When I meet Nineb Lamassu at England’s Cambridge University, where he’s a researcher, he transports us to his Middle Eastern homeland by opening his computer and playing me a recording of a man reciting a poem.
Somewhere between speech and song, the voice is old, a little gruff, rising and falling rhythmically. Even in Aramaic — I don’t speak a word of Aramaic — the effect is hypnotic.
This is the traditional epic poetry of the Assyrian ethnic minority. Thousands of years ago, their empire dominated the Middle East, spreading out from what is now northern Iraq.
There are still an estimated 3 million to 4 million Assyrians today who trace their roots back to that time, though much has changed and they are now Christian. But war and turmoil have seen them displaced from the region and their traditions are fading.
Lamassu is trying to hang on to that culture. The story of his love for the epic poems begins in the 1980s, when he was a little boy in Kirkuk, in northern Iraq.
“Kirkuk actually is — was — an example of coexistence and a beautiful example of the Iraqi multi-ethnic, multireligious mosaic,” he says.
“I grew up speaking Arabic at school,” he says. At home, he spoke a modern version of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. “And then conversing in Turkish and Kurdish with my friends, and then being told off in Armenian by our next-door neighbor — this was the beauty of Kirkuk,” he says.
But in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, it could be dangerous to be from a minority or politically active.
Lamassu’s father was both, and so the family fled to Iran in the 1980s, to a refugee camp with other Assyrians. Most were from remote areas, and they kept kids entertained the old fashioned way — with long poems.
There was one man who Lamassu says was just amazing.
“As kids, we would go around the tents trying to find his flip-flops outside the tent,” he says. “And we would know that he is in this particular tent tonight and, you know, performing his stories, and you know, doing his art. And we would beg to be allowed in so we could hear him.”
The memory affects Lamassu to this day. “In the cold winter night in a refugee camp, freezing, literally freezing in a tent, but kept warm by the animated performance of the epic,” he says.
Lamassu became an academic researcher and now travels among the Assyrian diaspora recording the epics as told by men he calls bards — including the storyteller he loved listening to in the refugee camp, whose name is Khananya Zayya. Years later, Lamassu tracked him down living in New Zealand.
“It almost felt I was back in the refugee camp, right in that tent on that cold winter night with him. He had not changed” — aside from a little artificial help keeping his mustache black, he says.
Lamassu tells me there’s a bard living close by in Southall, London, so of course I travel to meet him.
When I arrive, it feels a little odd to be looking for an Assyrian bard to sing me an ancient poem in a busy suburb where most people are originally from India. But when I knock on the door of an ordinary, gray-terraced house, there he is: Khoshaba Jaber, silver-haired, shuffling a bit, but excited to tell me about the poems he grew up with.
He was born in northern Iraq, in 1952, in a little village, and his dad used to sing him the stories.
“When you are a child, you remember your father or one old man in the village coming to tell you stories or legends,” he says.
But when he was eight, his father was killed in a tribal dispute. After that, it fell to the little boy to sing the poems.
The poems varied from village to village — which is why Lamassu is so keen to record as many as possible from the widely scattered diaspora. He has made dozens of recordings, about 10 of which are of complete poems. Several of the bards have died since he recorded their voices. The recordings will become part of a Cambridge University database that will be available online.
Jaber’s version of the old stories is wild and thrilling. There are echoes of ancient stories from Greek myths to ancient Assyrian epics to the Bible.
The hero of this tale is named Qatine, the product of virgin birth — just like Jesus. He becomes a shepherd and goes to a magical garden to take on a female monster who has been terrorizing people.
“He went, he went to the big monster, the woman monster,” says Jaber, “to the garden and when he went there and he went to the tree, the big tree and was hiding himself.”
He pauses for effect and becomes increasingly animated as he relays an English version of the epic — which goes on for more than an hour. Qatine defeats the monster, and then goes on a quest for a plant that grants eternal youth, a theme that also crops up in the epic of Gilgamesh, a poem dating back maybe four millennia from Babylonia, discovered in its most complete form in the ruins of an Assyrian palace in the 1800s.
The story ends with another echo of the Bible: Qatine dead in a cave with a stone in front, and a prophecy of resurrection.
“The stone will be opened and come in Qatine. He will free us from those enemies, but he is still there,” Jaber finishes triumphantly.
The echoes of the myths, the Bible, the ancient Assyrian epic, are tantalizing to researchers like Lamassu because they raise questions of how far back these tales go and whether they share a common origin.
And there’s another factor that makes Lamassu’s work valuable right now. In Iraq, ISIS has destroyed a number of ancient Assyrian sites, calling them idolatrous. When Lamassu spoke at a recent conference, the man introducing him showed a video of ISIS destroying ancient Assyrian monuments and heritage.
“And he said, ‘If we cannot keep them and preserve them, maybe we can preserve our other heritage that they cannot destroy,'” says Lamassu.
He means recording the poems, of course — capturing at least the memory of an ancient people whose presence in their homeland is gradually fading away.