Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Semitic World and Assyrians

In another corner of the blog world, I allowed myself to be drawn into a pointless argument over the issue of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict forgetting the golden rule about internet arguments: never bite the flame-war bait.

Anyway, this post germinated because someone used the term "anti-Semitic" in that exchange, and I realized yet again how much ignorance there is about the history and composition of different ethnic groups in the Middle-East among many of us.

In many parts of the world, the term "anti-Semitic" is bandied about as exclusively meaning anti-Jew without much thought as to its correct meaning and application. The term is a misnomer, because in its correct application it should apply to all Semitic people, more specifically, Semitic language speaking people including Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Jews, etc. The correct term should be "anti-Judaism", but "anti-Semitic" is overwhelmingly and incorrectly used. Here's Britannica's take on it.

In the post, I decided to write about a Semitic language speaking people, with whose history I'm a bit more familiar, why, I shall tell you in a minute. First, how many here can refer back to their ancient history lessons in school, and remember the discussion of ancient civilizations of the Mesopotamian region?

Let me go ahead and tell you what I was taught about it. I do recall being taught about the Sumerians, and the Babylonians found mention as well, perhaps mainly due to Hammurabi's Code. Perhaps the Assyrians and the Akkadians were discussed, but I honestly cannot remember. As abruptly as they had made an appearance in my life, the Sumerian gods, and King Hammurabi disappeared, and in my understanding the ancient Mesopotamians had been entombed in their relics and ruins, with little relation to contemporary Middle-East.

Till I met this friend of mine for the first time. The usual trivial banter:

TM: So where are you from?

Friend: Iran

TM: Oh, you're Persian.

Friend: No, I'm Assyrian.

TM: Ummm....from Syria then?(quizzical look on her face)

Friend: No, Assyrian.

TM: Hmm.....

Friend: Do you know about the Babylonians?

TM: Oh sure!! (not falling asleep in ancient history class can pay off)

Friend: So my ancestors were from Mesopotamia and were the great rivals of the Babylonians.

TM: (Trying desperately to remember whose kingdoms the Babylonians were pillaging, but only the names Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar pop out. Damn you Nebuchadnezzar, must you have such a quirky, memorable name?) *sheepish grin* I'm sorry, I don't think I know about the Assyrians. Tell me about them.

And so, over the years, bit by bit, my friend filled me with accounts of Assyrian history, ethnicity, religion and diaspora, albeit from his specific perspective as an Iranian citizen of Assyrian descent. And when I tried to find more information on the web, I found a tangled web of history, migration and geopolitics, somehow exemplary of the historical progression of the region we know as the Middle-East.

It all started in the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present day Iraq, an area called Beth Nahrain (house of the rivers) by the Assyrians and Mesopotamia (meaning land between the rivers in Ancient Greek) by the Greeks. In the 1400 year history of the Assyrian state, there were moments of expansionary conquest, as the rulers campaigned as far as modern day Egypt on the west and modern day Bahrain on the east. There was also a bitter rivalry with the Babylonians, who subjugated them and were in turn subjugated by the Assyrians. After the death of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, the kingdom disintigrated rapidly and the Assyrian state ceased to exist in 609 BC. Details about the history of the Assyrian state can be found here.

Even though the Assyrian state was gone, there was still the matter of the Assyrian people and people claiming Assyrian descent, who were now to be found across the breadth of the territory of the erstwhile Assyrian empire. Everyone knows how ethnic Kurds are divided by the geopolitical borders of Iran, Iraq and Turkey. For the Assyrians, it's a similar story, as the region of their erstwhile empire falls between the four modern states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. There are Assyrian in all these nations, the majority being in Iraq, estimated to be between 1.3 million and 1.5 million. The ubiquitous Foreign Minister of Saddam Hussain's so-called al-Qaeda supporting regime was Tariq Aziz, an Assyrian/Chaldean Catholic.

Almost all contemporary Assyrians are Christians, and follow diverse sects of Christianity although a majority are followers of some branch of Eastern Orthodoxy. The ancient religion of the Assyrians was Ashurism, worship of Ashur, but they became the earliest ethnic group to convert to Christianity, and the first Assyrian Church was founded in 33 AD.

And this is where the Indian connection of the Assyrians comes in. If I have any Malayali readers, they would be familiar with the Syrian Christian community or the Mar Thoma Khristianis (St. Thomas Christians) of Kerala. They happen to be the earliest converts to Christianity in India and were converted by St. Thomas the Apostle, who came to India in 52 AD. Now in those days Syrian and Assyrian were synonymous, and a researcher on the Kerala Syrian Christians I spoke to in the past confirmed that "Syrian" does not refer to the name of the modern day country of Syria, but rather the ethnic group using Syriac in their religious liturgy, i.e., the Assyrians.

