I am an Assyrian from Iran. My parents left Iran in 1979, three years before I was born; and so I have never been there. Assyrians from Iran constituted a small percentage of the Iranian population before 1979: the 1976 census indicated the number at 32,000, although I can tell you this figure is mostly likely an underestimate (most likely, above 40,000). Most Assyrians have left Iran since the establishment of the IRI, leaving the estimated current population at around 10,000 – 15,000.
Assyrians are easily the smallest religious minority in Iran, and so it is to no surprise that when I tell other Iranians that I am Assyrian or “Assuri”, they elicit a dubious response of familiarity and ignorance in the sense that most of them have heard of Assyrians, but they do not know anything else. I don't blame people for not being familiar with Assyrians, but I do criticize those who make baseless, inflammatory remarks and criticisms on my people without possessing any knowledge about them or their rich yet sad history.
I recently came across an article written a few months ago by Azam Nemmati entitled “Unworthy Iranians” that reflects this form of inflammatory ignorance. As an Assyrian, I was shocked and disgusted by her comments about the religious minorities (although she didn't specifically mention Assyrians, she lambasted all non-Muslim minorities in Iran). I was pleased to read the response by Mohammad R. Jahan-Parvar, and I appreciate that he recognizes the second-class treatment of religious minorities. As a member of a religious minority, I feel it is imperative that I add my own interpretation of her article, step by step.
Referring to non-Muslim Iranians, Nemmati writes that she is “devoid of any respect for these people who insisted in speaking their own language and acted as though they lived in another country.” Let me ask you this: is it wrong for you to speak Farsi in the United States? Is it wrong for Latinos to speak Spanish on the streets and neighborhoods of Los Angeles? What many Iranians sometimes fail to understand is that Assyrians and Armenians have distinct cultural identities: we have our own languages, food, dances, religion, and other cultural aspects. While a part of their identity includes their Iranian nationality, it is not the dominant aspect that defines who we are.
As a people without a country, Assyrians have kept their identity alive for thousands of years through one primary means: the Assyrian Aramaic language. The language is the heart that keeps the Assyrian nation pumping – a lifeline, if you will. Now this is not to say that Assyrians are insulting the Iranian identity by not speaking Farsi, as Ms. Nemmati clearly implies. However, Iranians must remember that tiny ethno-religious minorities like Assyrians have a special need to keep their unique cultural, linguistic, and religious identities in an ocean of Islam.
Furthermore Ms. Nemmati, religious minorities have felt like foreigners in their own homeland for generations. I'll give an example: in my grandparents' neighborhood in Orumieyeh in the 1920s, Iranian Muslims would refer to them as “messiuer” and “madam” instead of “khanoom” or “agha”. Now obviously, this is a very very minor, inconsequential act, but the underlying premise of distinction is clear. The terms “messiuer” and “madam” are foreign, European terms; and so they were used to differentiate between Iranian Muslims and non-Muslim “foreigners.” There are unfortunately more devastating examples of murder, oppression, and discrimination, but I feel Mr. Jahan-Parvar has provided a solid explanation of some of these acts, and so I will not delve into this any further.
In the third paragraph, Ms. Nemmati writes in referring to the Armenians: “They celebrated Christmas as their real holiday and that infuriated me.” Once again, her ignorance of the Christian minorities in Iran is transparent. Assyrians celebrate their own new year called Akitu, which our ancestors of antiquity would hold on the first day of the ancient Assyrian calendar – Kha B'Nisan, which was the first day of the spring equinox. Nisan is the ancient Assyrian Akkadian word for “beginning”; and it is believed that the Persians adopted this celebration from the Assyrian-Babylonian people (please refer to “Akitu vs Newroz“).
After the Assyrians adopted Christianity in the first century A.D, our people slowly abandoned much of their nationalistic customs in favor of religious ones. Christianity had interwoven so deeply in the fabric of the Assyrian identity, so much that Assyrians identified themselves more by their religious affiliations than by their nationalistic identity – Nestorian, Chaldean, Syriac. The late 19th century witnessed the rise of nationalist movements across the world; and Assyrians were not estranged to this phenomenon. A national consciousness began to emerge amongst the Assyrian populace, which subsequently garnered a resurrection of cultural customs such as the Assyrian New Year.
