Dr. Eden Naby Frye
January 14, 2020
From its origins in 2007 in a charming walnut orchard setting in Modesto, California, Mesopotamian Night (Ramsha d-Bet Nahrain) has become an established part of the multi-pronged move to preserve, expand and popularize Assyrian culture.
In the Assyrian diaspora, preservation and perpetuation has become as imperative as maintaining a presence in the Middle East. Mesopotamian Night has made the leap from small clusters of activists, separated from each other by geography, to a network of dozens of individuals whose hidden talents brighten our cultural lives.
And the visionary core team of comrades, led largely by the producer of Mesopotamian Night, Tony Khoshaba (Ardishay, Urmia, San Jose), strides forward in bold, exciting steps.
Assyrian Culture in Diaspora
The Assyrian diaspora (galuta) has come in waves, no doubt reaching back several millennia after the fall of the empire, and the diversion of Assyrian craftsmen and engineers to Achaemenid Iran where they applied their talent to the construction of Susa, a Persian political capital, and Persepolis, the Persian ceremonial capital. The modern Assyrian diaspora begins also under duress with the movement northward from Iran and the Ottoman Empire, beginning in 1828, when Assyrians relocated to Tsarist areas. Further migration north took place over the years, culminating in the flight from the WWI genocide in many directions, but very importantly northward into Russian territory.
That is why the Assyrian communities in the former Soviet Union have existed as significant Assyrian cultural hubs. Mesopotamian Night taps into this recent history and salvages the writings of such luminaries as David Elian (1910 Van area – 2001 Moscow), through the performance of the musical Maam Shallou. Living free of persecution for being Christians, the Russian-based Assyrian experience is instructive on how to survive (and melt away), in the oldest modern Assyrian diaspora.
To the United States, Assyrians of a variety of church affiliations began arriving during the late 19th century. For them, the task of cultural preservation and aid to compatriots caught in genocide took precedence. Naum Faiq (1867-1930), Abraham Yohannan (1853-1925) and others created a record of both culture and political activity through books and periodicals that circulated around the world to Assyrian communities. One of the best collections of such publications is in Saint Petersburg as part of the large collection belonging to Rabi Mikhael Sado (1934-2010). In these periodicals may be found poems, songs and histories of our people in diaspora and in the homeland.
Weaving Together Culture and Community
Thanks to digital, instead of print dissemination, Mesopotamian Night helps bind together our scattered world community through culture. To meet the varied community entertainment need, a typical MN evening starts with art performance (choral ensemble, musical plays) while the second half focuses on our body of popular songs and singers. Often these popular singers weave together older, updated Aramaic language materials from around the world.
But that is not all.
One vision of the future of Mesopotamian Night builds on the experimentation of replicating Mesopotamian Night in other diaspora communities: Los Angeles, Chicago, Sydney, and in 2020, Phoenix, Arizona. The latter location, another sort of diaspora, has drawn together older families from primary diaspora locations such as Chicago, New Britain, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Detroit, Turlock and other places while also including those directly fleeing Iraq, Iran and Syria. So during 2020, the focus shifts to other cities, and perhaps, other countries. Sad though it may be, and telling of the direction of the Middle East, chances of staging a Mesopotamian Night event anywhere in the homeland, about which so many of us are nostalgic, appear remote. But the Mesopotamian Night brand is now established. The model works based on a mixture of volunteers and professionals, all bound together with the will to create. Our culture survives in galuta.
Value Created, Artists Encouraged, Audiences Entertained
From that lovely outdoor performance with the audience seated at round dining tables listening and watching excerpts from the opera Inanna, to the delightful Hannibal Alkhas musical Malik Rama, to the ever-increasing body of songs and poems performed and ready to be reperformed, the Mesopotamian Night endeavor has created a treasury of Assyrian culture for future generations. Available as video, compact disc, and through the historically significant program books, this treasury of modern Assyrian culture forms an invaluable resource for Assyrians around the world.
Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of Mesopotamian Night toward the encouragement of Assyrian cultural talent lies in the recognition bestowed on the artistic community. This process takes two forms: the adaptation for stage of existing literary works by using the talents of active composers such as Edwin Elia, Honiball Joseph, Shmuel Khangeldy, and George Somi, as well as poets Edison Ebrahimi and Yosip Bet Yosip. The second method takes the form of recognition, sometimes posthumously, of twentieth century luminaries through the Mesopotamian Achievement Awards Raab Amni (Master of Art), Raab Sayoomi (Master of Writing), and Raab Avoodi (Master of Activism). In the process of award presentations, brief biographies of the artists are preserved.
The Role of the Assyrian Aid Society
Thanks to its underlying support from the Assyrian Aid Society, with its multi-country based branches, inspiration to support homeland Assyrians continues as it did at the turn of the nineteenth century with organizations like the Assyrian Orphanage and School Organization (TavMimSimkat,1899). From its origins in 1991, the AAS has shown itself to be a trustworthy organ of the Assyrian diaspora. While other charities serve as significant means of aid to Assyrians clinging to the homeland, it is the Assyrian Aid Society that dedicates resources to culture in the diaspora as well. The result is Mesopotamian Night, an exciting venture now reaching beyond San Jose, California, to bring a diverse program to our scattered diaspora.
Through its Arts and Culture Committee (established summer 2019), the AAS mandates this standing committee “to promote awareness and appreciation of Assyrian arts and culture, both traditional and modern, in public performances appealing to Assyrian and non-Assyrian audiences alike.”
Dare we hope that someday the successful Mesopotamian Night brand will merge talent, creativity and entertainment to function around the world in both the diaspora and in the homeland?
Dr. Eden Naby Frye is an Assyrian historian and researcher. She has been a sponsor and supporter of the Mesopotamian Night project since its inception in 2007.