Assyrian Cultural Production in Baathist Iraq

In 2014, I enrolled in a beginners’ Syriac course at SOAS, motivated largely by curiosity. The lectures concentrated on the Peshitta and Classical Syriac, which is the usual focus for learners in Anglo-American academic institutions. Nevertheless, it soon became apparent that Syriac, far from being the preserve of a priestly-academic class, was part of a linguistic continuum leading up to a vibrant contemporary speech community spread around the world. Turoyo and Sureth, which also includes Swadaya, are the two main neo-Aramaic languages still in use across West Asia and among a sizeable diaspora. Publications in both languages can be hard to come by – whether in hard-copy or digitally – but they do exist. That’s why I was so chuffed when, clearing through a backlog at the British Library, I found several copies of Múrdinā Atúrāyā (ܡܘܪܕܝܢܐ ܐܬܘܪܝܐ), a Sureth publication from 1970s Iraq. The magazine presents a fascinating look at how concepts perceived as ancient, modern, or modernizing, can be instrumentalized in the struggle for cultural preservation and development.

            Múrdinā Atúrāyā (also known as Al-Muthaqqaf al-Āthūrī (المثقف الآثوري) or The Assyrian Intellectual) is an exceptionally rare item. Published in Baghdad by the Assyrian Cultural Club between 1973 and 1980, the only copies listed on OCLC are held at the Library of Congress and the British Library. The periodical, which was produced quarterly, featured articles in both Arabic and Sureth. Today, war, persecution, political instability and economic stagnation have pushed many Sureth speakers and their descendants into exile, with large communities in Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, the United States and Australia. In the 1970s, however, a brief window of opportunity for minority-language publication in Iraq allowed for this community to pursue aggressively the codification, standardization and expansion of its particular patterns of speech (see here for a parallel development in Kurdish).

            Múrdinā Atúrāyā is interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is its general aesthetic. Similar to other Assyrian publications, whether in the homeland or abroad, it features a considerable amount of illustration based upon Iraq’s ancient heritage. Some of this is an extrapolation of actual or imagined Assyrian works of art, reproduced as fine-line sketches. The visual cues are similar to those found in the Assyrian reliefs housed in the British Museum, although it is not immediately possible to tell how close the connection between them might be. Men are depicted in similar attire, and the functions of warfare, politics, statecraft and cultural production are all accorded pride of place, especially on the covers of the Múrdinā held in the British Library’s collections. It is not, perhaps, entirely surprising that that a community that had long found itself politically and socio-economically dominated by Arab, Ottoman Turkish or Persian polities would call upon the past to rouse a sense of national consciousness and pride amongst its younger members. Similar processes occurred among other minority nations in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as among a section of Lebanon’s Maronite Christians from the 1920s onwards. In West Asia, the marriage of pre-Christian past with the staunchly Christian present, however, mirrors not only nationalist narratives of identity, but also the essentializing force of European Orientalism.  

            Adam H. Becker explored this very topic in his 2015 work on the birth of Assyrian nationalism in the 19th century. Self-identification and the pressures that shape it are always controversial topics, but one thing is clear: the idea of an Assyrian identity linked directly to the region’s pre-Christian heritage was encouraged by American and European Protestant missionaries. It reflected, in part, their imaginings about authenticity and immutability among Sureth-speaking communities, seen as being just as ahistorical as their Semitic and non-Semitic neighbours. The lasting impact of this influence is on display in both the Arabic and Sureth components of the Múrdinā, especially on the cover of the first issue. A background of cuneiform is overlaid with both a shamash (incorporated into the Assyrian flag in 1971) and early forms of the Syriac script. The title of the publication is found, in both contemporary Syriac script and Arabic, at the top of this imagery. Time here is flattened and neatly packaged all on the front of this mass-market magazine, a key tool in the process of nation-building in the 20th century.

            In addition to visuals, the content of Múrdinā Atúrāyā also presents us with interesting information on language and script. The majority of the magazine was published in Arabic; understandable for a periodical produced in a stridently Arabist state, targeted at a largely bilingual community. The final eight or ten pages of each issue, however, contained articles in Sureth, written in the Syriac script with modifications for sounds not present in the classical language. Most content was focused on community events or developments, including church socials, athletic meets and school functions. The magazine, however, also contained examples of contemporary Sureth literary production, a testament to the activity of the Union of Assyrian Writers in Iraq during this period. A third grouping of articles dealing directly with the language issue and, less directly, the question of education. In 1972, the Iraqi state passed legislation to promote the language, including through publications, radio stations and Sureth-language education in primary and high schools. Assyrian intellectuals sought to utilize the Múrdinā towards the same ends, propagating new words and phrases to make Sureth more amenable to contemporary, mechanized life.

            How did they do this? By doing what they did most naturally: writing. Rather than publishing lists of new words, the authors included new words in each article about language change or educational reform, glossing them in Arabic, and providing explanations in simplified form. The fact that the words are explained through the use of Arabic implies that these are not concepts that were absent from the lives and interactions of Sureth speakers; quite the contrary. Rather, it indicates that Arabic, as the language of education, dominated the non-domestic aspects of Sureth speakers’ lives. The creators of the magazine, then, were interested in drawing on more than just the strength of the ancient Assyrians in encouraging a sense of ethno-national pride and hope. They also sought to utilize the power of contemporary technology as an amulet against the specter of cultural irrelevance, impoverishment and assimilation.

            Múrdinā Atúrāyā ceased publication in 1980; the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War. Arab nationalism was a particularly useful weapon in this conflict, and there is no doubt that the 1980s saw a worsening of the situation for minority communities. The economic and social hardships and authoritarianism of the war years, followed by the crippling sanctions of the post-Gulf War period, certainly provided no encouragement to Assyrian writers to resume their activities in earnest. Nonetheless, the practice of utilizing ancient Assyrian imagery, as well as that of creating indigenous words and phrases for contemporary life, continued, especially in the diaspora. Múrdinā Atúrāyā might have died, but from its ashes a new, globalized Sureth publishing culture emerged. Similar to the pioneers of the 1970s, it too picked up those elements of the old and discarded, and repurposed them for the realities of the 21st century.

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