Kaiser Hospital, Just Like You: Why Kamala Harris Matters More Than You Think

The allure of the United States to immigrants has always been rooted in an illusive American dream. In the 20th century, the vision of a utopian America was neatly packaged in iconic Coca-Cola bottles and glossy Hollywood films and exported to the world. Despite a long history of racism towards new arrivals, the US has steadfastly welcomed the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The American project offers a new beginning, an equal playing field, and unlimited opportunity *Terms and Conditions Apply.

In the early 1980s, my father booked a one way flight from Aeroporto di Roma-Ciampino to SFO. He would soon meet my mother who flew via Mehrabad International to start anew in California. They fell in love in an unfamiliar land, got married in a familiar Assyrian church, and the rest – as they say – is history. Fast forward to the 1990s and my sister and I were born at Kaiser Hospital in San José. The Clinton era and dot com boom defined a decade of prosperity and for a moment i’m sure it seemed to my parents that America was making good on its promises. The Coca-Cola tasted refreshing. Life was a Hollywood film. 

However after a century of welcoming families like mine with open arms, today it seems as though Lady Liberty has decided to cross them. The Trump administration has repeatedly said there is no longer room at the inn. This is of course putting it mildly. Instead of offering even a stable to those most in need of shelter, the US offers cages for children, travel bans to students, and separation for families. In addition to advancing anti-immigrant policies, the current government continues to spew racist rhetoric towards Americans with Asian, African, Middle-Eastern and Hispanic heritage and has consistently shown utter disregard for Black lives. The post-war American project has been tested to its limits, and the key to its survival lies in those who still believe in it most – immigrants and their families. 

Nardin jaan, did you know she was born in Kaiser hospital in the Bay Area? Just like you” my father excitedly tells me over face time. My dad was referring to Kamala Harris, the first woman of color to ever be on a US presidential ticket of a major political party. Like me, Harris is a lifelong Californian. Born at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, and a child of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, Harris grew up in the Bay Area and returned to study at UC Hastings, launching her political career in San Francisco. Harris has long embraced her background as both a Black and Indian woman, sharing inspiring stories on the campaign trail about why representation matters. My dad’s remark and the hope in his tone reminds me that Harris’ significance doesn’t stop at her representation for women of color, but extends to millions of first generation Americans. Should Harris reach the White House, her position reassures every immigrant parent that their countless sacrifices were not in vain. That despite working too hard for too little, despite relearning and converting degrees, despite navigating intimidating bureaucracies, despite enduring casual racism and the uphill battle of life in a new country, that their children will have the opportunities they were promised after all.

As Harris assumes the role of the poster child for first generation Americans, she also reminds the rest of the nation that immigrants are what make our country excel in the first place. In this way she perfectly represents her constituency as the junior Senator from California. If ever there was an American dream realized, it can be found in the Golden State. California not only has the largest economy of any other state, but if it were its own country, would be the fifth largest economy in the world (recently surpassing the U.K. and France). Not coincidentally, the state also has the largest share of foreign born residents; nearly one in three Californians is an immigrant. In an era of rising xenophobia, Harris repeatedly reminds the country what Californians already know to be true: that our state’s openness and its prosperity go hand in hand. In her own biography she makes it clear that her personal successes have not been achieved in spite of her first generation background, but because of it. 

Kamala Harris is more than just a figure head for identity politics, her awareness and respect for where she comes from shines through her policy agenda. Her vision for the country is one “in which everyone could see themselves”. As a person of color, she knows that PoC are at the front lines of our climate crisis, which is why she co-sponsored the Green New Deal. As a Californian, she knows that all immigrants, documented or otherwise, are hard working and tax paying neighbors that deserve healthcare no matter what, which is why she sponsored Bernie Sander’s Medicare for All bill. Having been raised by two educators, she knows that the classroom should be the safest place for a child, which is why she plans to ban assault weapons. In her household, like in so many of ours, nothing matters more than family, which is why she pledges to fight for a minimum of 6 months paid family leave. Finally, Harris doesn’t just understand our nation’s diversity, she embodies it. She knows the vast potential immigrants and their children hold and won’t just fight for us, but with us. She understands first hand the inanity of travel bans and border walls and pledges to provide a path to citizenship to millions of immigrants that are eager to fan the flickering flame of the American dream. 

When I first entered college as a teenager and proudly proclaimed to my grandmother that I decided to major in Political Science, she kissed me and told me that her grandson, the American, would be President one day. I wiped off her lipstick from my cheeks and rolled my eyes. Presidents aren’t born in Kaiser Hospitals, educated at public UC’s, or born to immigrant parents, I thought to myself. Many years later, and while I have no plans to run for any public office, Harris assures me (and my grandma) that all of those things are indeed possible. In the last four years, the US has fallen behind in nearly every way. It is difficult to counter Joe Biden’s claim that under Trump “the US has become weaker, sicker, and poorer”.  Harris provides hope to this divided and isolated American reality because Kamala Harris is the future. The future is female, the future is black & brown, the future is bilingual, the future is first generation, the future is bright – if we allow it to be.