Because Assyrians had long adopted the Gregorian calendar, we celebrate our new year on April 1st (Nisan now corresponds with April). This symbolizes an amalgamation of our cultural and religious traditions. Indeed, Assyrians never really celebrated the Persian New Year. It's not that we think less of Nowruz or Iranians in general, but rather we don't feel it is our holiday. I feel this is due primarily to two reasons: 1) as a tiny ethnic minority, it is essential that we withstand any assimilation into Iranian or Arab society as the only means to cultural survival; and 2) for generations, we have been treated as foreigners in our own home (does the word “najess” ring a bell?). This is a feeling I'm sure much of the Iranian Muslim population has rarely, if ever, experienced.
In the next paragraph, Ms. Nemmati recounts the incident in which she called her friend a traitor for emphasizing her Armenian ethnicity above her Iranian nationality, and then proceeds to criticize those minorities that do not participate in Iranian events or causes. Here, I could not help but think of all the Iranians I know that consider me Iranian. I always tell them that I am an Assyrian first and foremost, and I have observed that a few of them take exception or feel a bit slighted that I emphasize the differentiation so much. It is as if I'm insulting them for emphasizing my Assyrian identity as paramount. The truth is I'm not at all attempting to insult, but the fact remains that I'm the first Assyrian each have met (understandably), and so they simply don't know or fathom why we find “being from Iran, or the term Iranian” a secondary distinction.
While I recognize my parents' nationality is Iranian, since they were born and raised there, what then constitutes my nationality? There are two primary usages of the word nationality. One is the “the legal relationship between a person and a country”, which is typically defined by place of birth and residence. The other applies to non-English speaking areas of the world as a synonym of ethnicity, because “the word nation can be defined as a grouping based on cultural self-determination rather than on relations with a state” (according to the wikipedia.com definition of nationality). Based on the first definition, I would be British. I was born in Great Britain and I lived there for 7 years, and so does this make me British? I don't feel British in any way, considering that I left so young. Since then, I have lived in the United States, and so does this make me American? I do feel more American than British, and I relate more with American culture, although I look at things mostly through an Assyrian or Middle Eastern lens. So what does this make me: an Assyrian/British/Iranian/American?
To me, this is all a matter of semantics. In the end of the day, I must ask myself: what best defines who I am? Of all those names, I clearly define myself as an Assyrian. I do feel I possess attributes of American, British, and Iranian cultures, but at the same time when taken independently, these three names fail to encompass my ethnicity, culture, mentality, religion, and other things that define an identity. As I noted earlier, Assyrians are raised to socially and cultural self-segregate themselves, although of course not physically, from the more dominant populations of which they are a part of for two primary reasons:
1) as a defense against assimilation,
and 2) we have been treated as foreigners in one way or another by others. Many Iranians have somehow deluded themselves to thinking that they have historically never discriminated against Jews, Christians, and others. It's about time Iranians recognize the abysmal treatment of non-Muslim minorities throughout the years. One can argue that the Iranian, Arab, and Ottoman-enforced segregation of religious minorities has been instrumental in helping Assyrians stem the tide of assimilation, but this topic is worthy of a separate, more substantial discussion.
Later on in the article, Ms. Nemmati scolds religious minorities for not helping an Iranian cultural or humanitarian cause. I believe her point is somewhat valid, but she fails to appreciate that the reasons for this are understandable. As smaller religious minorities, it is imperative that we support our own causes because no one else will. I can't expect a Muslim, let alone any non-Assyrian, to help uprooted Assyrians in northern Iraq and northern Syria. I can't expect a Muslim to donate to Bahai charities. Hell, I can't expect an Armenian or Jew to help causes such as dispossessed Assyrians living in the slums of Jordan after fleeing Iraq.
As religious minorities, we have relied on ourselves for survival, and this mentality remains as necessary today in diaspora as it did when we were in Iran. After all, religious minorities are second-class people according to many of your Iranian countrymen, although I believe many Iranians in diaspora such as the writers and readers of this website have abandoned this mentality to a large degree. However for the record, the Assyrian American Association of Southern California did donate more than $1000 to the Bam relief effort, which unfortunately is a significant sum for this organization. Thus there are some Assyrians that have helped Iranian causes, and I challenge you to find an Iranian group that has done the same for us.
In conclusion, I recognize that I am British, Iranian, American, and Assyrian. I am British in the sense that I was born there and lived there for 7 years, and that I possess British citizenship. I am Iranian in that generations of my family have lived there for centuries, and that my entire family, with the exception of me and my sister, are Iranian nationals. I am also an American, considering that I have lived here for nearly 17 years. I have adopted many of the cultural attributes that define an American, and I do feel I am American. Finally, I am also Assyrian for reasons I have mentioned before. However, the word Assyrian best encompasses my identity, and so I place this moniker foremost way above the other three. Unfortunately, ignorant people like Ms. Nemmati cannot see why.