Chaldean Cultural Heritage and Identities in Times of Displacement

  • Written by:

Dr. Shak(ir) Hanish
It is important to protect cultural heritage and history of people in areas of conflict. Cultural heritage is an integral part of their identity and protecting cultural heritage is a way to preserve the identity of people. The affected groups in a conflict are those who are targeted because of their religions or ethnicities, aiming at cleansing them or forcing them to migration, a policy practiced by terrorists and the fundamentalist extremist groups. Therefore, maintaining the conditions for the people to live a normal life as much as possible in the conflict areas and to encourage them to return after the cease of conflict is crucial. The requirements and laws supporting their existence and continuation after the end of armed conflicts must be established. It is also one of the responsibilities of the international community to protect them and implements international laws. The assault on the world heritage is a war crime and whoever and wherever someone commit such crimes can be brought to justice. Thus, it is essential that states develop legislations to ensure the protection of cultural property and to criminalize the aggressors or that they apply existing laws and to pursue such suspects abroad. Offenders who commit crimes in the face of the cultural heritage may be tried in any other country in the world.
Human cultural heritage is not confined to buildings that have religious or archaeological value but also on its movable objects, whether documents, writings, or legacy prove historical and cultural value. Cultural objects constitutes a symbol, an identity, and history of the peoples and occupy an important place, not only people’s awareness but also in people’s unconscious. The cultural properties are those which have artistic value, historical, and archaeological, in addition to places of worship which constitute the cultural heritage and spiritual of peoples. Many of them were destroyed and attacked in Iraq and Syria, where cultural objects and places of worship are systematically targeted in order to erase the history and civilization of the area, not to mention looting them.
Destruction of a cultural object is of a disaster because it cannot be brought back again, as it happened in the case of city of Hatra, Museum of Nineveh, and many shrines in Ninawa Governorate. Criminals want to get and destroy the identity of peoples with flimsy and silly reason using their interpretation of religious texts to justify their heinous acts.
The fate of the Chaldean living heritage and collective identity in war zones and places of displacement and immigration is gradually disappearing little by little until possibly decaying. The Chaldeans who leave their regions forcibly or for other reasons cannot anywhere else exercise many of their popular heritage, visit shrines, and celebrate holidays as in the homelands where places, monasteries, and shrines were attended by them.
Today, they have fallen under the control of “the Islamic state” or ISIS. Even if their territories are liberated, many or even most of certain components of the society or “minorities” will not return due to loss of confidence in the future and in Iraq’s political system, especially those who already migrated or are awaiting their asylum approval. They encountered religious and racial discrimination, practiced even by their neighbors of other religions and ethnicities. Perhaps many cultural objects disappeared entirely or were ruined. For examples, many churches, temples, and archaeological sites were destroyed in order to erase their traces in the pretext that they are idols or of the infidels.
In my own native town of Telkaif, shrines like Bokhsahtha, Mar Yousif, Mar Danial, Mar Shmoony, Mar Yoyhanna and others cannot be celebrated in the absent of their people. Telkaif town cemetery was destroyed. Similar incidents happened to Yazedis, Shiites, Shabaks, Turkomans, and others in Mosul and Nineveh province territories.
When the displaced Chaldean Iraqis go to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, or other neighboring countries to gain refugee status to immigrate, they try to maintain what they can of their faith and beliefs, by gathering together, going to churches, practicing religious rites, and speaking their own Aramaic language. In time of despair and weakness resorting to religion can be a psychological solution.
What matter for the displaced people and the immigrants is survival and safety before anything else, and having food and shelter; they just think of a place that accepts them in order to maintain their lives and survival. In such times, they have little stomach for culture or heritage but to stay alive.
The Chaldean migrants speak of memories and exchanges information and news about home country, villages, and towns that were theirs. Generally speaking, the first generation of immigrants lose even their parents’ original language, so much so that when speaking with their parents they reply in English in English-speaking countries. The first generation may understand the parents’ language but because of the environment, school, television, mass media, and other means of communication, they lose their mother’s tongue little bit by little. Studies point out that by third generation, they lose all main aspects of their original culture and if anything they keep, it’s probably the type of food, the communication style, and some traditional religious and ceremonies.
In terms of heritage and identity, educated and intellectuals in the new countries are trying to maintain their culture or what they can preserve of it, but no matter how hard they try the new life and its requirements take them away from it.
In terms of the keeping cultures for the Middle Eastern who are displaced, it all depends on the nationality (ethnicity); whether it is large or small in number and where their location in the area is. For example, Armenians have a statehood in West Asia and they are strong nationalists due to their history and what happened to them during the Ottoman Empire rule. There are millions of them worldwide and they try to keep strongly their culture. The Kurds are over 25 million people and are well known for their cause. The Palestinians have an international issue and they are struggling to secure an independent Palestinian state.
But the Chaldo-Assyrians in Iraq are relatively small in number, about a million people scattered in the Middle East and immigrants elsewhere in the world. They are small ethnic and religious component in the Iraqi society. Chaldean/Syriac/Assyrian political and nationalist parties or religious groups play the role of preserving what they can of their heritage, identity, and language. But the task remains confined to cultural elites or some fanatics. This depends on their location, denomination, and relationships with other components of the society. Some of their political parties in their homeland occasionally work against the will of their people by supporting dominant ethnic groups and their nationalistic policies in their struggle with other ethnic groups or parties.
Regarding the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian in Iraq, the Christian Church, the Patriarch, and other clergy are playing a major role in preserving the Aramaic language, the Eastern Church, and the cultural heritage in the homeland and in the diaspora, where masses, seminars, and celebrations are still done in the Aramaic language and sometimes Arabic is added. Although the Church is not in favor of immigration for any reason, it can’t prevent people from migrating in search of safety and to continue life.
There are certainly parameters of loss of identity, especially for young and new generation, but also preserving what can be preserved though for a few upcoming generations. In a country like the United States, where most of the Chaldo-Assyrians are living, heritage preservation is being done when possible. For example, many churches and nationalist organizations establish educational or cultural centers and teach the mother tongue. In Michigan, for example, where most Chaldean people are from the town of Telkaif, which was in earlier time the largest Christian town in Iraq, a plan resembling the town is projected. Chaldeans of Telkaif have produced a featured film of mid-twentieth century flood in the town to reflect on unfortunate event in history of the town. Dozens of plays in Aramaic have been produced where the embodiment of the habits, traditions, rites, fashion, music, fashion, food, and social daily practices. Newspapers and bulletins are issued and Chaldean festivals are held annually alone or in collaboration with other ethnic groups. The Chaldeans educate their children on their traditions and values of marriage and family ties, encouraging inner-group marriage. They are proud of being Chaldeans or Chaldean-Americans in the Americans society.