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Photos in order of appearance

1. Protesters hold up signs during a “Caravan of Love” walk in support of immigrants and refugees in Minneapolis, Minn., Feb 2017. (Photo: Fibonacci Blue/flickr/cc)

2. Supporters of President Donald Trump rally before his visit to tour border wall prototypes in San Diego, Calif., on March 13, 2018, via David McNew

3. Kamala Harris, left, with her sister Maya and mother Shyamala. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris)

4. Kamala Harris, front center, with, her grandparents, sister, Maya, mother, Shyamala Gopalan, in 1972. (Joe Biden campaign via The New York Times)


Indigenous Solidarity: Don’t Dance Around the Issue

For many of us, dancing is synonymous with celebration. We waltz at weddings, chacha at the club, or moonwalk in the mirror when no one is watching; but dance has historically been just as rebellious and political as it is celebratory. The politics of dance shine through the toyi-toyi, the signature dance of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa that was used during mass demonstrations to intimidate settler police forces. The way we move our bodies has the potential to start revolutions and end injustices. The power that dance holds is most familiar to the governments that wish to repress it. It is the fear of that power that led Iranian police to arrest six young adults for uploading a video of themselves dancing carelessly to Pharell’s Happy or Pope Leo XII to ban the Waltz which he described as “highly obscene”. Yet the human spirit craves dance so much, that like the Irish step dancers who learned to dance without moving their upper bodies to avoid British suspicion, it always finds a way.

In the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police in the US, dance as protest has taken on a new form. As tens of thousands march around the world in the Black Lives Matter movement, many have expanded their cause past the symptom of police brutality to include the disease of systemic racism itself. Satisfying scenes of activists swiftly tearing down statues that glorify slave traders and colonizers continue to circulate online, with one notorious figure making repeat appearances, Christopher Columbus. Columbus embodies the original sins of imperialism, racism and genocide in the new world. His arrival, and the subsequent arrival of Europeans to the continent marked the beginning of the end for native Americans as they saw their women exploited, their lands seized, and their people exterminated. The admirable defiance of native people was on full display in a recent scene in Minnesota as members of the American Indian Movement were recorded dancing around a toppled statue. The dancers held hands and sang traditional chants while circling a defeated Columbus to the beat of the drum. Watching this simple act of dance stirred me with emotion. The traditional choreography felt full of tensions, where revenge battled justice and regret danced with resistance. With each step the dancers seemed to declare “this is our land” with every chant they proclaim “we won’t be silenced”. I realized one reason the line dance resonated so strongly with me is because since 1492, Assyrians have struggled for indigenous justice too.

The tragedy of the native Americans draws bitter parallels to recent Assyrian history. Having inhabited our indigenous lands for thousands of years, we have both been divided by European powers, displaced by foreigners, suffered genocide and teeter on the brink of extinction. Our cultures are both appropriated by settlers and our histories revised to seek their political ambitions. We have both been manipulated, raped, pillaged, forcefully converted, systematically murdered and reduced by our enemies to a shadow of our former selves. We have both seen too many unkept promises and too few allies to our cause, and despite all that we have survived – we dance. 

From the series Native Assyria by artist Rabel Betshmuel. The artwork draws an artistic connection between the ancient Assyrian and Native American cultures, which have similar histories of triumph and lament. 

The act of oppressed people dancing on their indigenous land is both cathartic and powerfully mythic. Popular Assyrian folk songs include reference to the ancient continuity of khigga and directly link the act of dancing to future liberation. Lyrics sing with the hope that one day when Assyrians are able to safely return to their homelands they will cleanse the earth and declare victory through dance. When I watch the triumphant yet melancholy video of native Americans dancing I see Assyrians dancing in the streets of northern Iraq. Another short but powerful video shows members of the Assyrian diaspora performing a folk dance in the mountains of their ancestral homeland. They have returned through an annual birthright Assyria trip (Gishru) and are mostly strangers to one another; hailing from North America, Europe and Australia. Brought together from the four corners of the world, they unite through the familiarity of dance – holding hands to perform the steps they were taught as children. Step by step, shuffle by shuffle, they cleanse the land beneath their feet. The vibrations of their stomps comforting their ancestors. For a fleeting moment, this land is theirs. 

Dance and real estate both depend on the same factor for impact: location location location. Unlike the native Americans dancing around a defeated Columbus, I as an Assyrian-American do not dance on my indigenous land. Instead I dance as a settler on native American land. My cultural legacy is one of displacement, yet I was raised on the land of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe. How do I reconcile my position as both oppressed and oppressor? What do I owe native Americans for benefitting from their land? How do I contribute to native erasure? As the music fades and the dancing ends, these are the questions that remain.

The answers to many of these difficult questions begin with ally-ship and self education. I hope that the next time a Columbus statue is torn down that Assyrian-Americans will be the first to join in and dance. I hope that Assyrian-American parents take the time to commemorate Indigenous people’s day instead of “Columbus day” and teach their children which tribe’s land they occupy. Above all I hope indigenous peoples around the world show solidarity with one another and demand to have their full rights restored. Reflecting on the struggle to end South African apartheid, one activist made it clear that “the [toyi-toyi dance] was our weapon. We did not have the technology of warfare, the tear gas and tanks, but we had this weapon.” Let us too be equipped with the weapons of unity and dance, only then can we win the fight against injustice and achieve the dignity we are owed. 

Portraits of Perseverance

One of my favorite pastimes as a college student in Santa Barbara was strolling down sunny State Street lined with antique shops. As the aspiring hipsters we were, my friends and I would visit each one in hopes of scoring a vintage flannel or finding retro décor for our apartments. At the very back of each store I would find, without fail, a basket of old photographs. Among all the prized possessions for sale, no one ever seemed to sift through the baskets of unfamiliar Kodak portraits. After-all, why would anyone care to see a stranger’s family photos?

In the last week, MesoPortrayal launched a social media campaign calling for submissions of old family photos, specifically the trendiest à la mode moments that showcase the best of pre millennium life. Using the hashtag #MesoMode, nearly 700 photos were shared in just 3 days. From striking a pose on the boulevards of 1970s Tehran to smoking a cigarette in a 1960s Baghdad ballroom, the collective of memories captures a generation of Assyrians who lived by the mode of the moment. Mode, a french loan word, is colloquially used in the middle east to mean “in fashion and up to date”. Which is exactly how to describe the beehives and bell bottoms on display in the collection of photographs.

