What it Means to be Assyrian

Max J. Joseph
21 min readMay 8, 2016


A photo I took in 2013 of the the Ishtar Gate (Pergamon Museum, Berlin)

I took a trip to Berlin alone back in 2013. I needed a break from work. Knowing the rich material heritage Berlin has on display within its Museum Island, I went to the Pergamon Museum and saw the beautiful Ishtar Gate. As soon as I walked into the room, I could feel tears forming and a lump in my throat. I just stood there and looked at it.

I don’t know how much time passed before I realised the room was full of people absently walking around . I captured them here, dwarfed by the gate. Some were admiring things lying around, others decoding small maps and brochures, eager to plot their next move. I didn’t want to leave this room. Then I suddenly became very upset: I feel at home here, in a museum, more than anywhere else in the real world.

Like many Assyrians, I was not born in our homeland. I was born in London. I have grown up here and grappled with everything any Assyrian in diaspora has grappled with: the conflict between tradition and modernity, the culture passed on by our parents coupled with the culture picked up here, the choices and life decisions with lack of any real precedent, the confusion, the anger, the hopelessness, the lack of any meaningful feeling of belonging.

This isn’t about integration. Assyrians have a different problem. We are not constantly replenishing our numbers in our homeland. Our culture is not being renewed with the security of a government who represents our interests. Our language is not being sanctioned for use in any public schools. The conditions for all of these things do not exist for us. All we have is each other.

One of my favourite characters in fiction became cursed with hourglass shaped eyes which caused him to see time as it affected all things. He would perceive things wither and die in front of him, something he had to normalise and accept. Reading the story, the other characters were rarely offered a glimpse into how he felt about it until it was too late. I sometimes laugh and think he must have been Assyrian.


My name Max is the first camouflage. My surname, Joseph, is strangely a complex matter. My father’s surname in Iraq was Yousif, the Arabic for Joseph. Yousif is the Arabized form of the Assyrian Yousip. They are all the same name, but here I am, accidentally named after the first king of Bavaria. My name is so divorced from my culture I cant even spell it in my own language since there is no letter “x” — I would have to use kab and simkat (traditional k and s sounds) and make it “Maks”. There is the faintest feeling of something important slipping away, and its like hearing laughter in a dark well.

That said, I don’t really blame my parents. They had different considerations and incredibly difficult lives. We have an instinct to appreciate host cultures who do not want to stain the streets with our blood.

Here’s a brief summary of an ordinary Assyrian family.

My mother’s family was one torn apart by the Ottoman genocide of Assyrians, as well as Armenians and Greeks, whereby my teenage grandfather was robbed of his family and walked to Iraq where he enlisted at British RAF Habbaniya near Ramadi, along with many other Assyrians who had nothing left. He served with the British until retirement. He and his comrades are not remembered by the British government, the recruits at RAF Habbaniya and the Assyrian Levies in general have been forgotten.

The genocide of his family by the Ottomans, the family I was deprived of, and 750,000 other Assyrians is not recognized by Britain either. Yet he worked.

Assyrians Levies manning British RAF Habbaniya, 1940

My uncle, my mother’s brother, fought in the Iran-Iraq conflict. After the events of 2003, his future in Baghdad was uncertain and decided to visit my mother and the rest of his family here in London. This was the first time I had seen him for nearly 20 years. Equipped with adult ears and sensibilities, I listened to his stories late at night: he and other Assyrians were put on the front-lines in both Iraq and Iran, used as expendable fodder and first wave.

He told me he could sometimes vaguely make out the faces of other weary Assyrians ahead of him, all of them firing at each other with tears in their eyes. Anyone who refused to face forward and shoot was immediately executed as a traitor on the battlefield. My uncle closed his eyes in anguish and kept shooting. The penny dropped for me after his trip: we are approaching our next great catastrophe.

