Mary Akdemir, Undergraduate Student

Mary Akdemir

Big Secrets, Small Villages: The Collective Memory of the Assyrian Genocide.

The Ottoman Genocides that occurred from 1913 to 1923 wiped out a significant portion of the indigenous Assyrian population. For the natives of the Tur Abdin region of Southeastern Turkey and their descendants, the genocide, known as Sayfo, represents a pivotal moment in Assyrian history and memory. Decades after the killings, beginning in the 1970s, Tur Abdin’s population suffered another drastic decline as a result of mass migration to the West. With the flow of Assyrians out of their ancestral lands emerged a transnational boom in cultural production, specifically in music reflecting on exile and the memory of one’s homeland. The lyrical and acoustic components of popular and folk Assyrian songs, produced primarily in the diaspora and in the Turoyo language, reveal seemingly conflicting memories of suffering and resistance from the genocide. Focusing on the musicians’ native villages, these songs reflect on the brutalities of the Sayfo and also pay homage to its resistors or gabore –– “heroes” –– more than half a century later.  A similar dichotomy appears when examining oral testimony from Sayfo survivors and their descendants.

Writing about the French Republic, the historian Pierre Nora coined the term Lieux de memoire –– “sites of memory” –– to designate spaces which, “by dint of human will or the work of time [have] become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community.”[1]

Applying Nora’s terminology to the case of the Assyrians, the villages and churches of Tur Abdin can be construed as sites of memory of the Sayfo. When presented within the context of the larger Assyrian oral history, these sites pose a threat to Turkish state denialism with the physical documentation they provide, and the memories they help keep alive.

[1] Pierre Nora, Realms of Memory, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, xvii.