The virtual campaign seemed to have an immediate and visceral reaction for many. Messages of support poured in while followers shared background stories to the photos they had uploaded. The teenagers dancing khigga were revealed to be in Greece, where they had just met one another as they awaited the fate of their visa applications. The awkward couple sharing a bench was on their first date, and were arrested shortly after the picture was taken for being an unwed couple displaying affection in post revolutionary Iran. Other photos captured an air of celebration, from a hopeful pupil graduating as an engineer in Iraq to a glamorous woman enjoying a European holiday. No matter the occasion, each photo seems laced with elegance and poise; with a civility that feels lost to the previous century. 

Beyond the immediate novelty of women in vintage mini skirts and men sporting super-wide lapels, what was it about the photographs that compelled thousands to consume them? Aside from a few close friends who took part in the challenge, the majority of the faces and families were unknown to me. They should have been ignored as easily as the anonymous basket of photos at the antique store – but instead I was mesmerized by each one. The subjects felt less like strangers and more like long lost relatives beckoning to be known. 

By now we have been conditioned to understand why representation matters in media, that accurately depicting society’s diverse voices empowers minorities and creates a sense of belonging for all. That sense of belonging is a privilege that Assyrians have rarely been afforded. An ultra minority nation without a state, Assyrians have grown accustomed to never hearing their stories told or seeing their faces reflected back to them. In fact many prefer this lack of representation, because whenever our homelands are discussed, it is rarely in a favorable light. In the modern imagination, the words Iraq, Iran, Syria, or Turkey conjure war torn news clips or orientalist scenes from Hollywood films. Yet in the Assyrian lived experience, the same words recall memories of chic banquets, bustling universities, and modernity. Perhaps this is why the #MesoMode photos resonated with so many, it was a rare instance of representation where stories were told by and for Assyrians. Stories not of invasion or explosions, but of romance and passion for life. The positive narrative of a region which suffers from horrible PR is a breathe of fresh air that we want to cling to and affirm to ourselves.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then novels of Assyrian stories were written online this week. Each story shared is unique and steeped in family history, yet they are all bound together by the defining trait of resilience. When enjoying the photos of fashionable ladies and dapper gentlemen, it is easy to forget that the decades when most of the photos were taken had been extremely tumultuous for Assyrians world wide. While many communities experienced a fleeting “golden age” of civil society in the 50s, 60s and 70s, it would soon come to an end as religious extremism, political instability, and war enveloped the region – leading hundreds of thousands of men and women wearing firmly creased slacks and delicate silhouettes to pack up and leave home. Location tags quietly tell the story of immigration in the posts, as captions for “Tigris River” change into “Amsterdam Canals” and later “Chicago”. But this collection of photographs isn’t about the pain of saying goodbye, it is about getting dressed for the journey and celebrating along the way. 

One photo that stands out is a portrait of a family celebrating a birthday at a refugee camp in the Netherlands. In the picture, three children sit at the table in front of a home baked cake as the mother and father pose behind them. Mom is dressed to impress with a giant white bow in her teased out hair as dad tries to make the children laugh by making bunny ears behind them. The scene perfectly encapsulates the modern Assyrian existence – In the midst of displacement, living in a transient city, and not knowing what the future holds, they seize the day, dress their best, and celebrate. 

Despite family separations, untimely deaths, and waging wars, #MesoMode collects moments of defiant happiness and stubborn joy. Assyrians know better than anyone that life must go on despite uncontrollable circumstances, and the spirit of discovering pleasure in the darkest moments shines through every portrait. Through the hazy fog of nostalgia, the strangers donning pencil skirts and papillons declare their lust for life to the viewer. I may not know the anonymous subjects of the photos, but their stories are familiar and their message is clear. Perhaps next time I visit an antique shop, I’ll head to the neglected basket in the back, and learn a thing or two from the black and white faces looking back at me.

Photos in order of appearance courtesy of: Eden Kiryakos, Kat Yachouh, Akadina Yadegar, Mariam Mansour, Susie G, Shamiran Khoshaba, Elona Oraha, Crystal Solayman, Sydney, Benny Aziz, Stephany Thomas

You can visit the digital #MesoMode archive here.

Wardeh Deesheh: a Thirty Year Retrospective

Written In honor of the late director John Homeh, 1952-2020

REVIEW

Released in 1991, John Homeh’s film Wardeh Deesheh is widely known as the first and most successful Assyrian feature length film. Nearly 30 years after the film’s release, the story feels like opening a time capsule of outdated special effects and shoulder pads while simultaneously watching something fresh and relevant. A testament to Homeh’s penchant for provocative themes. In 90 minutes, Homeh masterfully confronts the tension Assyrians face living in diaspora while not shying away from the realities of rape, domestic violence, substance abuse and infidelity. 

Wardeh Deesheh’s overarching theme is portrayed through the love triangle between Nineb (George Homeh) Nineveh (Juliana Jendo) and Nina (also Juliana Jendo). By double casting Jendo as both Nineveh and Nina, Homeh effectively captures the binary of east & west that every Assyrian in diaspora must reconcile. Nineb’s love for Nineveh (made even more obvious in her name) represents the Assyrian’s love for his homeland, and his love for Nina represents the love for life in diaspora. Nineb spends most of the film ignoring Nineveh’s pleas while remaining captivated by Nina, ultimately torn between them and unsatisfied.

