Skokie program visits Assyrian culture for six weeks

dt_common_streams_streamserver.jpgBy MIKE ISAACS
The third annual Coming Together in Skokie program focuses on the Assyrian culture and “Gilgamesh,” the oldest recorded work in world literature as well as other books. Events are slated from January through March.
Skokie’s third installment of Coming Together in Skokie will shine its spotlight on Assyrian culture with activities that begin at the end of the month and run for the next six weeks.

In only three years, the program feels like a staple event in the village, a logical extension of other initiatives celebrating the enormous amount of diversity among Skokie’s population.

Each year, the program celebrates an ethnic culture with programs devoted mostly to literature and arts. The first two years highlighted India and the Philippines.

But there are some differences to this year’s edition, said Susan Van Dusen, one of the program’s founders and the first lady of Skokie.

“One of the major ones is that Assyrians do not have their own country,” Van Dusen said. “But we felt there are so many Assyrians in our community who want to keep their heritage alive and to celebrate where they come from.”

This year’s program not only celebrates the Assyrian culture but it also can be viewed as a literary time machine of sorts because of its main book selection.

That selection is “Gilgamesh,” not only an epic poem but the first known recorded literature discovered among the archaeological ruins of Assyrian King Ashurbanipal’s great library.

There are various versions of the book, but the one being recommended for the Skokie program is “Gilgamesh: a New Rendering in English Verse” by David Ferry.

Like the last two years, Coming Together in Skokie will include six weeks of events all revolving around a single culture. The program opens Jan. 29 with a kickoff activity at Niles West High School and concludes March 22 with a book discussion of “Gilgamesh” at the Skokie Public Library.

Scheduled in between are many activities at various venues throughout the village all intended to contribute to a community-wide celebration promoting literacy and exploring the Assyrian culture in depth.

Other books that are part of this year’s program include “Home Is Beyond the Mountains” by Celia Barker, a story of unimaginable loss and profound courage; “Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees” by Deborah Ellis highlighting firsthand accounts of children displaced by war in Iraq; and “Sahra=Moon,” written and illustrated by Romil and Victor Benyamino, a children’s book written in Assyrian and English as a playful bedtime story.

Ellis and Lottridge are scheduled to appear in Skokie several times as part of this year’s program.

Other events include a tour of the ancient wonders of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, the first tour of this kind that Coming Together In Skokie has offered.

The Oriental Institute is a research center and museum devoted to the archaeology, languages and history of civilizations in the ancient Near East.

The program’s other offerings are likely to appeal to a wide age range of audiences.

They will include traveling exhibitions, book discussions, hands-on crafts, festivals, reading nights, music, history, authentic native cuisine and more.

One reason Coming Together In Skokie feels so inspired is because of how much of the village stands behind it.

The program was launched from a series of informal lunches attended by a small and diverse group of key women in Skokie.

The group defined itself as “a new movement composed of Skokie institutions dedicated to promoting more in-depth knowledge about the many cultures in our community.”

Van Dusen along with Niles Township High School District 219 Superintendent Nanciann Gatta, Skokie Public Library Director Carolyn Anthony, Indian Community of Niles Township President Usha Kamaria and Sheila Gilani of the Skokie Holiday Inn became the founders.

A look at this year’s venues indicate the program’s wide range of support throughout the community: District 68‘s Highland School, National Louis University, Niles North and Niles West High Schools, the Niles Township Schools English Language Learner Parent Center, both campuses (Skokie and Des Plaines) of Oakton Community College, Sanford-Brown College in downtown Skokie, the Skokie Park District and the Skokie Public Library.

Meeting monthly with the Assyrian community to organize the event, Van Dusen said, reflected just how inclusive the program has become.

“It was such a big group,” she said. “It was even hard to hear someone at the other end of the table.”

This year’s program has more of an academic bent than previous editions, Van Dusen said, with several speakers scheduled to talk about the history of the Assyrian culture.

Van Dusen herself has written a “contextual piece” about “Gilgamesh” that will be available at the Skokie Library and serve as an ideal addendum to the book.

Although Coming Together In Skokie spotlights a different culture every year, its intended audience is from all backgrounds.

“This is not an Assyrian celebration for Assyrians only,” Van Dusen said. “It’s for all people to learn about a different culture and to gain greater understanding about what the Old Country is like.”

But the program is also intended to empower the Assyrian community — especially children and teenagers — and reinforce that its culture is recognized and meaningful, Van Dusen said.

The first two years of the program each drew about 3,000 people to at least one of the 30 or so events. The organizers would like to see an even bigger turnout this year.

Organizations helping to plan events include 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.

Skokie remains one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the state with more than 90 different languages and dialects spoken in homes.

“We acknowledge this wonderful diversity as an opportunity to build knowledge, awareness, and appreciation for the many cultures around us,” Van Dusen said. “We hope that residents and students will read these books, take part in public discussion groups, and enjoy the many activities we are offering.”

More coverage and a schedule of events will soon be posted online at as well as being featured in the Jan. 19 edition of the Skokie Review.