freelance writer & illustrator

On the Futility of Defying Extinction

October 19, 2019

 

My girlfriend is in the bath. I stand at the kitchen sink, reciting a list of words in my head. Our one-bedroom apartment is small, but I can get away with incanting if I keep it under my breath. As I wash our coffee mugs from the morning, I name objects around me: cucumber, water, light. I whisper their names, one after the other, like they are items on a grocery list: keys, shoes, window. Khiyara, mia, birqa; k’deela, so’la, panjara.

 

I continue reciting the Assyrian words for the things around me, still out loud, still under my breath, and it strikes me how I might sound: like a child learning to say them for the first time. But really, I have had these words stored in my brain for as long as I can remember, and though they are few, I am determined not to forget them.

 

So I recite.

 

By the time my father and I stopped speaking, I was twenty-seven and had been toying with the idea of severing ties with him for nearly a decade. However, in all the years I’d spent entertaining the notion, I’d failed to prepare myself for one major consequence of its execution: My father had long been the primary person through whom I’d had a connection to my family’s ancestral — and dying — language.

 

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, my extended family featured prominently. Year after year, the stubbornness of summer’s residual heat was fully realized on September afternoons when my aunt would pick up me, my brother, and her son from middle school and cram us into the backseat of her air conditioning-less coupe (which the three of us ruefully nicknamed “The Hotbox”) while our grandmother sat bundled in a scarf and coat up front. Then there was my father’s brother; before I’d reached double-digits, I’d ordered him to promise he’d never have children for fear they’d replace me in his life — a vow he repeatedly assured me he’d never break.

 

My paternal family members were woven into my life and I into theirs, and for a good deal of my life, I couldn’t conceive of another way. Still, this deep integration didn’t come without questions of how my father’s family and I fit together: Countless weekends at my grandparents’ house playing hide-and-seek and video games with my brother and cousins were punctuated by regular admonitions from my towering and affectionate grandfather who, noting my stubborn English monolingualism as I interacted with the other children, made a habit of reprimanding me to speak Assyrian.

 

Hamzem Suret! he’d command sharply. I’d freeze in response, frightened not because he’d scolded me and not because I’d failed to do the thing that would have prevented the scolding, but because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it in the future. Even as a child, I was plagued by an inexplicable anxiety over my inability to speak — or, more significantly, my lack of connection to — my family’s language.

 

My brother and I have a Greek mother and, out of our large, extended family, we were the only children whose parents weren’t both Assyrian. Since my parents always communicated with each other in English, I, unlike the other children in my family, hadn’t been raised to speak Assyrian as a first, or dual, language.

 

Before I’d reached age ten, I’d become convinced that my lack of native fluency would surely make my familial language sound clunky and halting as it stumbled off my tongue. As a result, I took to speaking it as infrequently as possible. At such a young age, it didn’t occur to me that this refusal on my part fomented the very disconnect I feared.

 

As I moved through my teenage years, I unwittingly cemented my linguistic insecurities by almost exclusively responding to my father and his family in English. I was so anxious about my Assyrian that I scarcely answered my grandparents in kind when they greeted me. “Hi, fine — how are you?” I’d respond in English each time, as though by making my answer as compact as possible, I’d be able to distract them from the fact that I couldn’t string together a complete sentence in Assyrian or that I was too shy to try — throughout my life, the distinction hardly seemed to matter.

 

My grandparents had been forced to endure various measures of state-sanctioned assimilation in Iraq. Like most second-generation children in the US, I couldn’t relate to my grandparents’ storied experiences of overcoming cultural and political persecution. Naturally, language was the easiest way for us to access our shared heritage.

 

I imagined what my pitiful attempts at Assyrian sounded like to my grandparents. That I couldn’t conceive of the journey they’d embarked on to preserve our family was one thing. But my inability to speak their native tongue felt like damning proof that I wasn’t really one of them. Speaking Assyrian to my grandparents, then, only made me feel like I was highlighting my differences from my family.

 

I was never sure whether this otherness stood out as starkly to my family as it did to me, or whether they noticed it at all. Either way, I decided at a young age that this wasn’t the sort of attention I wanted to court, and ultimately, what my paternal relatives did or didn’t notice didn’t matter. However they accommodated me linguistically, I remained hyperaware of what I considered a major deficiency on my part.