In interviews, Homeh revealed his vision for Nina was to represent specifically the diaspora communities that work towards the Assyrian cause. The climax of the film when Nina is raped symbolizes the rape and assault of the diaspora existence. Homeh critiques the stigma that rape places on the survivors of sexual assault, and his decision to highlight this often taboo subject is a breathe of fresh air in the canon of contemporary Assyrian arts. The symbolism of Nina’s rape makes the lyrics to the film’s title song, Wardeh Deesheh, that much more meaningful to the film’s message.

Nineb’s love for Nina, his love for the west and the opportunities it affords him, provides him with an inkling of hope as he resettles his life in Australia. With her rape and the demise of their relationship, and symbolically the demise of a future for the Assyrian cause in the west, any last hope for Nineb is crushed. It’s only then at the penultimate point of his story that he realizes there is no future for him away from Nineveh. 

A natural entertainer, Juliana Jendo’s successful transition to the screen to portray both Nina and Nineveh is immediately felt in her opening monologue. Nina embodies the best of the west. She is a modern woman; empowered, sexy, and styled in the iconic 90s fashion that a young Jendo gladly serves at every turn. Nineveh embodies the allure of the East. She is a woman of principle; modest, consistent, family-oriented, and Nineb’s first true love since childhood. Where Nina starts sentences with “hey” and “oh my god” Nineveh writes letters in perfect Assyrian hand-writing.


After hitting rock bottom in an overdose of alcohol and new found freedom, Nineb offers a prayer asking for a new life and a second chance. The final shot of the film shows him on a flight to Nineveh.

Juliana Jendo & John Homeh filming on set

Homeh’s key message is arguably just as cynical and controversial now as it was then; but as is the case with the best of films, Homeh doesn’t simply prescribe a simple solution to the Assyrian dilemma, but rather opens the door to an honest conversation on the subjects most frequently swept under the rug in Assyrian culture. 

The final scene leaves the audience in Nineb’s shoes, reflecting on their own futures. Was Nineb right in his decision to leave Nina? Will Nineveh be alive and willing to forgive Nineb when he arrives? Where does Nineb belong? Where do we all belong? According to Homeh, there’s only one way to find out – and it involves a flight to Nineveh.

It is no surprise that upon the film’s original release, it captivated a worldwide audience. The mass immigration of Assyrians out of their homelands in the 1980’s fueled by the Islamic Revolution, Baathist Regime, and the Iran-Iraq War, resulted in hundreds of thousands of Assyrians finding refuge in new adopted countries. Much like Nineb, many of these immigrants struggled with depression, culture shock, economic disruption and homesickness. Three decades later, and the children of these immigrants are rediscovering their parents stories and relating to their search for identity and belonging through the film. Homeh’s brilliance, and the reason for Wardeh Deesheh’s lasting relevance, lies in the uncertainty of its ending. Much like Nineb’s fate, ours too remains unresolved. 

Wardeh Deesheh Movie Poster, 1991

SYNOPSIS

The opening shots of the film are of a wedding celebration in a traditional Assyrian village. Grandmothers stir giant pots of stew to feed guests as crowds dance around the bride wearing traditional Jooleh d’Khomala. The camera pans away from the celebration to a more solemn conversation, where two lovers are saying their goodbyes. Nineb (played by George Homeh) and Nineveh (played by Juliana Jendo) are tearfully departing as Nineb plans to immigrate to Australia. Nineveh warns him that there will come a day when he will regret leaving her, his brother, and their homeland in one last attempt to make him stay. When she realizes his mind has been made up, she imparts one last piece of foreshadowing advice to Nineb: beware of the new found freedoms you will experience and protect your heart against the “sickness of the west”. An emotional monologue that is somewhat lost in translation.

The remainder of the story takes place in Sydney, Australia. Michael Jackson is playing in the background, men are serving women tea, and Nineb begins his new life in a strange land. Nineb lives with his brother Sargon, his brother’s wife Suzy and their daughter Cathy. We are quickly introduced to the cast as Homeh then slowly reveals to us the interconnectedness of the characters. Like many immigrants, Nineb tackles depression and sadness resettling in a new country. His previous academic success means little without english credentials and he is weary of beginning to build his life up again from scratch. His stress is reduced by support from his community of émigrés, and his plan to overcome his language barrier leads him to meet Nina (also played by Juliana Jendo).

Predictably, boy meets girl, and before we know it Nineb and Nineveh are serenading each other on a boat in Sydney harbor. One of the many delights of the movie is the songs woven seamlessly throughout. The most memorable and lyrically mesmerizing being Nineb and Nineveh’s duet professing their new found love in “Ya Atoraya, Ya Atoureta”.

While Nineveh’s increasingly urgent letters to Nineb go unanswered, Nina brings Nineb home to meet her father David. One of the antagonists of the plot, David is a greedy, lustful, and prejudice man. Nineb, being both broke and a nokhraya (foreigner/not from her father’s tribe), is quickly rejected. Before he storms out, Nineb boldly tells David that nokhrayeh don’t pose a threat to Assyrians, but rather Assyrians like him who highlight differences and drive wedges between tribes and sects are far more dangerous.

The predictability of Nineb and Nina’s relationship is mitigated by the web of familial ties between the two. Nineb’s villainous sister in law Suzy does business with Nina’s Father (David) and employs her sister in law (Asmar). Asmar and her husband Enkidu (Nina’s brother) are a young, happy go lucky, working class couple that provide much needed comedic relief throughout. 

