The Calling of the New Assyrian
A Poetry Collection by Ninos Aho and Yousip Bet Yousip
Posted: Thursday, January 23, 2003 at 09:18 AM CT
The calling of the New Assyrian is the second jointly published collection of poems by Ninos Aho and Yousip Bet Yousip; the first ensemble was produced and published in the early 1970s under the title Atoraya Khata - The Modern Assyrian. The new collection introduces a composition of predominantly new poems - with couple classic ones - on two CDs, one by Ninos and one by Yousip. While Ninos Aho presents his lyrics in both east and west vernacular Assyrian dialects (Swadaya and Turoyo) well polished by classic Syriac, Yousip Bet Yousip reads in East Assyrian only. (1)
As a first feeling, the listener is overwhelmed by the comprehensiveness of the collection consisting of one powerful poem after another. Indeed, just the compilation of such a size on modern media (2) marks a great accomplishment, while in the following I-ll tend to classify its content as a milestone in contemporary Assyrian national poetry.
If one can set aside some time for careful listening and reflection, which is the minimum pre-requisite to approach the digestion of the collection, it becomes evident that the lyrics can only come from somebody who was involved from the early days on in organizations who shaped our nation's Umtanayuta: Ninos was a second generation Mtakasta (ADO) activist while Yousip was a member of the Youth Organization acting as founder of Huyyada (AUA).
In addition, their messages mark to me a continuation in the footsteps of well-known great teachers, nationalists and to certain extent revolutionaries like Freydon Aturaya, Adday Alkhas , Yuhanon Qashisho, and William Daniel.
Hence, and at first notion the words articulated sound of being timeless stirring in all of us the special Assyrian spirit we share - or I should say we should not forgot.
But who are these poets?
Even though both are well-known in their larger communities, I believe the reader of this review has the right to learn also about the background of the two personalities (3).
Ninos Aho was born on April 24, 1945 (Nisan of the Assyrian Year 6695) in the small village of Girkeh-Shamo in the Syrian-part of Mesopotamia.
From his early youth on Ninos was interested and moved by the teachings of the Assyrian national leaders like Naum Faiq and Farid Nuzha. He believes in national activism with high ethics and dedication. He diligently worked and works towards the revival of the Assyrian culture and Assyrian unity. He has written numerous articles, and poems published in Assyrian magazines. Ninos' mastery of the east Assyrian dialect is no surprise at all if one knows that in 1972 he had the privilege to have the late and great poet Rabi William Daniel as his teacher.
Ninos is powerfully eloquent in his poems. His lyrics are the basis for dozens of romantic and national songs compiled and published in 2000 (4) as an Anthology.
The statement - continuing to deliver his nationalistic ideology through his poems - in his biography, makes me fully convinced that he has his guidance from the late Malfono Naum Faiq's nationalism about whom David Perley wrote in a biographical study (5): “he [Faiq] transformed the inmost truth of his nation into verse”.
Yousip Bet Yousip was born on April 15, 1942 (Nisan of the Assyrian Year 6692) in the village of Zumalan, a village in the county of Urmia., Persian-part of Mesopotamia.
In his early youth Yousip was eagerly interested in Assyrian culture and heritage and listened curiously to traditional songs, poetry, and story-telling conducted by the local elders. He joined Shushata Umtanaya, a well-known Assyrian youth organization and became more and more involved in Assyrian organizations. He was involved in the establishment of the ever first Assyrian library project in Iran.
In 1968, Yousip witnessed the founding of the Assyrian Universal Alliance (AUA). Along with Maestro Nebu Isaabey's music his lyrics were selected as the first Assyrian National Anthem (Romrama). He has written numerous poems, articles, and coral lyrics and is an active member of the Assyrian Choir in San Jose/CA. His most recent activity was - among others - the presentation of “The Garden of Gods - My Homeland Bet-Nahrain” at the World Congress of Poets held in Iasi/Romania during October 2002.
Both poets, one being from the West the other one from the East not only span a cosmos of nationalistic Mesopotamian heritage, they share a deep friendship for decades. Knowing both of them (6), I'm convinced that their friendship serves as one key source for their inspirations as well.
Images and Concepts
For me personally, the great discovery of this collection is that both poets masterfully tackle themes of nation, ancient history and its modern interpretations by applying strong images and concepts. They master to associate the powerful past of pre-Christian authorities (e.g. by referencing God Ashur, Tammuz, Ishtar, Gilgamesh along with metropolis like Nineveh, Akkad) with modern themes of nation, unity, and Umtanayuta without missing to wave-in the elements of the Christian Era.
Ninos' images for instance pull you into each poem and deep into history and back to modern places of Assyrian presence. While listening, it is difficult resisting not to be seduced into a meta-level of feelings.
