In tune … Robin Zirwanda (at left) with his father Awimalk Haider. Photo: Ian Waldie
Two of us by Nina Karnikowski. The Sydney Morning Herald, Life & Style, August 25, 2012.
Robin Zirwanda, 58, is an Assyrian singer-songwriter. His father, Awimalk Haider, 80, was a celebrated goalkeeper and musician in Iraq before he and his family migrated to Sydney in 1971. Today, Awimalk is a champion budgie breeder, and helps Robin write songs in Assyrian.
I was brought up by my grandparents in Iraq. My whole family lived together, but Dad worked all day at the American embassy as a clerk, then all night at a Baghdad nightclub playing guitar. He was very successful with his music; he was like the Tony Bennett of Baghdad. But because he was the sole earner in our big family, my three siblings and I hardly ever saw him. We didn't have a close relationship back then.
Dad's very talented; he always has to be the best at everything he does. Before I was born, through the '40s and '50s, he was a soccer star. There was no goalkeeper in history like him and everybody looked up to him, especially me. When I'd walk home from school, I used to get cuddled by so many women who used to fancy him!
When I was 17 my parents sent me to Kuwait, where I was able to get papers organised to move to Australia to avoid being conscripted to the army. I got questioned at the border and told them I was just going away for the school holidays, but I never went back. I arrived in Sydney alone and stayed with cousins in Randwick. Mum and Dad arrived six months later.
Three years later, we all moved up to Gove in Arnhem Land where you could earn really good money and save. Dad worked in a bauxite mine and I worked in a hospital with my brother and Mum as a cleaner. That was a very hard time for Dad: he went from being a music and soccer star in Iraq to having to start over working shifts, sometimes 18 hours a day. But my relationship with him got stronger at that point; everyone was working and contributing, so the pressure was gone and everyone started blending. Dad and I started fishing and doing a lot of sport together. I was playing soccer for the Northern Territory, and I joined my first band there.
Dad wanted me to save money for six months, then go back to Sydney and get married to some Assyrian girl he'd picked for me. In Assyrian culture, when your father tells you what to do, you do it; you don't break the rules. But I did. I came back to Sydney after three years and went to Kings Cross to play congos at the Mandarin Club. I met a beautiful Welsh singer there and we had the first of four children together when I was 25. Mum and Dad weren't too happy about that.
I really respect that Dad's commitment to the family has always been so solid. He's still so committed, but now it's to his budgies! He's represented NSW at the Australian National Budgerigar Championships and has hundreds of trophies lining his walls at home. He gets up at 5am every day to tend to them. Those budgies get treated like royalty; it's hilarious. I have five children: four from my previous partner and a two-year-old son, Josh, with my wife, Elle. Dad's a great granddad, but I think he realises how much he missed out on when he sees me with Josh.
Today, I front a world-music band called Azadoota, and Dad helps me with my songwriting. I sing in Arabic and Assyrian, so Dad helps a lot. He's a stickler for grammar and pronunciation, whereas I take a fair bit of artistic licence. And he's always at me to sing in English, so people can understand what I'm saying. So we're both perfectionists, but have totally different ideas of what perfect is.
We didn't connect that well before, but now we do, thanks to the music. When we're making music together, we're almost speaking a different language that only we understand.
When Robin was born, I was the happiest person on earth. He was so handsome and I used to play with him whenever I had spare time. But when he got a bit older, I was working day and night. It was very difficult and there wasn't much time to look after our four children, but I had to make money for my family and my retired parents. I wish I could have spent more time with him when he was growing up.
When Robin was a teenager, I had to get him out of Iraq because he was about to be conscripted and he probably would have been killed fighting in a war. My sister was in Kuwait with her husband, so Robin stayed with them before migrating to Australia. I came to Australia a few months later and we were all together again. But that six months apart was very hard; I'd always think, "I hope he's okay, I hope he doesn't get spoiled."
Robin had a love of music and soccer; he followed in my footsteps, which made me very happy and proud. I was always having to chase after him and find him because he'd sneak off to play soccer all the time instead of studying!
When we moved to Arnhem Land, we also fished together a lot. He used to try to catch sharks: he'd use big hooks with big fish on them, and sometimes he'd actually land them! He loved a challenge, he still does.
Today, he challenges himself by singing in Assyrian, so I often help him with his lyrics. He didn't grow up speaking and writing Assyrian like I did, but he wants to promote our people's language and preserve our culture, and I like that. I still wish he'd sing English songs, so people know what he's saying! But Robin's always had his own mind; he doesn't want anyone to give him advice. He's grown up to look after himself, so I can't tell him what to do. All I can do is support him.
I can thank Robin for starting my budgie business. When I came back from Arnhem Land in '82, he asked me to look after a few budgies that he owned while he went on holiday. When he came back he said, "You're looking after them better than I am, you can have them." I started breeding them, then joined my first club in Blacktown in '95, and in my first show my bird won! I've never looked back, and I've never lost a show since.
Robin's very dedicated to his family. He's a great dad, and he looks after his family very well. He's got it easier than me; I didn't have all that time to spend with my kids. But my hard work paid off because my children are happy, which means I'm happy. And Robin and I are very close; we're not only father and son, we're good friends as well.
\ã-'sir-é-ä\ n (1998)
1: an ancient empire of Ashur
2: a democratic state in Bet-Nahren, Assyria (northern
Iraq, northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey and eastern Syria.)
a democratic state that fosters the social and political rights to all of
its inhabitants irrespective of their religion, race, or gender
4: a democratic state that believes in the freedom of
religion, conscience, language, education and culture in faithfulness to the
principles of the United Nations Charter —
Ethnicity, Religion, Language
Israeli, Jewish, Hebrew
Assyrian, Christian, Aramaic
Saudi Arabian, Muslim, Arabic
\ã-'sir-é-an\ adj or n (1998)
1: descendants of the ancient empire of Ashur
2: the Assyrians, although representing but one single
nation as the direct heirs of the ancient Assyrian Empire, are now
doctrinally divided, inter sese, into five principle
ecclesiastically designated religious sects with their corresponding
hierarchies and distinct church governments, namely, Church of the
East, Chaldean, Maronite, Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic.
These formal divisions had their origin in the 5th century of the
Christian Era. No one can coherently understand the Assyrians
as a whole until he can distinguish that which is religion or church
from that which is nation -- a matter which is particularly
difficult for the people from the western world to understand; for
in the East, by force of circumstances beyond their control,
religion has been made, from time immemorial, virtually into a
criterion of nationality.
the Assyrians have been referred to as Aramaean, Aramaye, Ashuraya,
Ashureen, Ashuri, Ashuroyo, Assyrio-Chaldean, Aturaya, Chaldean,
Chaldo, ChaldoAssyrian, ChaldoAssyrio, Jacobite, Kaldany, Kaldu,
Kasdu, Malabar, Maronite, Maronaya, Nestorian, Nestornaye, Oromoye,
Suraya, Syriac, Syrian, Syriani, Suryoye, Suryoyo and Telkeffee. —
1: a Semitic language which became the lingua franca of
the Middle East during the ancient Assyrian empire.
2: has been referred to as Neo-Aramaic, Neo-Syriac, Classical
Syriac, Syriac, Suryoyo, Swadaya and Turoyo.