 

Though I highly prioritized my insecurity, I was certain it read as a youthful, arrogant disregard for our heritage. My English responses resulted in my paternal family members — particularly my grandparents, aunt, and uncle — gradually speaking less and less Assyrian to me. Over the years, the once perennial “Why don’t you learn Assyrian?” was eventually replaced by my grandmother’s patient fumbling to find the English equivalent for a basic conversational word.

 

Meanwhile, they continued speaking the language to my brother, who’d always been far more outgoing than I was and, thus, far less self-conscious about learning Assyrian. Despite my shyness, my father’s family — unified in my eyes by their warmth toward us as children of the herd — never favored my brother for his Assyrian-speaking abilities. “Yimmi — you’re my mother,” my grandfather would say each time I saw him, planting a firm kiss on top of my head.

 

He’d then reference a framed black-and-white photograph of his mother that lived in both my grandparents’ and parents’ homes. In it, her hair fell down the middle of her back in a single, long braid. Growing up, my mother often sent me to school with my hair the same way in order to keep it manageable. Ultimately, my relatives’ unwavering affection sought to convince me that, when it came to our family structure, I had a place, and it was within.

 

 

Still, I was achingly aware that the difference in their treatment manifested in how they addressed us — my brother in Assyrian and me in English. I think they figured I wouldn’t understand them otherwise. Because my brother was less self-conscious about his Assyrian proficiency, they continued speaking it to him. And I think that helped him to continue learning it.

 

Friends would listen in wonderment as I peppered Assyrian phrases into phone conversations with my grandparents; to American ears, any utterance of the language sounded impressive. In reality, my proficiency has topped out at elementary, and even then, just barely. By the time I was an adolescent, I’d begun telling curious friends, who heard my father speaking Assyrian to me when they came over, that I didn’t speak the language. Without missing a beat, I’d justify my inability.

 

“I think it sounds ugly,” I’d say with a shrug, doing my best to feign nonchalance over what I’d always feared was my self-imposed status as an outsider in my own family. Then I’d move on to another subject.

 

However inaccurately, I began to regard the language as a wall that surrounded my family, and I quickly came to resent everything about it. Its existence felt to me like a barrier to what I considered real intimacy with them; to any potential for real recognition as one of them; to the realness of my own existence, which had so long been mired in my own murky understanding of what it meant to be Assyrian-American.

 

Globally, there are less than four million Assyrians left, and about one hundred thousand of them live in the United States. However, this number is continually dwindling. Due to Arabization, interventionism by the US and neighboring countries, and subsequent internal unrest, Assyrians in the Middle East are continually forced to contend with genocide and displacement. The ongoing diaspora of the Assyrian people from their homeland in modern-day Iran, Iraq (where my family is from), Syria, and Turkey has rendered the preservation of the Assyrian language all the more critical to their survival.

 

As a teenager, I couldn’t meaningfully fathom the brutal realities affecting Assyrians around the world. In many ways, I still can’t. My dad, on the other hand, has had tunnel vision when it comes to restoring the Assyrian people to what he considers their original glory (though modified for modern times) for most of his adult life.

 

Growing up, I often thought of my parents’ house as a museum of Assyrian history. Despite changing locations many times throughout the years, a statuette of Ashurbanipal has been a fixture in their family room for as long as I can remember. A visitor with questions about its origins can look to the stack of Assyrian history books on the coffee table for answers. The walls in my parents’ guest room are adorned with paintings by my late great uncle, Sargon Boulus, who was, in addition to a beloved Assyrian poet both at heart and by profession, an artist in his spare time. The decor goes on.

 

Nonetheless, my dad’s dedication to Assyrian survival and sovereignty is most visible outside my parents’ home: After over a decade and a half of membership, he became the president of a prominent organization whose mission is to aid Assyrians in Iraq. Having always done his work for the organization on a volunteer basis and in addition to his job as an engineer, my father has been unwaveringly steadfast in his commitment to this organization’s work.