After introducing Nineb to her father goes horribly wrong, Nina avoids him by staying in her room. David’s greed comes at the ultimate price when he brings a young sleazy business partner over for drinks. The two get increasingly drunk as they mix crude descriptions of women with business talk. The partner reveals his interest in Nina to her father, who quickly approves in order to smooth over a million dollar business venture. When he drunkenly stumbles up to Nina’s room to fetch her only to find her already asleep, he returns to his drink which has been spiked with drugs. With David passed out, the drunken businessman finds his way to Nina’s room, presumably taking her virginity and raping her. Throughout this seen John Homeh cuts back and forth between Suzy offering to buy Nineb off to stay away from Nina. As David’s other business partner, Suzy had promised fending off Nineb to secure her own deal. When Nineb sees through her plan, she matter of factly reminds him that everything is a bazaar these days. 

Nineb returns to Nina, only to find her in a devastated state. Nina breaks things off with Nineb without telling him why, like most victims of sexual violence she is ashamed and fears the negative stigma attached to rape. Nina sings of her trauma in the film’s title song “Wardeh Deesheh”. Nina’s tearful ballad of heartache is cut with scenes of Nineb drowning his sorrows with alcohol. As they both face their individual miseries, their families face misery of their own. Enkidu confronts Nina’s rapist in a violent exchange that leaves him dead, and Sargon & Suzy’s household which often grapples with domestic violence, have their own fight which culminates in their daughter Cathy being struck with a fatal blow. 

Unaware of all of this, Nineb wakes up from his bender in the bed of his one night stand. As the Australian girl comes out of the shower to kiss him goodbye, Nineb recoils and is reminded of Nineveh’s last words before his move, “protect yourself against the sickness of the west”. He leaves to join his family only to find them in mourning over his niece. As he becomes overwhelmed with sadness with the news, Nina returns to him for the first time since they ended things. She delivers a letter from Nineveh, and implores Nineb to return to her who is his true love. Nineb admits that he fooled himself thinking he could find love elsewhere. In her  final letter, Nineveh has traded her longing romantic tone of the past for one of disappointment. She rebukes Nineb for not answering her when she had fallen ill, and informs him that his brother Ashour has passed away of the same sickness. She fails to understand how Nineb could let his own brother die without coming to his side. Nina reminds Nineb of his lasting love for Nineveh, and tells him that her heart is full of love and mercy ready to forgive him should he let her. In the final scene, Nineb silently prays at Cathy’s funeral. Eyes looking to the heavens, Nineb asks to be given a new life, and a second chance with Nineveh. The final shot shows Nineb flying to return to Nineveh.

You can watch Wardeh Deesheh in its entirety here.

Diaspora In Bloom: Shifting Perspectives Through Art

Originally published in the Assyrian Star, August 2019

Growing up as a first generation Assyrian-American in Diaspora, I was like most, instilled with a great pride in our ancient heritage. A Lamassu statue sat on my bookshelf and relief replicas of ancient lion-hunts lined our hallways, reminding me of my 6000 year old roots. My friends were named after ancient kings and queens and a day wouldn’t go by without being reminded of the countless inventions that originated from the cradle of civilization.

Knowing and honoring our history is important, but too often our understanding of what it means to be an Assyrian stops at ancient times. We hark back to a lost empire instead of reflecting on who we are as a people in 2019. 

We are taught about Ashurbanipal, Shamiram, and Sennacherib; what we aren’t taught is pride in our present and not just our past.

It was this realization coupled with a desire to see more modern displays of Assyrian identity that led Akadina Yadegar and myself to curate Diaspora In Bloom. The show was a first of its kind art exhibition which spotlighted contemporary Assyrian art.

Held at the Art Ark Gallery in downtown San Jose, over 1000 visitors, Assyrian and non-Assyrian alike, visited the show in the month of June. Where first-generation Assyrians were able to see their identity reflected back at them in a way never experienced before, others were able to connect to the universal themes of immigration, identity, and cultural continuity that were integral to the show. While Akadina and I had a strong vision for what we wanted Diaspora In Bloom to accomplish, it was the phenomenally fresh artwork of Atra Givarkes, Esther Elia, and Rabel Betshmuel that brought the show to life. These three millennial Assyrian-American artists are each teaching us as a community how to reflect on and celebrate the Assyrian present. Through their provocative art, they successfully shift their audiences perspective towards the future. That is ultimately the significance of Diaspora In Bloom.

When a headline reads that our language runs the risk of extinction, Atra Givarkes paints vibrant pop art Assyrian calligraphy that compels us to adore our living mother tongue.

When textbooks confine Assyrians to the past, and refuse to mention our current plight, Rabel Betshmuel creates contemporary forms and drawings that inextricably tie modern Assyrians to our rightful history.

When family stories of trauma stoke fear and extinguish hope, Esther Elia creates larger than life artwork that validates our collective experience and inspires any viewer, paving a path forward.

Thanks to these artists, we can celebrate what we have been told to mourn. We can appreciate the beauty in that despite all odds, we are a people who survive and create community. There is nothing wrong with being proud of our rich history, but how empowering it is to also be proud of our present and to have confidence in our future.

Homeland as a .com

Originally published in the Assyrian Journal, July 2018

Watching the World Cup and Olympic Games with no country to root for, being unrepresented at the United Nations…

These are just a handful of experiences that the world’s few stateless peoples experience growing up. They constitute some of the first touchstone moments that begin the realization in individuals that they belong to a stateless nation – and therefore will navigate the world differently.

As an Assyrian, this realization came early. I was constantly reminded by my family and community that while I have an ancestral homeland, I no longer have a country.

I was born an American, grateful for the refuge it offered my family and eager to take advantage of its freedoms, yet I knew that America was just a happenstance of refuge. In the four generations of my family tree, Russia, Iran, Italy, Iraq, Belgium, Australia, England, and Sweden had all played a role as “foster country” or “adopted country” to my extended family.

