Why do the various social and political impediments throughout the years still continue to paralyze an entire nation? Why are the embittered divisions sewn between the ranks of churches, parties, and factionalists unable to be healed? And most importantly, to the question that every Assyrian asks: why does the situation only continuously worsen? Can no solutions or plans be enacted by Assyrians for their own general betterment regardless of locale? Such queries, and many more, tend to consistently plague the Assyrian collective psyche–and rightly so. All of this to say that the Assyrian identity has been on a constant and unthwarted path of fragmentation with no relief in sight.
The answers may lie in what researchers call intergenerational trauma. Intergenerational trauma manifests primarily epigenetically, where the traumas inflicted upon one individual may be passed onto their children. This doesn’t necessarily dictate an alteration or mutation in the genetic code, but an alteration in what segments or genes within genetic code get expressed or silenced. In other words, what genes are effectively turned on or off in an individual may be inherited from their parentage, either to the detriment or benefit of the individual with the epigenetic inheritance. In a study examining the progeny of female 9/11 survivors, children born to these mothers were noted as having lowered cortisol hormone responses, the same as their mothers. This is important, as cortisol, “the stress hormone,” essentially determines how well one responds to stress. Severe traumas due to constant massacres and persecutions are not new to the Assyrian population, and certainly would have had similar effects.
However, with an understanding of intergenerational trauma, so too come the dangers of a general feeling of collective victimhood. The roots of such a mentality could be seen as far back as the Ottoman Millet System, which divided Assyrians amongst their religious denominations, rather than secular lines. Divisions along religious lines rendered the subjects of the empire more divided and more obedient, and thus easier to oppress. What makes this even more sinister is that such a mentality is mostly unconscious, as one does not willingly identify as a victim devoid of self-derived will and destiny – at least, not normally.
After the long period of continuous atrocity and oppression experienced in Mat’Aššur, the Assyrian homeland, a state of intergenerational trauma was realized, and was carried over even into the world-wide Assyrian diaspora. People suffering from this condition go through a few phases, though primarily via two pathways. Those still active in politics or civic life enter either a powerless mindset, or an escapist mode of thought. The former should be very familiar to Assyrian readers, especially as it is all too common that the Assyrians simply accept their lot as second class citizens in their own homeland. Therein, whilst still active, these people come to harbor a powerless outlook on life. They do not believe that their efforts will deliver them from the collective bondage. As for the people in the second camp, escapism comes often in the form of religious fervor. The plights of the Assyrians are blamed on God. “God has cursed us” is an all too common motto utilized amongst Assyrian circles.
Thus far, the people suffering from the powerless and escapist mindset are still active in Assyrian civic or political life. However, as time wanes, and intergenerational traumas only gain traction, the idea of Assyrians as victims begins to cement in the mind of those already in the two phases. This, of course, is only exasperated by the constant retreat of the Assyrians in every area of life, be it territorially, military, culturally, or even intellectually–the tides are seemingly too great to stem. Thus, those partaking in the powerless mindset shift over to the apathetic one, and the escapists likewise to the practice of submission. Both the escapist and the submissive Assyrians are inactive in civic and political matters. The escapist counts on salvation in the other life, and all atrocities visited upon them or their kin no longer matter. The Assyrian who submits begins to work with the very people who’ve oppressed the Assyrians. Even passivity in the face of oppression is a form of submission, in this case. The escapist Assyrian takes all their time and resources out of Assyrian political and civic organizations, no longer devoted to the loftier ideal of the Assyrian Question. They now devolve into sheer hedonism, and all other Assyrians who interact with a person in this mindset are made to lose hope. The Assyrian who has submitted, on the other hand, joins factionalists like the many separatists groups, or even oppressive forces, such as the KRG [Kurdish Regional Government]. Both can also take up a religious or factionalist zeal, preaching of an eternal damnation awaiting all Assyrians for sins committed eons ago. They, too, have a downward pull on all Assyrians who interact with them.
Unfortunately, this also means that more and more Assyrians enter the inactive states, exacting what researchers have dubbed the “self fulfilling prophecy.”
The effects of the self fulfilling prophecy have been the fracturing of the Assyrian identity, the halting of rituals, and the degeneration of the Assyrian language in the face of acculturation. This has only been spurred on further as the majority of Assyrians eventually moved into the diaspora host-nations, carrying the collective victimhood mentality with them, yet lacking the nurturing effect of living on their own soil. In other words, whilst the atrocities in diaspora are many-fold lessened, the great distance and permanent exodus come to fuel the collective victimhood mindset, as the Assyrians no longer have the same connections to their lands that they did decades ago.
