When my grandmother speaks to me, I imagine the sound of the Tigris outside the hospital where she gave birth to her youngest child. When I ask Google how to say moonlight, how to say crow, how to say I don’t care, in our language, I have to scroll up to make sure it hasn’t defaulted to Arabic.
Raqa means ‘the escape,’” my father tells me. But I learn that there are other Assyrian words that mean escape as well. Mia, as in water, as in the river our family crossed. Susa, as in the horse they used to cross it with five people hanging on until home was safely behind them.
In our homeland, truth is:
- a footnote in a bill of rights drawn up by a succession of bloodthirsty rulers who may or may not be related, such that
- My father’s birth certificate claimed him as property of the Arab state;
- My great grandfather’s claimed him as property of the Ottoman empire;
- an archaeological hill, a century-old collection of human bones protruding from a dirt mound across from a grocery store in northern Iraq; or
- a border for a new state drawn with the help of foreign hands, eastern nobility, and hungry villagers within the borders of the older, still-new states
In our flight, freedom is:
- a fight. My grandmother’s paternal grandmother, Surma, defended her family’s villages against invaders in southeastern Turkey during the Assyrian Genocide that began in the early twentieth century; and
- a living. My grandmother’s father, Polos, kept a British man’s house in Habbaniyah in central Iraq in the 1930s; my grand- mother cleaned rooms in a hotel on Stockton Street in San Francisco starting in 1973. See also, the make-shift deli run out of the family garage in the Sunset District, selling homemade cookies and sandwiches to earn extra money.
In Iraq, my grandmother left school by the fourth grade, returning briefly to night school as an adult when the Ba’ath regime socialized education. She brought my eight-year-old father with her. Before long, she left school for good to raise my dad and his siblings.
My grandmother and her family decided to run from Iraq after Ba’athist police arrested and tortured my grandfather for three weeks. Before they left, my grandfather instructed her to gradually sell their furniture, so it looked like they were going on vacation. They left with little.
After that, they were refugees in Beirut for one year and one month.
My grandmother tells us about Beirut: Even those with little money dressed up and enjoyed the nightlife. In my grandparents’ bedroom, a two-foot-tall photograph of my grandmother in go-go boots with waist-length hair is displayed next to the bed. Leaving Iraq made my grandmother a citizen of nowhere for over a quarter of a century. Her raqa.
When my grandfather speaks, his words are a slow, lazy grove, fat with ripe oranges. I take my time plucking the familiar ones and digesting them, a byproduct of the British occupation of Iraq that began during World War I, and one that is far less digestible than his charming pronunciation of aluminum or use of queue in place of line.
I tell my grandmother she will live forever. I believe it when I say it. When her words rush past me, I long for the slowness of my grandfather’s Assyrian. My grandmother’s words are a river. When I listen carefully, the din of the current slows, becomes familiar. A vein through another body I call home.
Despite the legacy of genocide and persecution Assyrians have endured for centuries, acknowledgement outside of our community has been minimal. Assyrians, who are native to Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey are made invisible when people use terms like Arab world or Muslim world to refer to our homelands, which Assyrians have inhabited for thousands of years. These terms not only recast the legacies of the Arab conquest and Ottoman empire, but also erase the material harms each continues to perpetrate on West Asia’s indigenous communities. When I hear folks claim that relative peace existed in our homelands under these empires, I am reminded that Assyrian voices will remain scarcely amplified because folks refuse to acknowledge the reality of Eastern colonialism from an indigenous point of view—and that for many, the existence of pre-Arabized West Asian communities is about as legitimate as the idea of the tooth fairy.
Christina Yoseph is a writer and illustrator of Assyrian and Greek descent. Her essays and poems have appeared in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Rumpus, The Smart Set, and more.