As I tried my best to embrace my American identity as an adolescent, I was also confronted with uncommon interactions with the vast diaspora of my scattered nation. For example, summer visits to countries around the world to meet my mother’s cousins or father’s childhood friends became pilgrimages to a world that had become inaccessible due to politics and paperwork beyond our control. I had even grown accustomed to being introduced to annual visitors, with faces I did not know from countries I had not seen, as “auntie” or “cousin”.

Massacres and revolutions had dispersed Assyrians around the world. Respecting the customs of the countries that take us in while simultaneously clinging to our language and heritage had become our way of life. For the first generation born in the diaspora, though, this realization of a worldwide network of people without a place to call home felt daunting. It rendered assimilation inevitable. After all, once my grandparents and parents are gone, how was I to sustain these global relationships of people who once lived side by side?

All of these notions of diaspora, identity, and continuance clouded my mind as I came of age during the technology revolution, and in the heart of Silicon Valley no less. I watched with widened eyes as my father and uncle helped each other to carry in our first clunky desktop computer. I was quick to create an AOL instant messaging account and patiently wait for my mother to get off of the phone so that I could dial-up the internet. As if it was instinct, one of my first google searches was “Assyrians around the world”. Like a victim of natural disaster reaching the help center to find lost family members, I would search for churches, cultural organizations, singers, and any Assyrian group I could find online. I perused for hours, adding friends and followers from all corners of the world to interact with this invisible world we had all been told of: our virtual homeland.

Suddenly, my community of a few thousand in California did not feel so small.

My parents would come to use these technologies in a much more personal way. At first anxious about sites like Myspace, they would eventually join Facebook and use it more frequently than my sister or I did. Facebook groups dedicated to the nostalgia of old neighborhoods or summer camps quickly formed. Photos and comments from long lost neighbors surfaced, alongside inboxes bursting with memories and messages from peers unheard of for 30 years. Skype calls connected family members whose faces had gone unseen for decades due to the harshness of borders and bureaucracy. From each corner of the world, the exiled used these social networking tools to make the connections they so desperately longed for. Message by message, like by like, they began rebuilding separated families and communities.

Today, a new approach has surfaced from these initial connections. What was once a disparaged and meager community scattered around the world has found a “public sphere” online. Issues of the moment and breaking news regarding our communities can be immediately discussed. We can stream the opening of a new community center in Australia just as easily as we can watch a gut wrenching Facebook Live video of Assyrians being expelled from our ancestral homeland. In both times, we are instantly connected.

Media groups have formed to disseminate information using these tools of mass communication. Perhaps more importantly, though, individuals can now find each other and make connections otherwise restricted to nations with borders.

Like any community or forum, these tools are not without their challenges. Faceless accounts troll pages with inflammatory comments, those too anxious to accept the future nervously typing on their anonymous keyboards. As any forum, these discussions can be used for advancement or division with the trend skewing towards the former.

Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have created centers of gravity for Assyrian conversations. Memes arise poking fun at the universal ironies in our culture, blogs of academics are discussed and shared widely, and personal connections are made. No longer are ideas trapped within a community of hundreds but are instantly made accessible universally.

The Assyrian artist who lacked an audience can now express herself, the Assyrian academic whose ideas felt unwelcome in the local parish can now freely exchange essays, the minister with a meager following can reach the faithful globally, and the LGBTQ Assyrian who felt like a minority within a minority can now find solace in an online community. Each expression of Assyrian identity can be more fully developed through a “virtual homeland” and we are only beginning to see this potential.

Efforts such as Assyrian Podcast, Shamiram Media, The Assyrian Journal, AX, Assyrian Star, Mesoportrayal, SurayeSwipe, and more have helped to create the much needed platforms to exchange ideas and discourse. In lieu of corner cafes or a physical public sphere, we have embraced social networks as replacements.

With the World Cup in full swing, perhaps Assyrians alongside other stateless peoples around the world will not feel unrepresented when their flag is not competing on the world stage. Instead, they will take to Twitter to find their Assyrian followers and online villages they have created that are eager to welcome them and discuss their shared feelings of longing (and perhaps create a meme or two). Just maybe, they will find representation on an Instagram account like Mesoportrayal and feel for the first time like they are home.

The physical struggle for self-determination in the Assyrian homeland continues; but for generations of the diaspora, we can now experience a momentary homeland – .com.

Blurred Lines: Perspective on Charlie Hebdo

Originally published in The Bottom Line, January 21, 2015

Imagine a left-wing voter who tunes into MSNBC exclusively for all political updates. Envision an office team made up entirely of white, heterosexual males. Picture a religious studies course that was only taken by students who follow Hinduism.

If any of these situations seem static and uncomfortable, that’s because they are. History shows us that learning and innovation are at their peak when diversity is allowed to flourish. The left-wing voter can open his mind to different political positions by debating with a conservative. The office team can come up with original ideas and products that tailor to larger parts of society by including women, people of color, and LGBT coworkers in the process. Religious studies students would be able to have a deeper understanding of material by hearing the experiences of students who hold various beliefs and values. The former situations provide conflict-free environments where it is virtually impossible to be offended. The latter situations, however, may contain high risk of offense, but yield environments that encourage growth and progress.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, which left 12 journalists from the satirical magazine dead after an attack by two self-identifying Islamic terrorists, the dangers of a free press naturally have been brought into question. Is there a line the press should not cross when it comes to satire? Were the cartoons too inflammatory and in turn too risky to publish? Should material this provocative be discouraged for the safety of society?