The language of the Assyrians is an interesting topic. Initially, they used to speak ancient Assyrian, an Akkadian language. However, with the growth of the Assyrian empire, another language gained ground and was sanctioned as an official lingua franca of the state. This language happened to be Aramaic, the language of the Aramaean people, which remained widely spoken in the region even after the fall of the Assyrian empire in 609 BC. One of the dialects of Aramaic was the language in which the most famous son of those lands, Jesus Christ (or Eshu M'Shikha in Aramaic) spoke and preached his message.

Present-day Assyrians continue to speak a language which is a form of Aramaic (also called Syriac or Assyrian Neo-Aramaic), however it is completely different from the old Aramaic of the Assyrian empire and the mother tongue of Jesus, though there are certainly many common elements. In fact, the Assyrians are one of the few living communities speaking a form of Aramaic. Being a Semitic language, it also has common elements with Hebrew and Arabic.

As I stated earlier, the trajectory of the Assyrian people is a reflection of the complex and tortuous history of the Middle-Eastern region. Many Assyrians were either killed or forced to flee their homeland in northern Iraq and North-western Iran due to the conflict with the Ottomans during 1914-1918, which depending on which side you are listening to, is either the Armenian and Assyrian genocide, or an uprising by the Armenians and Assyrians against the Ottomans (I'll be honest, I tend to believe that there was a genocide of ethnic Armenians and Assyrians). In recent years, after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran in 1979, thousands of Assyrians have migrated to the West, leaving what had been their homeland for more than 3000 years. And the Iraq conflict has also led to many Assyrian/Chaldean Iraqis to migrate to the West from the Beth Nahrain, from whence their empire once sprang.

To conclude, I'd leave you with this:

Many of you must have heard the song Kandisa, sung by the band Indian Ocean, which is apparently a 2000 year old Syrian Christian hymn. Given that the language of the hymn has to be Old Aramaic, it is most probably the language that was spoken by Assyrians at the time.

I did ask my friend to try and decipher the song lyrics, but his knowledge of Syriac/Aramaic hymns is limited, and he also suspects that over 2000 years, the words have been considerably Indianized to the point of non-recognition by someone who actually knows Aramaic. For example, he told me that though he isn't familiar with the word "Kandisa" (according to Indian Ocean, it means "praise") but there is indeed a word "Q'adisha", which means "holy" (search for "holy" in this lexicon and scroll down).

So just as I was looking for more information on Kandisa, I stumbled upon this great transliteration of the Kandisa song, provided to the blogger Zimbly Mallu by a Syrian Orthodox person, and now it does look like Aramaic compared to what the Indian Ocean were singing.

I kept digging further, and finally found the source hymn, which happens to be an important part of the Syriac liturgy and indeed Christian liturgy in general, known as the Trisagion, and is unrecognizable in its "Kandisa" form:

Qadisha alaha, quadisha Khailathana. Qadisha la maiyoutha, ethrakhem 'ailaen

(Holy God, Holy and Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us)

Courtesy: Syro-Chaldean liturgy (scroll down to prayer before the Trisagion)

Here's the hymn being sung as liturgy in the Syro-Chaldean church (scroll to Qadisha alaha). Notice the pronounciation, Aramaic being a Semitic language, sounds closer to Hebrew and Arabic.

If you'd like to find out what contemporary Assyrian sounds like, a good introduction are the songs of Evin Agassi, an Iranian Assyrian singer, who sings with an Iranian Assyrian dialect. Notice anything unusual about his name? Yep, the reason why he shares his last name with the tennis champion Andre Agassi is because Andre's father Emmanuel "Mike" Agassi is half-Assyrian half-Armenian, and is also from the Assyrian heartland of Urmia in Iran.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Fair and Ugly

I'm too lazy to do an entire series on Bollywood's Bong Belles (there I've done the stupid alliteration), but I just couldn't resist taking this up. Desi Pundit directed me to a post on Pickled Politics, which had decided to expended valuable column space on a remark by Rimi Sen, an actress, whose been fairly successful in Bollywood recently. What exactly did our lady say to merit this attention? Speaking of her role in the upcoming movie Golmaal, she says:

I play a sweet and beautiful girl in the film. The best thing that I like about the film is that though it has four heroes, I am the only heroine. Rohit Shetty is amazing as a director. He can make even a black African look pretty

(The quote first appeared in an interview with, who have since replaced the offending sentence in the interview. However, Pickled Politics has saved a screen shot so you can see it still)

Apparently, this is not the first time that Rimi has made such horrific statements. As a commenter on Pickled Politics said:

As shocking as this is, its not the first time. At the time of the release of “Kyon Ki” last year, I saw one of her interviews on TV. The host complimented her on her beauty and in reply she said that she’s not very beautiful. In fact, without makeup she looks like a NEPALI

Now of course as every Indian knows, the worst thing about this sort of racism is that the speaker of such statements is usually completely oblivious of the racist connotations of their words. I have heard my own relatives state that white is beautiful and dark is ugly without the slightest bit of consciousness about how culturally warped their perceptions are.

