Near the Old Teacher’s College and Women’s Sports Centre, facing the front of the Charles Perkins Building, stands a gargantuan statue of Gilgamesh — the king of Uruk who terrorised his people, battled demons, and sought immortality. Donated by famed Assyrian sculptor Lewis Batros in 2000, it is one of the very few Near Eastern monuments on campus. A quick peek inside the Nicholson Museum reveals more, with some of its Assyrian artefacts dating back almost 4,000 years.
History lesson: the Assyrians are indigenous Christians who claim descent from Assyria, one of the oldest civilisations in the world. Their ancestral homelands are located at the point where the frontiers of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey intersect. Today, they’re one of the largest nationalities in the world without a state of their own. Since the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 612 BC, Assyrians haven’t had a place to call home — something my parents know all too well.
They grew up as part of the indigenous Assyrian Christian community in Iraq, and sometimes, they’re still prone to yearning for the quintessential elements of their childhood. Throughout my childhood, my father would recount his memories of growing up in Kirkuk — of a schooling that was “regimented and stern,” his love for football, and most importantly, how the diverse faiths of Iraq lived in harmony amongst each other. “It’s all different now,” my dad says when I ask him about what’s changed over the years. “Christians, Jews, and Muslims no longer live in peace.”
My parents fled Iraq in 1976 amid the rise of Saddam Hussein and the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, leaving with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The act was so out of character for my typically cautious parents that it took me years to acknowledge just how brave they must have been.
From a young age, my parents forced me to read, write, and speak a 2,000 year old language which many consider dead. Dinner tables were often informed by conservative Assyrian values — we never mentioned issues like homosexuality and atheism, but my parents had no problem expressing their disdain for Saddam Hussein. They often talked about the cruelty of his totalitarian system, his antagonising sectarian policies, and his vitriolic thirst for power. I’d sometimes spy them later on passively watching the BBC, absorbing scenes of gore and destruction from their native land.
And despite this, my dad often tells me he has one wish: to go back to Iraq one day. It’s almost inconceivable to me, an outlandish idea. “It’s not safe,” I tell him for conversation’s sake.
It’s not that he wants to live in Iraq — instead, that he’s nostalgic for a life that existed before despair set in. My parents travelled around the globe before settling in Australia, but today — enervated, tired, and unable to continue due to constantly travelling in hopes of finding a new home — their mind is plagued with images of the wreckage of the country they once called home. No longer does my father envision Christians, Muslims and Jews living in harmony, but rather, the corpses and ashes that lie side-to-side on the grounds of Mosul. The children crying, begging for help. The churches, mosques, and synagogues destroyed. Their own people, fleeing the motherland in hopes of finding a better life.
Despite being raised in a family of Iraqi Assyrians, I’ve never been able to visit Iraq, even though I’ve always had dreams of flying out to motherland and discovering my Assyrian roots. And although I’ve never seen significant Assyrian relics in images of Iraq, they’re still a constitutive part of my history and personal identity. I grew up learning about The Epic of Gilgamesh – the oldest work in literature. I researched the legacy of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and its influence on civilisation; from creating the first library in the world to developing an effective courier system.
For me, the statue of Gilgamesh is a visible reminder that my people flourished for years: Iraq was once home to a myriad of empires that would form civilisation as we know it. Now, tragically, the country is mostly forgotten; lying in ruins after years of war and sectarian violence. Despite keeping dustbins and ibises for company, Gilgamesh remains a constant, potent symbol; a reminder of my heritage, my culture, and most importantly, the struggle my parents went through to find a new home.