Limitations on the press sound comforting at first. We don’t run the risk of exposure to inflammatory and offensive journalism. Everyone minds their own business without ever challenging each other’s ways of thought. No harm, no foul. But an offense-free press is also a static one. By protecting all freedom of expression, we allow our civil society to continue to grow and our opinions challenged.

In a postmodern society such as our own, who is to say what is deemed controversial and what is not? When artists, journalists, and satirists are unable to tread controversial waters to challenge societal norms, we run the risk of living in an extremely shallow environment. When social commentators are given limits and boundaries, their commentary will inevitably remain in our comfort zone. By providing “safe” news and steering away from the controversial, journalists would be doing the public a large disservice.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, which is no stranger to political controversy, the satirists were doing just that: satirizing. Their blatantly over-the-top cartoons have a history of targeting groups across French society; Christians, Jews, and Muslims have all had their turn being lampooned by the magazine. In other words, the magazine had no agenda of inciting violence or hatred for a certain demographic. Their motivation was not one of malice but one of public discourse. 

Satirists such as the late writers of Charlie Hebdo use their medium to remind people of different faiths and values of the faults we all possess. Solutions to the tragedy shouldn’t be focused on creating barriers to free press but on creating more healthy forums for public discussion instead. A public who is shielded from extremity is far weaker than one which tolerates its neighbors.

Many controversial topics in journalism that are viewed as going “too far” often touch on issues in our societies that are unresolved, which are arguably the most worthy to debate and reflect on. Even in its most devastating hour, Charlie Hebdo ironically has spurred dialogue and civic engagement around the world. For students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the attack should serve as a catalyst for tolerance and unity. One quick walk down the SRB and our campus’ diversity is more than evident. Students from all walks of life, religions, cultures, countries, orientations, and backgrounds call UCSB home. It is when this diverse student body interacts and engages with one another that our consciousness will grow as a community. In a time that freedom of expression is being challenged around the world, we must not hesitate to practice ours.

Millennials Beyond the Box Office

Originally published in The Bottom Line, February 11, 2015

Watching movies from the past is a very similar experience to opening a time capsule. Cinema has provided the incredible means to record the fashion, music, slang, technology, cultural attitudes, politics, and societal norms of any day and age for future generations to witness.

Opening any time capsule of teen flicks from the past reveals a definitive shift of focus in Hollywood. It seems like not too long ago, teenagers on screen were worried about Ferris Bueller faking a sick day, a group of teenagers from different cliques serving detention together, or Cher and Dion navigating Beverly Hills High. Today, young adults are dealing with far greater challenges than touting the perfect outfit or scoring the perfect prom date. You’ll find today’s teenager on screen fighting oppressive governments, challenging societal norms, or starting a national rebellion.

Social disintegration coupled with sci-fi seem to have all but erased the happy-go-lucky themes of sex and comedy in teen flicks of the past, and it shouldn’t surprise any of us.

Generation Y, which researchers typically define as those born between 1983 and 2004 and are more commonly referred to as Millennials, face a much bleaker world than those who came before us. Unlike our parents who were raised during a time of unprecedented prosperity, we came of age during an era of terrorism, recession, massive wealth inequality, and a crippling housing crisis. Today, we are entering the workforce battling unemployment with a combined student debt that exceeds $1 trillion. To Millennials, it seems as though the system we are a part of is working against us.

In fact, we may be the first generation of Americans who aren’t as successful as our parents. The lack of opportunity available to us is translating into postponing major life events such as marriage, property purchases, car purchases, and having a family. As a socially-conscious, politically correct, and eco-friendly generation, we are also realizing the mistakes of the past and tackling solutions to the problems of our parents’ generation.

With such staggering odds against us, it is no wonder that we turn to characters on the big screen who are in survival mode. Films like The Hunger Games, whose 2008 book release directly corresponds with the height of the recession, have ushered in a new era of dystopian teen movies with similar themes. The massive success movies like The Maze RunnerDivergent, or The Giver are experiencing is largely due to the similarities Generation Y holds with the main characters. Almost all of the lead characters of similar dystopian films question the identity that society gives them, reject traditional ways of life, and are skeptical of authority. All of these attributes and more resonate with Millennials and present us with individuals to look to who are coping as best they can with the difficult hand life has dealt them.

The dissimilarities we hold with these main characters also seem to draw us further into our obsession with teen dystopian films. As Millennials, there is no question that we have it hard, yet seeing young adults on screen persevere through incredibly threatening situations is comforting to us. We may draw comfort knowing that if these teenagers can survive against all odds, then so can we. Or at the very least, we are comforted knowing we don’t have it as bad as them.

The underlying message in nearly all of these films points to the fact that the current system is failing and desperately needs upheaval. Mentors and adults are depicted as either unhelpful or perpetuators of society’s problems, and it is up to the young adults to make a change.

Young adults on screen are challenging broken systems and demanding answers, forging their own paths—something that Millennials deeply relate to. Millennials don’t just relate to these characters, but are going in troves in support of these narratives wherever they are offered. The Hunger Games became one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, while many dystopian films since have enjoyed major box office success.

Despite more traditional narratives being offered to Millennials, we continue to support dystopian films, where we are given a chance to wrestle with real life issues in virtual reality.

There is no doubt that one day, when future generations living in the world Millennials created open the time capsule of cinema, they will find all these dystopian films and with them the attitudes of social change and resilience that characterize Generation Y. As more and more Millennials enter the real world, it is time to bring about the social reconstruction that has been demonstrated throughout popular film. Millennials have the power to replace a broken system while creating a brighter future for the next generation. May the odds be ever in our favor.