The beauty aesthetic in India is so strongly hardwired to only recognize white skin and big eyes as beautiful that anything that deviates from that aesthetic is immediately dismissed as lacking in beauty. All my life, it hurt me to see perfectly gorgeous girls being called ugly just because they had dark skin (and we Indians are absolutely shameless when it comes to passing rude comments on someone's appearance). And very ordinary looking girls celebrated as great beauties simply because they had lighter skin. Of course this is not entirely universal. I've know many Indian men who assure me they prefer darker women.

I'm normally never so mean, but I thought in the context of her remarks, it wouldn't be amiss to give Ms. Sen a dose of her own medicine. I think her interviewer was quite correct in assessing that she isn't beautiful. In fact, Rimi Sen doesn't even have one ounce of the beauty, elegance and grace of any of the Ethiopean girls in my neighbourhood. These Ethiopian girls are tall with slender, willowy bodies and chocolate skin that positively glows (I swear I've never seen anyone's skin glow so intensely). They have broad foreheads and beautiful eyes, and the appearance of a gazelle when they move. Those are the sort of genes that created Liya Kebede, a supermodel universally considered one of the most beautiful women in fashion.

As for Nepalis, which is basically Rimi's shorthand for women with East Asian features, I wouldn't embarass her with a whole host of East and South-east Asian women who are far superior to her in beauty and charm. Actually, on second thoughts, I will. There's Song Hye Kyo, the hugely popular Korean soap opera star. It's perhaps a bit harsh to invoke someone like Zhang Ziyi, given she's so out of Ms. Sen's league, but I'd do it anyway. And then we have the Indonesian Tiara Lestari, who good heavens, is both dark and has oriental eyes, so I can imagine Ms. Sen going into a paroxysms of horror on seeing her. All gorgeous, gorgeous women, sensual, alluring in a way that our Behenji-Turned-Mod actress can only wish she was.

But the point is not that there are African and Asian women far more beautiful than Rimi is (that was just me being bitchy, in case you didn't notice). No one, not even theoretically the most beautiful woman in the world (Aishwarya I'm NOT looking at you) can get away with saying things like that. The point is that beauty is culturally constructed, and if you hold any specific race to be devoid of beauty purely based on racial characteristics, then you're stupid at best and deliberately racist at worst. Given Ms. Sen's track record, I'm more inclined to believe the former, but surely her stupidity cannot be an excuse for such nauseous statements.

First we have the Pooja Bhatt controversy where our good ol' porky-pie tells a South African woman that she's too dark to succeed as an actress in Bollywood. I mean, Pooja Bhatt telling another actress what works in Bollywood and what doesn't has to be pretty ironic. And now this. Can someone please give these Bollywood actresses some awareness workshops so they don't come off as jackasses. Anyone?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Where the bell goes Bong Bong

When TM is bored:

Snippet #1: So some Joe Stalin in the Indian government has decided to go ahead and ask Indian ISP providers to ban a bunch of websites, ostensibly for their anti-India propoganda. My guess is that they'll get rid of this a week or two week's time. Otherwise someone can haul their ass in court and they'd end up with egg on their face. Not that Indian politicians are much deterred by the prospect of public humiliation from their hare-brained ideas.

Snippet #2: I take the free tram provided by our university for the ride home from campus. It's a bright summer day, hot but not blazing hot. There's a slight breeze blowing, and it's pleasant. As the bus approaches a stop midway to my house, I notice the waiting passenger through the window. Waiting patiently for the bus, with a huge black umbrella over his head.

I make a mental bet with myself. Bong, Bong, has to be Bong. He enters the bus, sits near the exit and says to the driver: "you bhaar sapposed to stop obhaar theaar. Baat you only stopped heaar." Score! After that, it was a foregone conclusion that the umbrella has to be the KC Pal brand.