Givargis Agassi wrote a poem about this called “A Red Zero: The Dreadful Years of the 80's”

The winter breeze started to blow
Again the days grew shorter

The school bell that day were tolled
But the young boys did not show

Classes are all but empty
The blackboards are void of text

Young boys instead of pens
Hold weapons in their arms

Their hands are stained not by ink
But are soaked in red with blood

Their shoulders not bent by books
But are burdened by the guns

On the first day of the school
They raised the flag on the pole

But on that early morning
The anthem they did not sing

The classes began once more
But the young boys did not come

Instead of A, B, C and D
They learned lessons of martyrdom

The blackboards are void of writing
The pens are empty of ink

The classes are all deserted
During the day as on fridays

It did not take long for the boys
To stumble and fail their test

A red zero they earned as score
On the innocent board of their chest

The dreadful years of the eighties
People homeless in the streets

Young boys walked to war on foot
But were brought back held in arms

My other grandfather has origins in Urmia, Iran. He left after his brother was murdered by thugs and their family’s lands stolen with no recourse to law — a theme popular among Assyrians and their lands. After this, they fled to Iraq and settled in Baghdad where he found work. This didn’t last long, and he was assaulted and robbed by armed thugs and died shortly afterwards, leaving my father’s family without a breadwinner, and forcing him to quit school in his early teens to earn money to survive.

A few years into his young adult life he started compulsory military service. Christians began to be singled out and mistreated, abused and discriminated against in new ways by Saddam’s regime and its loyalists. My father would often tell me how fellow soldiers would not sit and eat with kafir, spit in his food and be constantly provocative (to justify their desire to punish any reaction). It was only after my parents grew up and met here in London by chance did they know some semblance of peace.

Life under a tyrant is horrible, but when you don’t share their colour, race, creed or culture, life under a tyrant is much worse.

To this day, an Assyrian risks death by contributing anything valuable or meaningful to advance our interests in the Assyrian homeland. I am often told by people familiar with KRG behaviour “be careful, you know those guys literally kill people, right?” — referring to the thousands of murders ordered by the KDP and the PUK.

My family sometimes treat my passion with fear — a psychological remnant of how their families treated theirs in Iraq. We remember countless martyrs like David Jindo, who was lied to, tortured and murdered by Kurdish YPG in Syria in 2015 despite largely cooperating with them, and Assyrian MP Francis Shabo, assassinated by an unnamed Kurd in 1993 who escaped punishment and still walks freely in Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) controlled areas.

They are but two heroes of a long line whose lives were cut short by parties keen to protect their own interests at the expense of our own. Nevertheless, we always have more emerging to inspire us with their commitment and heroism.

Athra Kado, an Assyrian teacher who joined the newly formed Nineveh Protection Units (NPU) militia guarding Assyrian lands, Iraq

As people get older and start thinking about starting their own families, I am getting older and I am identifying my family as my people. I cannot trace my family back in any meaningful way further than my grandparents, all of them have been massacred or lost in some way. I don’t even know all of the names of my great-grandparents, let alone anything about them — we are a nation of people so old, yet so brutally confined to a mere fragment of our history.

Land: The Iraqi Experience

Assyrians are native to areas of today’s Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, but Iraq has traditionally been considered as the epicenter of our origin. With the expansion of the ancient empire thousands of years ago, Assyrians settled into these other regions. Here and there, our material culture lies either strewn across barren fields or destroyed by fire.

Our Churches in Turkey, some over a thousand years old, have been converted into mosques or lie in ruins — some Kurdish villagers in the areas of Hakkari and Tur Abdin innocently use the large old stones engraved with Assyrian or Christian symbols lying around to help construct their own houses, mostly unaware of who and what they formed or what was there before them.

We have been almost completely purged from Turkey and Iran, with only a few thousand remaining in each country. The Assyrians in modern day Syria are proud of their legacy of founding and building Bet Zalin (Qamishli) and the Khabur villages, but these historic Assyrian settlements have now been placed within another emerging Kurdish polity — becoming a village within an autonomous region within a state, far removed from any power.

Throughout this, Assyrians found moments of relief in our heartlands inside Iraq, much like my own family. Subjected to regular Turkish, Kurdish and Persian massacres, our instinct has always been to head to this heartland.

