Indigenous Solidarity: Don’t Dance Around the Issue

For many of us, dancing is synonymous with celebration. We waltz at weddings, chacha at the club, or moonwalk in the mirror when no one is watching; but dance has historically been just as rebellious and political as it is celebratory. The politics of dance shine through the toyi-toyi, the signature dance of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa that was used during mass demonstrations to intimidate settler police forces. The way we move our bodies has the potential to start revolutions and end injustices. The power that dance holds is most familiar to the governments that wish to repress it. It is the fear of that power that led Iranian police to arrest six young adults for uploading a video of themselves dancing carelessly to Pharell’s Happy or Pope Leo XII to ban the Waltz which he described as “highly obscene”. Yet the human spirit craves dance so much, that like the Irish step dancers who learned to dance without moving their upper bodies to avoid British suspicion, it always finds a way.

In the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police in the US, dance as protest has taken on a new form. As tens of thousands march around the world in the Black Lives Matter movement, many have expanded their cause past the symptom of police brutality to include the disease of systemic racism itself. Satisfying scenes of activists swiftly tearing down statues that glorify slave traders and colonizers continue to circulate online, with one notorious figure making repeat appearances, Christopher Columbus. Columbus embodies the original sins of imperialism, racism and genocide in the new world. His arrival, and the subsequent arrival of Europeans to the continent marked the beginning of the end for native Americans as they saw their women exploited, their lands seized, and their people exterminated. The admirable defiance of native people was on full display in a recent scene in Minnesota as members of the American Indian Movement were recorded dancing around a toppled statue. The dancers held hands and sang traditional chants while circling a defeated Columbus to the beat of the drum. Watching this simple act of dance stirred me with emotion. The traditional choreography felt full of tensions, where revenge battled justice and regret danced with resistance. With each step the dancers seemed to declare “this is our land” with every chant they proclaim “we won’t be silenced”. I realized one reason the line dance resonated so strongly with me is because since 1492, Assyrians have struggled for indigenous justice too.

The tragedy of the native Americans draws bitter parallels to recent Assyrian history. Having inhabited our indigenous lands for thousands of years, we have both been divided by European powers, displaced by foreigners, suffered genocide and teeter on the brink of extinction. Our cultures are both appropriated by settlers and our histories revised to seek their political ambitions. We have both been manipulated, raped, pillaged, forcefully converted, systematically murdered and reduced by our enemies to a shadow of our former selves. We have both seen too many unkept promises and too few allies to our cause, and despite all that we have survived – we dance. 

From the series Native Assyria by artist Rabel Betshmuel. The artwork draws an artistic connection between the ancient Assyrian and Native American cultures, which have similar histories of triumph and lament. 

The act of oppressed people dancing on their indigenous land is both cathartic and powerfully mythic. Popular Assyrian folk songs include reference to the ancient continuity of khigga and directly link the act of dancing to future liberation. Lyrics sing with the hope that one day when Assyrians are able to safely return to their homelands they will cleanse the earth and declare victory through dance. When I watch the triumphant yet melancholy video of native Americans dancing I see Assyrians dancing in the streets of northern Iraq. Another short but powerful video shows members of the Assyrian diaspora performing a folk dance in the mountains of their ancestral homeland. They have returned through an annual birthright Assyria trip (Gishru) and are mostly strangers to one another; hailing from North America, Europe and Australia. Brought together from the four corners of the world, they unite through the familiarity of dance – holding hands to perform the steps they were taught as children. Step by step, shuffle by shuffle, they cleanse the land beneath their feet. The vibrations of their stomps comforting their ancestors. For a fleeting moment, this land is theirs. 

Dance and real estate both depend on the same factor for impact: location location location. Unlike the native Americans dancing around a defeated Columbus, I as an Assyrian-American do not dance on my indigenous land. Instead I dance as a settler on native American land. My cultural legacy is one of displacement, yet I was raised on the land of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe. How do I reconcile my position as both oppressed and oppressor? What do I owe native Americans for benefitting from their land? How do I contribute to native erasure? As the music fades and the dancing ends, these are the questions that remain.

The answers to many of these difficult questions begin with ally-ship and self education. I hope that the next time a Columbus statue is torn down that Assyrian-Americans will be the first to join in and dance. I hope that Assyrian-American parents take the time to commemorate Indigenous people’s day instead of “Columbus day” and teach their children which tribe’s land they occupy. Above all I hope indigenous peoples around the world show solidarity with one another and demand to have their full rights restored. Reflecting on the struggle to end South African apartheid, one activist made it clear that “the [toyi-toyi dance] was our weapon. We did not have the technology of warfare, the tear gas and tanks, but we had this weapon.” Let us too be equipped with the weapons of unity and dance, only then can we win the fight against injustice and achieve the dignity we are owed. 