You see, we Bengalis are from a land of gentle seasonal transition. So the barest extra glint of heat in the sunshine sends us scurrying under our umbrellas. And the slightest winter morning chill has us reaching for our sturdiest monkey caps. The black umbrella and the monkey cap are a Bengali's proudest possessions. My dad has a black umbrella he's owned for nearly 35 years now (touchwood). We once forgot it in a taxi in Delhi. And were distraught enough to hunt the taxi down from among the thousands plying in the city (it helped that I remembered part of his license plate number). Yes it is KC Pal as well.

Snippet #3: Speaking of Bengalis, time to check on one of our very own Bong lasses in Bollywood. The poor dear has, oh, shock, horror, been accused of plastic surgery to enhance her looks! Here's an excerpt from a report speculating about Koena Mitra's "facelift" (I think they mean plastic surgery and are using the two terms interchangeably):

What about reports that Koena herself has undergone cosmetic surgery? Is that the reason she’s looking so pretty these days? “I take it as a compliment if people think I have gone under the knife to look good, when actually, it’s “natural”. People don’t use their brains before asking such ridiculous questions — I am not at an age where I need a facelift.

Poor, misunderstood Koena. Except there is the small matter of the hundreds of pictures from photoshoots of Koena Mitra in Calcutta-based magazines from her pre-Bollywood days. Including many photoshoots in a magazine my mom was an ardent subscriber to - Sananda. Why are these pictures relevant?

Because if that Koena has the same nose as this Koena, then I'm Bill Clinton. Someone should put Koena out of the misery of having to lie once too often and do a side by side comparison of her current nose with the pictures from the past. If I had access to my mom's old Sananda issues, I would have done just that. That would be a fun project for when I visit home. The strange matter of Koena Mitra's nose job.

Snippet #4: Today's my Bong day, and I just randomly found the most interesting Bengali singer I've heard in ages. Well, in my defence I havent' been listening to a lot of contemporary Bengali music, so if there are some gems I've been neglecting, do buzz me on them. But I did discover this gem all on my own, because magic happens when champion time waster meets Youtube.

The reason why I didn't know about him was because he's based in Bangladesh, and I'm terribly ignorant about the Bangladeshi music scene. His name is Tahsan, he's a very gifted musician with an amazing voice who writes his own songs. No big deal in Bengali music, right, where singer-songwriters pop out in all directions. But trust me, there's something quite special about this fellow, about his voice, music and lyrics. And even if you don't understand Bengali, his voice still makes for very pleasant listening. Here are a bunch of his songs, from his first and now latest album.

I'd highly recommend the songs Shoshta Khobh and Irsha.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Violent Times

It's exhausting. With the world being hard enough to live in as it is, we seem to grasp at every opportunity to make it harder. The whole of last week, I first tried to make sure that acquaintances in Bombay were unhurt after the bomb blasts, and then spent more time getting in touch with Lebanese friends to ascertain that their families were safe after the bombings.

It took Europe two crippling wars to finally come to its senses (well, sort of). I wonder what calamity it would take for the Middle-east and South Asia to rid themselves of this cycle of violence that seems unending.

I wonder if the military elite of Pakistan realizes that there was a time, in the not so distant past, when Karachi was the premier port of South Asia, a bustling cosmopolitan city exporting wheat from the Punjabi hinterland to the entire world. Today it's a city drained of its vitality by sectarian violence, overrun by crime lords and fundamentalist thugs who export a pernicious brand of mindless brutality across the region.

Why do I talk of Karachi in the context of the Bombay blasts? Because actions have consequences. Because you cannot possibly cynically encourage the extremists without having a lot of it spill over in your own backyard. You cannot be encouraging the crime mafia without them setting shop in your neighbourhood, emboldened by your support. You cannot be handing out AK 47s to the Taliban without having a lot of them sold in open markets in Peshawar. You cannot bleed your neighbour without wounding yourself grievously in the process.

And decades from now, when your children look back at the havoc you wrought, both on yourself and your neighbour, they would wonder what happened to Jinnah's hopes and aspirations for a fledgling nation when he said:

The creation of the new state has placed a tremendous responsibility on the the citizens of Pakistan. It gives them an opportunity to demonstrate to the world how a nation containing many elements can live in peace and amity and and work for the betterment of all its citizens irrespective of caste or creed. Our object should be peace within, and peace without. We want to live peacefully and maintain cordial friendly relations with our immediate neighbours and with the world at large."

On each of these counts, the Pakistani leadership over the years has been a miserable failure. And it is the citizens of India who pay a heavy price indeed for their incompetence and cynical hunger for power.

PS: I'm fervently hoping, wishing for a speedy end to the Israeli outrage against Lebanon. Let's hope for an end to this madness.