many of these places were targeted by ISIS, who terrorised the residents and destroyed historical sites and artifacts thousands of years old.
Refugees in Australia from the Arab World who have complex identities, representing twenty two countries with diverse historical, cultural, religious and political landscapes, are often reduced to the labels ‘Middle Eastern’ and ‘Muslim’.
The word ‘Syrian’ comes from the word ‘Assyrian’, which comes from the word Āšūr, which was an ancient god and the capital of the Assyrian empire. It is easy to see why the confusion happens. I also acknowledge that when spoken, it’s nearly impossible for someone to make the distinction between the two phrases, ‘I’m a Syrian,’ and ‘I’m Assyrian.’
What’s important to note is that ‘Assyrian’ and ‘Syrian’ are English words derived from Latin and Greek. In the Assyrian language, Sūrĕth, it is much easier to make the distinction. It is also important to note that the experience of cultural blurring and erasing is not limited to two cultural groups that have a similar name.
Refugees in Australia from the Arab World who have complex identities, representing 22 countries with diverse historical, cultural, religious and political landscapes, are often reduced to the labels ‘Middle Eastern’ and ‘Muslim’. My mother was once called Ali-Baba by a student in her nursing course who tried to snatch the gold cross from around her neck because it was ‘a lie’.
The blurring of our diversity acts as the fuel behind phrases such as ‘you go back to where you came from’, where the ‘you’ isn’t specified, and neither is the ‘from’. It’s just assumed we are all one bunch. We are identified simply as ‘foreigner’ and are instructed to return to a ‘foreign land’.
For an Assyrian-Australian refugee that is part of a diaspora, hearing ‘go back to where you came from,’ is not the worst thing that can happen to me. My ‘from’ doesn’t exist in rigid terms. The phrase is entirely based on western notions of country and identity. I was born in Jordan to Assyrian parents who escaped from Iraq and I have lived in Australia since I was six.
Demanding a singular identity, by discouraging other languages, does more to reveal the fragility of Australian nationalism than it does to genuinely threaten diversity
Why does it matter to me? Why can’t I accept that the Middle East will never be recognised in the West like the hot to trot countries of Europe, that most people know the capital cities of? When I was younger my investment in offering an explanation was my veiled way of saying, ‘I am just like you, be my friend,’ and then post 9/11, it became ‘Don’t be afraid of me.’ Presently, correcting people about where I’m from is about helping them understand the complex history of the Middle East, whose civilizations were engaging in politics, religion, agriculture and education long before other nations.
Evidence of writing in Ancient Mesopotamia, Sumer, is dated at 3500BC, whereas the oldest evidence of writing in Europe, Greece, is dated at 1450 BC. I also correct people about my identity as a reaction to ignorance and bigotry that seeks to dehumanise me with insinuation that the world would be better off without the Middle East.
Like the 'broseph', who used a bobby pin to steal coins out of the KFC donation box, circulating a meme of a world map missing the land mass between Africa and Asia and claiming that he "fixed the problem."
This approach is far more harmful to me than the drunken woman pacing the train platform and shouting through her puckered mouth that people in Australia should only speak English. Demanding a singular identity, by discouraging other languages, does more to reveal the fragility of Australian nationalism than it does to genuinely threaten diversity.
The experience of reconciling my Assyrian, Middle Eastern identity with the experience of being an Australian, is not a unique one. However, it remains relevant in a landscape that perpetuates the fantasy that the only Australian is a white-Australian. I challenge this false narrative by saying I am an Assyrian and an Australian.
Monikka Eliah is a writer and member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.
The article is part of a collaborative series by SBS Life and Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement which is devoted to empowering groups and individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds through training and employment in creative and critical writing initiatives. Sweatshop is directed by Michael Mohammed Ahmad.
Where Are You Really From? premieres 9:30pm on Tuesday June 23 on SBS and On Demand.