And the Oscar for Best Activist Goes to…

Originally published in The Bottom Line, March 4, 2015

This year’s 87th Academy Awards wasn’t just another glamorous night to celebrate Hollywood. Looking past the paparazzi-laden red carpet, A-list actors, and million-dollar gowns, this year’s Oscars served its audience of 36.6 million a surprising side of substance.

While most actors in the past have chosen to use their brief platform to thank the Academy, their co-stars, or simply wave to their moms, more and more acceptance speeches at this year’s Oscars turned into moments of political activism. Boyhood’s Patricia Arquette didn’t dedicate her award to her kids, but instead highlighted unequal women’s pay in the U.S. Graham Moore didn’t take his opportunity to thank the cast of The Imitation Game, but instead discussed his past suicide attempt, encouraging bullied teenagers to stay strong. John Legend and Common didn’t use their acceptance speech for Best Song in Selma to thank their producers, but rather to call out racial injustice and incarceration. Suicide, Alzheimer’s, immigration reform: these are only a handful of issues that were brought to light in the speeches of Oscar winners.

This increase in political awareness at the Oscars felt refreshingly relevant. Few if any of us will ever experience the glamour of the red carpet, the thrill of sitting next to Meryl Streep, or the larger-than-life feeling of wearing custom couture outfits. The realization of this can make the “most celebrated night in Hollywood” feel stale and extraneous for many of us. So when we change the channel expecting to see perfect plastic people indulge themselves and are instead treated to celebrities using their limelight to highlight real life issues, we are delightfully surprised. These stars took attention away from their talent and placed it onto their frustrations, making them seem more relatable than ever.

It is tempting to congratulate these stars for their 40 seconds of humility and end our conversation. We have become so accustomed to a self-absorbed industry that, even when it strays from self-glory for merely a minute, we applaud and admire. While it is admirable to call others to action, there is nothing more commendable than action itself. Angelina Jolie recently visited refugee camps in northern Iraq, bringing attention to helpless civilians in the aftermath of ISIS. Leonardo DiCaprio has campaigned tirelessly to bring climate change awareness and has even spoken at the United Nations. Natalie Portman became a vegan activist in support of animal rights and has recently supported antipoverty organizations. These are the celebrity activists who should be celebrated and praised.

Spouting words of action should not be worthy of our praise alone. Acting on those beliefs is what makes our words meaningful. It should be respected that more and more celebrities are using politically charged speeches to raise awareness, but we should consider this a baby step until the same stars begin acting on what they are preaching.

For too long, the standard for celebrity activism has been too low. We never expect our favorite movie stars to interact with real-life events, even when they have arguably the largest spheres of influence. As college students, a group that consumes large amounts of popular culture and is consistently sought after to determine the direction of media outlets, it is up to us to set that standard higher. Commending speeches like those given at this year’s Oscars is a step; supporting celebrities who have acted on their beliefs is the next. When stars begin to see fans lining up to support not just the best-looking actress but the most humanitarian or the most politically active, they will no doubt begin to act on their social beliefs as well. In an industry that is always looking for “the next best thing,” with our help, it might just be activism.

President Underwood Will See You Now

Originally published in The Bottom Line, March 4, 2015

If you have a Netflix account (or know someone who lets you use their Netflix account), then odds are you were counting down the days to Feb. 27. That date, of course, marked the premiere of Season 3 of House of Cards when all 13 episodes were made available on Netflix.

In the last two seasons, we watched in apprehensive awe as Frank Underwood deviously maneuvered his way to the top. Now “President Underwood,” Frank represents all that is cunning and dubious in his obsessive quest for power. Yet despite his underhanded deals, deceitful politics, and unethical behavior, we find ourselves unabashedly rooting for this political juggernaut. But why, in a country that consistently has 40 percent voter turnout, is this politically-charged show a national phenomenon?

House of Cards’ mass appeal to people who are typically disinterested in politics can largely be attributed to the backdoor world exposed in the show. I like to think our heads of state in the U.S. are more ethical than those in the show (not to say they are completely innocent, but I am fairly confident that murder cover-ups are not on the west wing’s monthly agenda), but House of Cards opens the back door to Washington, D.C. and allows us to imagine all of the unprincipled behavior that runs rampant. House of Cards feels like witnessing a conspiracy firsthand, unraveling the next great political scandal. The genius decision to break the fourth wall between the audience and the on-screen action, which allows Frank to direct his monologues toward the camera, furthers this feeling of back door politics. When he talks to the audience, you can’t help but feel as though you are in the President’s shadow witnessing every handshake, phone call, and internal struggle. This thrill of being exposed to the shady world of politics from the front lines undoubtedly keeps the non-political majority just as engaged.

The dark world of House of Cards is also deliciously devious, which strikes a chord with so many of the coveted 18-34 year old demographic. Frank Underwood’s Machiavellian outlook seems to personify what many of us struggle to balance. We are taught from a young age that if we want something, we must fight against all obstacles to get it no matter what. It is usually implied that murder and extremely immoral behavior are exceptions to this rule, though as we have seen, Frank Underwood has no exceptions. He will use anything and anyone in his way to get what he wants, and while that usually involves navigating outside of the law, we seem to be attracted to his shameless actions. While in real life we know there are some lines we will never cross, no matter what the reward may be, it is strangely satisfying to watch a man with no boundaries or morals chase his goals.

At the end of the day, Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood always keeps us coming back for more. As well-written and produced as a show maybe, there is no doubt that you need the right cast to ultimately sell the show. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright embody the sinister Underwoods so well that you can’t help but be entranced by their performances. So grab a rack of ribs from Freddy’s, possibly a cigarette, and curl up in bed to watch Season 3 of House of Cards, now streaming.