 

So steadfast, in fact, that growing up, my brother and I mused, often bitterly, that he cared more about “Assyrian stuff” than he did about our family. Or, really, that he didn’t care about our family at all.

“It’s all that matters to him,” my brother would remark as we sat on my parents’ front porch smoking cigarettes.

 

 

Once I’d reached my mid-twenties, my dad invited me to join him at the organization’s meetings. I’d been seeking opportunities that involved Assyrian aid and resistance in the Middle East, and locally, they were few and far between. I accepted his offer, and we agreed in good faith that I’d become an official volunteer if the fit was right. Unfortunately, the arrangement didn’t last long.

 

Our inability to get along taxed both of us, and I only ended up going to a few meetings before deciding that our personal relationship made working together untenable, at least for me. I think my father, on the other hand, had a much higher threshold when it came to tolerating the contention in our relationship — particularly because doing so would have meant working side-by-side to preserve our people. I don’t underestimate what value the multigenerational aspect of this dynamic may have meant for my father.

 

When it came to my ability, or lack thereof, to speak Assyrian as I was growing up, my dad was far less willing to acquiesce to my anxieties than the rest of our family. Up until we stopped speaking, he addressed me in a hybrid of Assyrian and English. I only ever responded in the latter. Though I often felt selfish, as though I was willfully contributing to the already-precarious state of the general Assyrian population and its cultural identity, I was dogged in my pursuit of appearing unfazed by what I considered to be one of my most indicting shortcomings.

 

Unlike my grandfather, my father was often indirect in communicating his discomforts and would not issue explicit commands that I speak Assyrian. My ability to understand simple phrases had lulled us into a mutually feigned ignorance. Nonetheless, discomfort would rear its stubborn head whenever, ironically, my father became too comfortable speaking Assyrian to me and uttered a phrase too complicated for me to understand.

 

In such moments, whatever facsimile of intimacy my dad and I had built by way of my elementary grasp of our language would instantly evaporate and an ocean would open between us. I would look at him blankly, waiting for him to offer another word I could use as a lifeline to swim back to his side — or at least meet him in the middle. Other times, I would become agitated.

 

“I don’t know what that word means,” I’d spit from the kitchen sink, continuing to wash dishes as though my life depended on it.

 

Always, when my father spoke to me in words I could not understand, my guilt spoke back. All the while, I’d keep my back turned stiffly to the couch where he sat watching TV, unresponsive. And in a way, I think he was grateful I didn’t turn and face him.

 

This particular guilt was, for as long as I could remember, an undercurrent of my relationship with my father. It was compounded by two facts: I’d long known I wasn’t going to have children, and even if I did, they would mostly be of non-Assyrian heritage and even less familiar with the language and culture than I am. In recent years, I’ve imagined my grandparents’ lives in Iraq and lamented how much I do not know about them — how much more I would know, could have known, if only I spoke the language.

 

My father, his parents, and siblings fled Ba’ath Iraq in the early 1970s. Upon settling in the US, they seized the opportunity to preserve their Assyrian heritage because they could do it without fear, in a way they were no longer free to do in Iraq.

 

Throughout my life, when my father was particularly half-hearted in admonishing me to speak Assyrian, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was doing all he could to keep from surrendering — from entertaining the idea that, despite his best efforts, despite all his family had endured to survive, I’d ended up a lost cause anyway.

 

 

Just after I cut off contact with my dad, I read an article in the New York Times about a man named Amadeo García García. García, who lives in Perú, is the last living native speaker of his language, Taushiro. Although García has several children, none of them know his native tongue, so he communicates with them in Spanish.

 

A few weeks after I read the Times piece, I came across a proverb that said that a culture cannot exist within just one person — it needs a community in order to survive. I thought of Amadeo García García, about how now he is alone, most of his family killed off by the Spanish invaders of Perú, by their infliction of violence and disease. By forced assimilation. I thought about how if he were to speak Taushiro to his children, they wouldn’t understand him.

 

I thought of my relationship with my own family, with my own father. With our language, or, I guess, their language. I considered my legitimacy as an Assyrian. I know my experience with loss of language, culture, and community comes nowhere near García’s in terms of its imminence, its permanence.