Yousip applies strong and powerful messages as well. Even though he is embedding his messages into contextual information, certain historical knowledge is expected to follow. He presents his messages in a chronological fashion, consequently forcing the listener to be fixed into a thoughtful state, yet delightful.
To me Ninos' poems are a potent force in the ongoing reinforcement of the homogenous yet multi-denominational Assyrian nationalist identity. Furthermore, poetic interpretations of history as a narrative of the past synthesized into the present of Assyrians projected on their historic homeland Beth-Nahrin as presented by Yousip have the same reinforcing effect.
Ninos recites and articulates strongly. Yousip sounds like a distant messenger, though both carrying heart-touching messages. The series of poems pulls the careful listener into a journey riding over a rainbow that spans thousands of years, while its colors symbolize the different cultural, religious and national facets along the timeline of Assyrian history.
As an example, I would like to touch few of the poems that stand out most to me, acknowledging that this is a subjective and random choice only.
The poem Yuhanon Qashisho for instance is more than a wonderful obituary to the former teacher and editor of Hujada magazine. Despite the teariness, Ninos triggers about a great lost, he masters to sow hope through a powerful link in placing him as a consort and pupil to the great figures like Naum Faiq, Yuhanon Dolabani, Ashur Yusuf and Freydon Aturaya. He calls them to be prepared to welcome him accordingly.
In different poems Ninos recalls memories of the early years in the national movement in Chicago, touches events and encounters, formulates a poetic reply to Professor Oppenheim. He dedicates a beautiful poem to the reunion of friends in Qamishly not missing to give homage to Girke Shamo, his birthplace. The latter has been wonderfully vocalized by Ninib Lahdo, born in Girke Shamo as well.
Alpa Shinne meqim Mshiha is a lamentation about lost of homeland. Most striking for me is its beautiful style - through refrains of key concepts in each verse, the messages are hammered into the listeners' conscious . Among my favorite selection in case of Yousip is Sluta dAturaya dIdyum (Prayer of Today's Assyrian). It is a powerful mythical and religious poem. For me it is a bridge to the strong traditions of ancient Assyrian religiosity, though with one new significant aspect: The “New Assyrian” does not accept the pre-Christian Era as so-called pagan period anymore - on the contrary! It is the source and rationale for his 2000 years of dedication to Christian beliefs, emerged in Assyria.
Similarly outstanding to me is Wardi w Kitwe (Flowers and Thorns). Here the poet is comparing History as documented in the Bible versus in Mesopotamian Tablets. He is complaining about cutting ties with the ancestors and adopting different traditions, namely replacing Utnapishtum by Noah, Hammurabi by Moses, Gilgamesh by Shimshun and so on.
I believe that this subject in general deserves more attention by Assyrians, because Jewish people mastered to create the God Jahweh to have an equivalent to God of Gods, Ashur, while succeeded in adapting major religious concepts of Assyria and made them survive until today. Also Greek and Roman people adopted Christianity without denying their pre-Christian traditions and history. Why should Assyrians of today be less proud of the history and religious traditions of their ancient forefathers?
The Garden of Gods is a political poem on Mesopotamia, which served as cradle of civilization, however is under heavy attack today: it is a poisoned land, its inhabitants driven out of the country, its river dried, and the land not able not provide even a cradle for its own children.
In addition Yousip presents few more political poems. In one of them he talks to the flowers of Mesopotamia representing the Assyrian Martyrs and listens to their critical messages about the nation's state. They go so far offering even to die again to safe the nation from its problematic situation.
The collection is cohesive and sounds like a story, yet highlighting very different facets. It is a story of a nation filled with the hopes and sorrows of life along the history - reflecting on its passion and aspirations; it is a philosophical approach for a scattered Nation. For me the poets manage to create a sense of urgency, their messages are courageous and bold and currently not match the hesitant and common approach of nationalistic reality in struggling to overcome the nation's fragmentation in order to unite. Therefore the poems provide source of guidance to those who seek new orientation.
Overall I regard the lyrics as a homage to the Assyrian nation, its history, its identity, and its strong desire for unity.
If anyone can bridge the existing gap of the Assyrian national movement through passing over the heritage of its great teachers like Yuhanon Qashisho and Wilhelm Daniel to the younger generation, whose young inquisitive minds starve for such presentations, than it is both, Ninos and Yousip.
I recommend the collection “The Modern Assyrian” most highly. It is a beautiful collection of poems. Needless to say, that I expect more of the poets work in the future - hopefully in shorter time horizonte. Also, I think that both poets have a national task still to accomplish: The re-creation of the same eastern verses in Turoyo. Without doing this, the messages will not reach the hearts of all Assyrians.
(1) For the first time, Yousip Bet Yousip presented few of his poems (Bo-uta Othurayto and Sluto dOthuroyo dYawmono) in west Assyrian at the Mesopotamia Association in the City of Augsburg, Germany on October 2002. The readings were enriched by a few beautiful ballads!