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Sargon George Donabed's Reforging A Forgotten History

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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The book starts with something fascinating: an instance where the Iraqi Constitution spells out various minorities, but fails to explicitly list the Assyrians or really any Christians. Donabed's central thesis is the argument that Assyrians have been erased from Middle East history as a whole, but especially in Iraq. And through hundreds of pages, he spells out a very personal yet scholarly history of his community. The work takes a very maximalist approach where possible, subsuming all Aramaic-speaking Christians into a single Assyrian identity.

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This is remarkable for how it addresses the tendency to view Christians solely based on ecclesiastic designations, and how those can be viewed as complementing rather than totally consuming their identity.

Acquiescence is embedded in the Assyrian community in different forms, an example being accepted 'isations or ications' of new identities, especially sectarian ones (solely based on religious ties), which sometimes vie for supremacy and total consumption of identity rather than being a complimenting [sic] layer.

Physical violence and corroding hatred. VIolence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones.

Donabed 2015, p 28

Donabed mentions Armenians against Turks and Palestinians against Israelis as examples where "ingrained hatred has the knack of being fostered in succeeding generations and staying forgiveness, comprising both group and individual emancipation. Additionally, there is a possibility of such animosity then transferring to the oppressor group and blinding them to their own subjugation of others." (Donabed 2015, p 28).

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This description by Donabed is wholly maximalist.

Note the interesting way he describes the language. He says that modern Assyrians speak Assyrian (which he acknowledges is sometimes called Aramaic) and that the ancient Assyrians spoke Akkadian and Aramaic. This suggests an uninterrupted inheritance from the ancient Assyrian languages to the modern Assyrian language. Actually, the ancient Assyrians had traditionally spoken Assyrian, a dialect of Akkadian. After the 10th century BC, this was replaced by Aramaic, an international language of the whole Near East. So the relationship is far from clear whether the Aramaic spoken today was from the Neo-Assyrian Empire's linguistic tradition instead of being broadly Near Eastern.

It is also interesting how he collapses various groups into a single Assyrian identity, regardless of how they self-identify.

Geographically, Assyrians are a transnational population indigenous to northern Mesopotamia (effectively ancient Assyria and its environs), part of today's northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran and northeastern Syria. They speak Assyrian, sometimes referred to as a modern form of Mesopotamian Aramaic (also more commonly in scholarly parlance as Neo-Aramaic and Neo-Syriac), with a heavy Akkadian influence (both Akkadian and Aramaic were official languages in the ancient Neo-Assyrian Empire, which flourished from 934 BC to approximately 600 BC) as well as utilising classical Syriac as an ecclesiastical tongue. Today many continue to affiliate with one of the following Christian religious communities: the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East (referred to as Nestorian), the Syrian Orthodox Church (referred to as Jacobite and originally in English as Assyrian Apostolic) and the Syrian Catholic Church. In the past two millennia, the Assyrians have been more widely known by their ecclesiastical designations, increasingly balkanised, mostly due to their incorporation into Muslim-dominated states.

Their language and material culture constitutes the oldest continuous tradition in Iraq. From ancient Arba'ilu to Arbela during the Christian period in the ecclesiastical province of Adiabene between the fifth and the fifteenth centuries, the presence and culture of the people of upper Mesopotamia endured. [This sentence was a little confusing.] Adiabene itself included Mosul, Nineveh, Karka d-Beth Slokh (ancient Arrapha and today's Kirkuk), Beth Nuhadra (today's Dohuk) and beyond, but as part of the central authority of the so-called Nestorian Church or Assyrian Church of the East.

Donabed 2015, p 3; Reforging A Forgotten History