 

But as I imagined García reading in a language only he could understand, I couldn’t help but remember all the afternoons I’d turned to the Internet to try to teach myself more Assyrian, though the resources were scarce and I had no one to speak it to. About two years ago, I told a friend that I was trying to teach myself the language. Genuinely curious, he asked how I was doing it.

 

“It’s not like you can use Google Translate,” he said.

 

Since then, I’ve kept a browser window open on my phone that shows a table of common Assyrian phrases and good-to-know words, along with their English translations. Sometimes, when I am alone, I say the words to myself. I say them aloud. I remember how they sounded when my dad would say them to me. When other members of my family would say them to me, or to each other. A lot of them are unfamiliar. I am sure I am mispronouncing most of them.

 

I know it’s not the same, but now, in these moments, I think about Amadeo García García. According to the New York Times, he still reads his Bible in Taushiro. Even though I scarcely speak to my father or his family now, I keep trying to learn Assyrian. Just in case something changes.

 

It is not important, at least not to this essay, why my father and I stopped speaking. What is important is that we did stop speaking, and now I am adrift, in some ways. I understand that I’m the one who made the choice, even if I don’t like the way it turned out, completely.

 

 

In junior high and high school, I had a nagging feeling that I didn’t belong. Upon switching to a majority-white school for seventh grade, I was almost immediately called an “Iraqi terrorist” by a classmate. I wasn’t bullied mercilessly in school, but I was far from popular, and much of the teasing I encountered painted me with a racialized question mark (“I forget your friend’s name — the one with the big hair, eyebrows, and nose”).

 

No one knew how to place me; even some of my closest white friends cracked racist jokes about Indian people at my expense. Although we were close, when they invoked that sort of humor, we weren’t evenly matched. What could I say? They were simply white. I felt I didn’t have the language to speak back.

 

As much as I could, I’d will family gatherings to be a source of respite from what I often felt was a hostile school environment. Instead, these gatherings merely highlighted the all-encompassing nature of my otherness. Everyone in attendance would be speaking Assyrian, and I’d be convinced I was an intruder. In those moments, I worried that one of my relatives would suddenly become aware of my presence and remark (to the person they were talking to, to everyone else; it didn’t matter) just how out of place I was.

 

I’ve come to understand that my familial ties extend to places beyond the US, beyond Americanism. These facets of ancestry and experience, of language and origin, are defining features of my identity — and I have no real connection to them. Sometimes, when I think about my inability to access my family’s language, I am subdued by a fear that I am beginning to cease to exist or, perhaps, that it is too late, and I already have.

 

Conversely, I am, by default, of my family. I come from my mother and my father and their families, from their languages and countries of origin. Even though my connections to my family and to my father are strained, the solution to my nonexistence, to my in-betweenness, is not as simple as claiming “American” culture as my own. I can’t erase the way I was raised or the connections I had to my Assyrian heritage, however tenuous they may be now.

 

Sometimes, especially since my father and I stopped talking, I become hyperaware of a gnawing absence within me, almost as though the Assyrian part of me has been carved out with a spoon, leaving a void that couldn’t possibly be occupied by any other identifier or experience, no matter how I develop and grow as I slip further away from my family.

 

I don’t know what is in store for my relationship with my dad or my paternal family. However, my current experience has made clear to me that my Assyrian heritage might require more than just me in order to survive in my life. As I take tentative steps to envision healthier relationships with my father and my extended family, I remind myself that I have no idea what those relationships will actually look like. I remind myself that it might look like long-term — or permanent — estrangement.

 

A few months ago, I wrestled with the idea of attending a weekly meetup for queer Assyrian folks in my area, but imposter syndrome kept stopping me at the threshold between nonexistence and what I worry will be my inevitable rejection. I don’t know if I will ever go. I don’t know if I will ever recover the part of me that was scooped out. If I will ever feel whole again. So much of my future, as it relates to this, feels tentative.

 

For now, I’ll keep the browser window with the translation table up on my phone. For now, that’s my bible.

 

 

This essay was originally featured in The Rumpus in June 2019 and edited by Alysia Sawchyn.

 

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