Embracing diversity with Woman of the Year Award

Eighty-five-year-old Nasra Şimmes Çilli, a world-famous Aramean artist, sits with her work at her home in Mardin, which she opens to tourists every day. Turkey named Çilli Woman of the Year for 2012. (PHOTO Reuters)
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan honored women entrepreneurs and leaders for International Women’s Day two weeks ago in Mardin.
Among those pioneering women was 85-year-old Aramean artist Nasra Şimmes Çilli, who was named Woman of the Year 2012.

Syriac Universal Alliance (SUA) President Johny Messo, who spoke to Sunday’s Zaman in an exclusive interview, said the selection of Çilli is a reminder that the Arameans are an “invaluable part of Turkey.” SUA, a worldwide umbrella organization for all Syriac people and organizations, is an NGO in special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Also known as Syriacs, Arameans speak a Semitic language that dates back 3,000 years and was used by Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ.

“Of all the 37 million women in Turkey, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s choice of Çilli as the Woman of the Year makes us, the Aramean diaspora, feel immensely proud. It further shows that our people, although few in number, are still able to inspire and impact the societies we live in,” Messo said.

Çilli learned to hand press fabric at her father’s side at the age of 10. Seventy-five years later, she not only continues her art but is also widely known as Mardin’s first and only Aramean hand press master.

But Çilli’s name is not only familiar among Arameans. Her fame has swept every part of Turkey as well many countries around the globe. Her ritual cloths, painted using root dyes, adorn churches all over the world.

Çilli enjoys the fame but for perhaps a less obvious reason. “My ritual cloths are used in churches in many countries,” she acknowledged to the Cihan news agency in 2009. “But I am happy for more than that because my cloths represent and promote Mardin.”

In fact, Çilli said she opens up her home to tourists every day out of love for Mardin. “In a way I am introducing them to Mardin,” she said.

Heritage in danger

“Çilli is one of the last Mohicans of the Aramean people, who are native to the region of Mardin, which in antiquity was part of an Aramean city-state,” explained Messo, calling Çilli a blend of all the traditions that have culturally and religiously enriched Mardin for centuries.

“We are also reminded of the important role that women play in preserving and transmitting culture,” said Messo, reminiscent of activists’ call on International Women’s Day for greater representation of women in every aspect of life in Turkey.

Çilli’s unique artistic skill not only reflects the vestiges of the once-flourishing Aramean culture, Messo points out, but it also signals an alarm that this culture is in serious danger of extinction.

“We deeply hope that the government will create a policy to safeguard, develop and promote this unique endangered heritage. In April we will visit Mardin and Ankara and we are happy to discuss cooperation and joint projects in this regard,” Messo said.

Last month two groups from Turkey’s non-Muslim community presented their proposals to the parliamentary sub-commission working to replace the country’s constitution, calling attention to the restricted rights of minorities and demanding equal standing as citizens. “There have been unjust practices against minorities. A new Turkey is being born and we don’t want to be second-class citizens anymore,” Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew said following the meeting.

Kuryakos Ergün, head of the Mor Gabriel Foundation, drafted a proposal on behalf of Turkey’s Aramean community. “We asked for basic rights — like the removal of barriers currently restricting someone’s right to education in his or her mother tongue,” he told the media after offering Parliament his proposal.

“Arameans have been living here for more than 6,000 years. They are one of the oldest communities in this region. We are not guests here,” he asserted.