We fortified ourselves here and in other regions without being isolationist. Many of us have learnt how to speak Arabic, Turkish and Kurdish to integrate with our neighbours — the same ones who have been periodically destroying us centuries. The courtesy regarding language is obviously not repaid.

The current Iraqi Constitution opens with “We, the Sons of Mesopotamia” yet doesn’t even recognize the Assyrian language as one of the official languages of the country, granting this privilege only to Arabic and Kurdish. For Assyrians, not much has changed from what came before.

In 1979, a young Saddam Hussein along with the Ba’ath party took power in a violent coup. Observers erroneously and with alarming regularity cite our alleged support of this regime. If not that, our alleged prosperity under it. The reality was harsher: thousands of Assyrians dead, were kidnapped, missing and exiled and hundreds of villages were destroyed. What I will negotiate here is not the details of this ordeal but its lasting effects.

The Ba’ath regime was hostile to anyone who did not cooperate with them, and wasn’t limited to some kind of visionary puritanism. It was a family run affair where failures were forgiven as long as you were completely loyal. That said, Assyrians slowly became forced into a position of being simply identified as Iraqi Christians via the policy of Arabisation.

This has affected the Assyrian consciousness so much. Some of us shrug and are content with this label, some of us have tried to use it positively with relation to getting and keeping Western attention — playing up to the strange fetishization I will discuss later.

Minorities living under tyranny usually try and endear themselves to central power structures by being compliant and willing subjects — since they have no ability to defend themselves independently or resist any negative policy targeting them.

Assyrians in big cities like Baghdad and Mosul were subjected to Arabization via pressure to live and behave like Arabs, even changing their names to fit in. Assyrians in our ancestral lands in the north were subjected to deportations and the destruction of entire villages.

Not all of us were compliant. A great many Assyrians fought heroically against Arabization and Saddam, side by side with Kurds and others, and were martyred in the process.

However our “band of brothers” turned sour when wealth and power was introduced into the fellowship.

Contrary to popular knowledge, an alliance between Saddam and Barzani’s KDP formed during the Kurdish civil war in the 90’s. With the establishment of the internationally protected safe zone in ’91 and the introduction of the Oil for Food sanctions, Saddam and Barzani suddenly needed each other: Barzani needed Saddam to bolster his forces during the fight for dominion of this newly demarcated land, and Saddam needed Barzani to oversee and manage illicit trade across Iraq’s northern border, bypassing the sanctions.

This formation of a relationship between Saddam and Barzani was a crucial step in the establishment of Barzani hegemony in the northern region. Through Barzani’s relationship with Saddam, much wealth was amassed to fill Barzani’s coffers, but much was also learned and transferred aside from material assets — namely, how to rule, as Michael Rubin wrote in 2011:

“Saddam may have been a brutal dictator, but he was a mentor; a generation of Kurdish politicians mirror his ways. Barzani and Talabani together ordered the disappearance and murder of several thousand Kurds during the 1990s. Barzani’s sons run intelligence and the militia, and his nephew is de facto prime minister. Greed, sycophancy, and isolation take their toll: Masud has become Saddam; his sons Masrour and Mansour act like Saddam’s sons Qusay and Uday; the affable Barham Salih has, like Tariq Aziz, become the acceptable face of a brutal regime, while Talabani’s son Qubad runs a charm offensive not unlike Saddam’s former ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon.”

Given this new established hegemony in the north, all at our expense, Assyrians have been left broken institutions, no representation, and no real place in the country. Kurdish settlers and peshmerga backed by powerful Kurdish tribes were only moving into our villages “temporarily”, we were reassured. That was nearly 30 years ago, and now it is called Kurdistan.

This is not primarily an appeal to the outside world for help, this is an appeal to Assyrians to realise that this is happening in their lifetime.

I cannot go back to my grandparents’ villages in Iraq — demographically, what were almost completely Assyrian villages are now completely Kurdish. All in one or two generations, not hundreds of years ago.