Portraits of Perseverance

One of my favorite pastimes as a college student in Santa Barbara was strolling down sunny State Street lined with antique shops. As the aspiring hipsters we were, my friends and I would visit each one in hopes of scoring a vintage flannel or finding retro décor for our apartments. At the very back of each store I would find, without fail, a basket of old photographs. Among all the prized possessions for sale, no one ever seemed to sift through the baskets of unfamiliar Kodak portraits. After-all, why would anyone care to see a stranger’s family photos?

In the last week, MesoPortrayal launched a social media campaign calling for submissions of old family photos, specifically the trendiest à la mode moments that showcase the best of pre millennium life. Using the hashtag #MesoMode, nearly 700 photos were shared in just 3 days. From striking a pose on the boulevards of 1970s Tehran to smoking a cigarette in a 1960s Baghdad ballroom, the collective of memories captures a generation of Assyrians who lived by the mode of the moment. Mode, a french loan word, is colloquially used in the middle east to mean “in fashion and up to date”. Which is exactly how to describe the beehives and bell bottoms on display in the collection of photographs.

The virtual campaign seemed to have an immediate and visceral reaction for many. Messages of support poured in while followers shared background stories to the photos they had uploaded. The teenagers dancing khigga were revealed to be in Greece, where they had just met one another as they awaited the fate of their visa applications. The awkward couple sharing a bench was on their first date, and were arrested shortly after the picture was taken for being an unwed couple displaying affection in post revolutionary Iran. Other photos captured an air of celebration, from a hopeful pupil graduating as an engineer in Iraq to a glamorous woman enjoying a European holiday. No matter the occasion, each photo seems laced with elegance and poise; with a civility that feels lost to the previous century. 

Beyond the immediate novelty of women in vintage mini skirts and men sporting super-wide lapels, what was it about the photographs that compelled thousands to consume them? Aside from a few close friends who took part in the challenge, the majority of the faces and families were unknown to me. They should have been ignored as easily as the anonymous basket of photos at the antique store – but instead I was mesmerized by each one. The subjects felt less like strangers and more like long lost relatives beckoning to be known. 

By now we have been conditioned to understand why representation matters in media, that accurately depicting society’s diverse voices empowers minorities and creates a sense of belonging for all. That sense of belonging is a privilege that Assyrians have rarely been afforded. An ultra minority nation without a state, Assyrians have grown accustomed to never hearing their stories told or seeing their faces reflected back to them. In fact many prefer this lack of representation, because whenever our homelands are discussed, it is rarely in a favorable light. In the modern imagination, the words Iraq, Iran, Syria, or Turkey conjure war torn news clips or orientalist scenes from Hollywood films. Yet in the Assyrian lived experience, the same words recall memories of chic banquets, bustling universities, and modernity. Perhaps this is why the #MesoMode photos resonated with so many, it was a rare instance of representation where stories were told by and for Assyrians. Stories not of invasion or explosions, but of romance and passion for life. The positive narrative of a region which suffers from horrible PR is a breathe of fresh air that we want to cling to and affirm to ourselves.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then novels of Assyrian stories were written online this week. Each story shared is unique and steeped in family history, yet they are all bound together by the defining trait of resilience. When enjoying the photos of fashionable ladies and dapper gentlemen, it is easy to forget that the decades when most of the photos were taken had been extremely tumultuous for Assyrians world wide. While many communities experienced a fleeting “golden age” of civil society in the 50s, 60s and 70s, it would soon come to an end as religious extremism, political instability, and war enveloped the region – leading hundreds of thousands of men and women wearing firmly creased slacks and delicate silhouettes to pack up and leave home. Location tags quietly tell the story of immigration in the posts, as captions for “Tigris River” change into “Amsterdam Canals” and later “Chicago”. But this collection of photographs isn’t about the pain of saying goodbye, it is about getting dressed for the journey and celebrating along the way. 

One photo that stands out is a portrait of a family celebrating a birthday at a refugee camp in the Netherlands. In the picture, three children sit at the table in front of a home baked cake as the mother and father pose behind them. Mom is dressed to impress with a giant white bow in her teased out hair as dad tries to make the children laugh by making bunny ears behind them. The scene perfectly encapsulates the modern Assyrian existence – In the midst of displacement, living in a transient city, and not knowing what the future holds, they seize the day, dress their best, and celebrate. 

Despite family separations, untimely deaths, and waging wars, #MesoMode collects moments of defiant happiness and stubborn joy. Assyrians know better than anyone that life must go on despite uncontrollable circumstances, and the spirit of discovering pleasure in the darkest moments shines through every portrait. Through the hazy fog of nostalgia, the strangers donning pencil skirts and papillons declare their lust for life to the viewer. I may not know the anonymous subjects of the photos, but their stories are familiar and their message is clear. Perhaps next time I visit an antique shop, I’ll head to the neglected basket in the back, and learn a thing or two from the black and white faces looking back at me.

Photos in order of appearance courtesy of: Eden Kiryakos, Kat Yachouh, Akadina Yadegar, Mariam Mansour, Susie G, Shamiran Khoshaba, Elona Oraha, Crystal Solayman, Sydney, Benny Aziz, Stephany Thomas

You can visit the digital #MesoMode archive here.