Seventy Thousand Assyrians

Saroyan’s Lament for a Dying People

Posted by dianamuir on October 04, 2012
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“We were a great people once,” he went on. “But that was yesterday, the day before yesterday. Now we are a topic in ancient history. We had a great civilization. They’re still admiring it. Now I am in America learning how to cut hair. We’re washed up as a race, we’re through, it’s all over, why should I learn to read the language? We have no writers, we have no news- well, there is a little news: once in a while the English encourage the Arabs to massacre us, that is all.”

The character who gives this speech is an Assyrian Christian barber in William Sayoyan’s  story, Seventy Thousand Assyrians.

Assyrians in Mosul a century ago.

“I am thinking of Theodore Badal, himself seventy thousand Assyrians and seventy million Assyrians, himself Assyria, and man, standing in a barber shop, in San Francisco, in 1933, and being, still, himself, the whole race.”

Saroyan was  born to Armenian immigrant parents in California in 1908.

I remember the Near East Relief drives in my home town. My uncle used to be our orator and he used to make a whole auditorium full of Armenians weep. He was an attorney and he was a great orator. Well, at first the trouble was war. Our people were being destroyed by the enemy. Those who hadn’t been killed were homeless and they were starving, our own flesh and blood, my uncle said, and we all wept. And we gathered money and sent it to our people in the old country.”

Coptic, Assyrian, Jewish…

“There is no Armenian living who does not still dream of an independent Armenia.”

Saroyan wrote in 1934, there was no Armenia, no Israel, no Korea, no Assyria.

“Well, that is something. Assyrians cannot even dream any more. Why, do you know how many of us are left on earth?”

“Two or three million,” I suggested.

“Seventy thousand,” said Badal. “That is all. Seventy thousand Assyrians in the world, and the Arabs are still killing us. They killed seventy of us in a little uprising last month. There was a small paragraph in the paper. Seventy more of us destroyed. We’ll be wiped out before long. My brother is married to an American girl and he has a son. There is no more hope. We are trying to forget Assyria. My father still reads a paper that comes from New York, but he is an old man. He will be dead soon.”

How did it happen, this loss…?

“We went in for the wrong things. We went in for the simple things, peace and quiet and families. We didn’t go in for machinery and conquest and militarism. We didn’t go in for diplomacy and deceit and the invention of machine-guns and poison gases. Well, there is no use in being disappointed. We had our day, I suppose.”