An Anatomy of Our Politics

Ask any ordinary Westerner to name one Assyrian politician — they can’t, despite having 13 years post-Saddam to make an impact in our name. More than this, politically, we resemble a ship with no masts or means of propulsion. In a war-torn Middle East, our voice has been muted, our faces blurred in front of cameras and our demands not voiced with any confidence, dignity or pride.

We have struggled to regain any of this confidence after the Ottoman genocide which reduced our numbers by as much as 70%. We have struggled after the Simele Massacre in 1933 which saw a newly independent Iraqi state turn on Assyrians, slaughtering thousands of men, women and children in our ancestral lands in Nohadra (Dohuk), starting the process of their eventual seizure by Kurdish settlers. People almost never appreciate how much these events have affected us and our position in the modern world.

The Middle East has indeed come together and co-operated unanimously many times in the past — and many of these occasions have been to exterminate Assyrians.

We are a nation divided by both outside and inside forces, there is no doubt. Our divisions run deep but thankfully they are all artificial — like a factory that has all of the tools and machinery needed to make something but the wrong schematics to work from. These have been misplaced, but they are already exist. These schematics rest with our martyrs, who lie buried in beating hearts.

We have not helped ourselves, and many of our own leaders have failed us at every turn — our best interests superseded by their own fleeting taste of esteem, power and security afforded either by their own egos or forces indifferent or hostile to us.

Some can pin their failures on an innocent lack of ability, whereas some others have tried to be all things to all people, to no real end aside from reaching a hollow and meaningless consensus. Some have been nurtured (or perhaps neutered is more apt) to believe we are powerless and that our salvation and prosperity lies with other groups of nationalists, namely the Kurds.

How can this last position be deemed reasonable when there has been no instance in history of a positive outcome for any people who adopt it?

Again, whenever citing Kurds, anyone with no intimate knowledge of their history, inner dynamics, regional differences, struggles and present aspirations would hugely benefit from studying these subjects before crow-barring the Assyrian struggle into their very limited grasp of what has happened and is happening right now between our peoples.

Too often, observers line up and shoot Assyrian questions through Kurdish goalposts — this needs to stop. Our struggle does not depend on, nor is it framed on theirs.

What is achievable for us should not depend on what is permissible by them — this is a failure of governance and a symptom of tyranny.

Yet, some Assyrians truly insist that the only way we can secure any kind of future for ourselves is within an emerging Kurdistan. Some believe it is with a strong unified Iraq. Some believe we have no future in the Middle East altogether and we should embrace the West wholesale — abandoning all existing preservation efforts and instead take up relocation drives.

Among these dark waltz’ into the night, one key option has been missing: Assyria. There are millions of us around the world, why is it unfeasible? There is only one reason: because we have been told so. Don’t let Arabs, Kurds or anybody else define what it means to be “a good Assyrian” — that is our task.

I always accuse the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its many cheerleaders and fans as having a get rich quick economic model built on quick extraction and sale of oil from land it has acquired to increase the wealth of a handful of mafia families.

However, I also accuse Assyrians of having a get rich quick political model which obsesses over the formation of organisations, the appeal to Western sympathies and power, the will to regiment and formalize — all with a direction out and away.

We feel that if only we tell someone in the correct way, there will be some favourable action. These are as good as messages in a bottle.

When our organisations stutter and fail, or an initiative isn’t successful, there’s a tendency to think it was because the effort just wasn’t organised properly or enough. Many of us begin our internal flagellation: “with enough professionalism…” or “if only we had the correct processes…” or “if only everyone was on board…”

All of this is delusion.

Agreement is very rarely reached on detail, only broad ideas. Policies aren’t formulated based on sentiment or procedural expertise and compliance. They are formulated on insular state interests, geopolitics, resource security and ultimately, leverage in all of these respects.

At this stage in history, after all of our efforts, our arguments, our genocides, after all that has been taken from us and all that we have left, in the face of all the crimes against us, most of which haven’t even been recognized despite being well documented — even by those whose lives are devoted to such tasks through media, law and government, the conclusion we must draw is simply that we only have each other.

