Four books tagged as gateway to Assyrian culture

untitled.bmpBy MIKE ISAACS
Exploring a culture that existed 3,500 years before the birth of Jesus Christ offers no shortage of literature from which to choose.

The Coming Together in Skokie committee was aided in this daunting challenge by the leaders in the Assyrian community itself.

The committee worked with various Assyrian cultural groups including the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation, Assyrian Chaldean Syriac Student Movement, Assyrian National Council of Illinois, the Assyrian American Civic Club of Chicago and the Assyrian students of Niles West and Niles North High Schools.

“We cast a net far and wide with the Assyrian community,” said Skokie Public Library Executive Director Carolyn Anthony.

But what also helped in the decision process were definitive guidelines that committee members knew they wanted in place.

A selected book had to reflect the ancient history of this culture since it’s one of the oldest in the world.

“This is ancient. This culture is so old,” said Anthony. “How can we help people understand what it’s like to have a culture go back thousands of years? This is almost incomprehensible — especially here in the United States.”

The literature also had to reflect the experience of refugee life, of fleeing a war-torn homeland. Assyrians are proud people but without a country of their own.

Anthony said that more scholarly and longer books about Assyrian culture were passed over because the committee wanted its selections to be readable for all participants.

In the end, the committee selected an eclectic mix that included the oldest literature known to humankind, a fictional account of refugee life, real-life accounts from children of about being refugees and a delightful picture book that appeals to the youngest of age. Two of the authors will make presentations during the six-week program.

“To learn more about a culture,” Anthony said, “there’s nothing really like reading and discussing it with other people. It really gets you into a deeper level.”

• Gilgamesh: a New Rendering in English Verse by David Ferry remains the oldest recorded work in world literature.

Told in poetic verse, the epic of Gilgamesh explores the quest for immortality by two friends. Many versions of Gilgamesh exist, but the committee chose one that will be more accessible to readers.

Ferry’s version is not a literal translation, the committee states, but a new adaptation for the modern reader. Gilgamesh, which predates the Old Testament, is a work that comes from the oral tradition of storytelling and provides more than just a glimpse of an early civilization.

“We don’t know anything before Gilgamesh,” says Homer Ashurian of the Assyrian Universal Alliance who is scheduled to appear during the program.

• Home Is Beyond the Mountains by Celia Barker Lottridge tells a fictional story based on real-life experiences about a young girl who loses her family while fleeing her home in the face of war.

The book captures her efforts to become part of a new family and then follows her back to her homeland with the help of her orphanage director.

Its story mirrors the Assyrians’ flight from Persia at the end of World War I.

Anthony noted that some in Skokie share the experience of having had to leave their homeland and make a new life in a foreign world.

The author will appear in Skokie during the program.

• Deborah Ellis’ Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees compiles firsthand accounts of children displaced by war in Iraq.

“These heartbreaking stories remind the reader of universal truths such as joy, fear, hate and forgiveness,” the committee states.

The author will appear in Skokie during the program.

• Sahra=Moon, written and illustrated by Romil and Victor Benyamino is an illustrated children’s book written in Assyrian and English.

A playful bedtime story, the book takes children on a journey into the wilderness to discover animals and experience nocturnal events