There are, however, methods which can be employed in the hopes of countering the detriments of both geographic distance and systematic oppression. For starters, a sense of historical consciousness aimed towards gaining insight into one’s individual life as affected by the past is a must. Another method explored in the study is that of introspection which deals with the physical afflictions and manifestations of neuroses or psychoses. Developed by Bessel van der Kolk, introspection is aimed towards mitigating the severe traumas of acts such as rape or torture, ultimately resultant in PTSD, and certainly uncurable by medications alone. Here, physical activities such as yoga, at the very least reduce the effects of the PTSD suffering person. This comes in especially useful when dealing with Iraq’s severe lack of psychologists, therapists, and psychiatrists–not to mention general dislike for the field countrywide. In fact, the study found that the very word “depressed” is often perceived as a taboo, forcing claimants of the condition to instead invoke the cultural euphemism of “pain in the colon.” Of course, this pain in the colon comes from no other place but the internalized chronic depressions that run rampant yet unrecognized throughout Iraqi society, of which Assyrians are a part.
The study was also focused on the narratives of Assyrians who survived the traumas inflicted by ISIS. Their stories were gathered via interviews and cross-examined with pre-existing psychological and historical literature in order to garner a greater understanding of what is effecting Assyrians on a macro level. Tragically–though unsurprisingly–many of the traumas of 2014 were found as having been a source of embodied mental and even physical pain, hence the studies brief exploration of Kolk’s introspection method. To name a few symptoms: sleepless nights, constant regret, and emotional pain for what had happened in the Nineveh Plain were duly noted.
In addition to psychological remedies, it was found that there existed a general sense amongst Assyrians that a force of their own people protecting their own towns and villages was of primary necessity, instead of relying upon false promises of protection from others outside of their communities. This, of course, arose from the belief that had such a force existed and not been disbanded before the Islamic State’s invasion of the Plain, that then much of their sorrows could have been avoided. Even today, the very existence of the NPU [Nineveh Plain Protection Units] is in jeopardy due to political back-and-forths, and co-opting of the force by third-party factions. In other words, it is not economic repression or psychological traumas alone that are a thorn in the side of the Assyrians in Nineveh Plain, but also a lack of safety and trust in the pre-existing security forces in the contested region–not to mention an insufficient mental health system and the destruction of Assyrian cultural heritage by ISIS in 2014. Thus, it is a combination of factors contributing to the masses of hope-bereft Assyrians multiplying, year by year.
Interestingly, while the study recommends the methods of historical consciousness, gaining insight, and introspection, it has also found that other coping mechanisms amongst the Assyrian communities already exist. In diaspora, for example, Assyrians often idealize the situation back home or the realities of their history, creating a false impression of the reality on the ground. This coping mechanism as a rejection of reality also means departure from the painful prospects on the ground. Introspection and historical consciousness, on the other hand, demand that the painful realities be faced and dealt with so that a number of lessons may be derived from the past and used for the rejuvenation efforts in the present and future. Instead, Assyrians have rarely ever studied their own histories, and when they have, they’ve done so with a distorted magnifying glass, choosing to look at some things, whilst ignoring the glaringly obvious. Those living in Mat’Aššur, on the other hand, had a far more realistic outlook, adjusting their hopes to reality–even while remaining largely ignorant of the same patterns that had forsaken their ancestors in a similar manner to the troubles which engulfed them in 2014. Some of the interviewees affected by ISIS, for example, failed to make any comparisons between their plights and the mass plight of the Hakkari and Urmia Assyrians from Iranian Azerbaijan in 1917. In other words, their suffering was viewed as singular: cut off from all previous atrocities. In the literature review section, it was explained that such a mentality is not new amongst Assyrians, as during the 1843 Bedr Khan Beg and Nurrallah Massacres, the Assyrian tribes did not come to one another’s aid due to an ingrained faith in the tribal system, meaning a belief that what one tribe suffered was unlikely to be visited upon the other. Only, in these histories, they were all thrown into the fires.
To conclude, while there is much more work to be done in the field of psychology in regard to the modern Assyrians, time is unfortunately the staunchest of enemies. Not only does evidence fade day-to-day, but so does memory. Stones are broken and pages are burned or sold at black markets. The collective memory and attentional resources of the Assyrians is what is primarily at stake. Assyrians can no longer afford to be stuck in the age-old trance of collective victimhood emanating from the long, darkened corridors of intergenerational traumas. Throughout, the study makes recommendations for further research, should Assyrians in the field decide to mantle this responsibility. After all, the study of psychology provides now the understanding of trauma that Assyrians have lacked for so many centuries–this lack having robbed them of all intrinsic motivation, inward inspiration, and courage, relegating them to the eternal wait for outside aid from “greater powers” than they. Now, this nation may see that the greater power can only come from within.
By Elvin Envieh Golpashin