Our world, our indignation, and our humiliation as we live homeless and as beggars in our own lands — these cries are ones which only echo back to haunt our own dreams.

If we don’t believe in Assyria, everything we are working for is in vain. All of those rooms we sit and talk seriously in, the presentations, the speeches, the protests, the condemnations — they mean nothing without a positive vision.

If we don’t control our own ancestral lands and determine our own future, we will have no future in the Middle East and we will join the rubble of our destroyed Churches and monuments.

A Movement

Being among the first nations to adopt Christianity, our Churches have historically been a sanctuary for our people among the perpetual upheaval and strife all around us.

They have been centers of preservation: of our culture and language, and of our continuation as a distinct people. However, they now stand partly in the way of building a movement away from entrenched denominational differences.

A nation of people is not bound by ultimately personal religious beliefs, but by their blood, memories and shared vision.

It was a mistake for the Church of the East to recently include the Assyrian name in the official title of the Church — this has in part contributed to legitimizing modern Chaldean separatism among other things.

It was a mistake for Syriacs to consider “Syriac” an ethnicity, since Syriac refers to our language strain from the language family of Aramaic. The fact that our Churches have flags is baffling. The fact that some Assyrians who deny their Assyrian identity wave these flags as they would national flags is saddening.

Throughout the years, our Church leaders have had to take up national leadership positions out of necessity and duty. I am unconvinced these are the things which spur the separatism today.

And anyway, this is happening because of our failure to construct a strong, unified and inclusive nationalist movement — some Church leaders have merely seen an opportunity and taken it; they are filling a space that has been left vacant.

Church leaders are prone to systems of patronage as much as political leaders — after all, that is how many are modelling themselves as. Whoever wins their favour commands their loyalty and the loyalty of the vast majority of Assyrians who revere and respect the will of their Churches. This makes control of narrative simpler and cleaner: speak to the priest, for he will tell you nothing is wrong and you can trust him. A journalist from the West jots this down, returning home relieved.

As I have alluded to just now, the pressure is external too — Assyrians are constantly ghettoized and undermined in this manner by observers. Suddenly, a community is “divided” because an elected Assyrian mayor or the people of a village distrusts the KRG, its violence, nepotism, and its encroachment whilst an unelected priest might seemingly embrace it.

Repeating this exercise with Kurds is unthinkable: nobody cites a high ranking Barzani or Talabani in the same sentence as a Kurdish imam — there is simply no parallel to be made, yet for Assyrians, it is made over and over again. But we must look at ourselves: we let it happen too often and we do not call it out with any kind force.

Many organisations and political parties have tried to address this phenomenon with all manner of inventions: of political bargaining, compromise, name-splicing, the tri-name etc. All are failures, because all break with the very essence of nationhood they are trying to capture and promote: the truth of peoples.

There is nothing wrong with identifying as Chaldean, or part of the Syriac Churches, but the Assyrian name is the name which has persisted continuously for thousands of years in spoken and written language. And crucially, it is a matter of perception: the Assyrian name is the glue and the substrata which binds the riches our differences together, and not the element which fragments and isolates them.

The Assyrian name is not oppositional — you are not Assyrian or, you are Assyrian and. The emphasis on reconciliation should be seen through this lens and against this unshakable principle.

It is the task of each and every Assyrian, from any Church or none, to contribute to this lifelong project — not just an anointed few. We need to dig in and fight for every sentence, every inch of land, every meaningful event, and every transcription of history. Nearly everything is against us, except the most important thing — the aforementioned truth of peoples, the truth of lands which our people have fought and died for.

Temper this truth with a positive energy to build faster than our internal and external detractors can destroy and our future slowly returns to our own determining. Do not outsource this duty to those who thrive from the business of our internal, national struggle — instead, come together and help each other.

Divisions and quandaries aside, I say to my friends: all Assyrians dream of unity, but unity is what happens when you share in certain principles, values and truths — it should not be what happens if you sacrifice them.

Western Perception

I can’t recall exactly how many academics have cast doubt into the very subject of Assyrian continuity — obviously cited and cheered on by our oppressors and enemies.

Its still a chore to address these sporadic but weighted attacks designed to formally separate us from our own lands. We are Assyrians, a fact inconvenient for many people. Before we come to terms with our own current fragility and dispensed notions of “political realism” by casual observers (or even by people with an intimate interest in the region) please remember that we are the people of that land.

There has been no seismic historical exodus from it into the wider world until this past century. And only then, because of a genocide with no recognition or reparations.

In the past, I lamented the Western outlook on our situation and the complete inability to address our problems outside of the rigid spectrum of typecast Left-wing and Right-wing responses. It continues.

The left wing response usually is no response at all. In all of these years growing up here, I have seen Angry London: the angry students, the anger at corporatism and the banks, anger at the ruling Conservative party, anger at bigotry, anger at racism, anger at xenophobia, anger at warmongering, anger at colonialism etc. When I marched on these streets and informed new friends about who I am and our struggle, the pattern suddenly changes. It seems there is no anger left for our situation.

Modern left-wing politics, at its very core, can be defined by inconsistency and myopia.

On the right side of the political spectrum, there is a glimmer of interest from conservative types who care down very narrow corridors because of the Christian element. The problem with this is that it reduces us to merely adherents of a religion we actually predate as a nation. Besides, nobody is interested in charging a volatile Middle East with yet another religious current. Yes, the vast majority of our people are proud Christians and have been endlessly persecuted for it, but we can build Churches and worship anywhere as we are doing freely in the West.

What we cannot preserve without mastery of our lands is literally everything else that defines us, as well as our material heritage.

Assyrian advocacy in this political climate is a dying profession. Western officials have given us absolutely no reason to believe they will help us in any meaningful way — young Assyrians would do well to ask difficult questions of their elders and peers: why things have turned out the way they are? What have we asked for? What have past efforts consisted of? What our correspondences have been with our adoptive governments since our diaspora? And importantly, what been have our failures and their failures?

We cling to every soundbite, every news item however obscure, every little mention of us and our issues like beggars on the floor waiting for crumbs to fall. All are effects of this stark reality: at every turn, we have been undermined, blindsided, forgotten and neglected — of course we will greet even token gestures with the appreciation and hospitality of an old, lonely soul.

If someone tells you you are inferior enough times, and treats you as someone who is inferior, treats your whole people as poor in quality and with little value as has been the case in the Middle East for centuries, when only parts of you are said to be valuable and attract attention, not the whole of you as has been the case in the West, its incredibly damaging for a national consciousness.

We have been subjected to all of these things to different degrees, from the myriad of tyrants in the East to our adoptive states in the West. We often look back to our ancient empire and reminisce, but it is an overcompensation for our situation today.

We need to break with this arrangement.


Looking at these myriad of problems, its bleak. There is no escaping a gnawing feeling of hopelessness which often rises up and makes everything feel heavy but there is a unique value in clinging on the truth and sharing it. We have to keep doing this, not as a lever to exert our national ambition, but as a method to elevate our struggle from one of false choices to one of shared vision.

Many of us are now furthering our own lives in the West. We have the things we have been frequently deprived of in our own lands by its incessant conveyor belt of tyrants and invaders: education, peace, civility, the opportunity to fulfill ambitions unconnected to existential struggle — and what a liberating feeling this all is.

However, it comes with the illusion of not being a dying people with a culture increasingly fork-lifted into museums for others with enough security to admire and enjoy. Yet, we don’t even need to look back to our ancient empire to identify strength — we have been strong all along and up to this day. We just need to open our eyes. There are Assyrians fighting in our homelands right now, and not just for themselves, but for all of us.

And here I turn to late Malfono Ninos Aho and his poem “Atouraya Khata” (The New Assyrian) accompanied with English subtitles. Let it wash over you and remind you what is at stake. Let it remind you, past all of the distractions and reliefs we have in diaspora, past all of the torment and humiliation we’ve endured, that we do have a homeland.

Its called Assyria, and we are its scattered children.