Language Arts

The organizer of Mesopotamian Night aims to preserve Assyrian language, culture
HISTORICAL DANCE: Two dancers perform at Mesopotamian Night in 2017.

Thousands of years ago, the Tigris and Euphrates served as the lifeblood of ancient Mesopotamia. This "land between two rivers"—sometimes referred to as the Fertile Crescent and the Cradle of Civilization—produced one of the first advanced economies, based on complex agriculture and long-distance trade. The resulting stability gave birth to a number of thriving societies, including the Assyrians.

Assyrian culture dates back to around 2500 BCE. In the ensuing millennia, war, regime change and environmental shifts have led to mass exodus. Today, the Assyrian diaspora covers the globe. Northern California is host to a strong community of Assyrian peoples, some of whom are working tirelessly to preserve the traditions of their ancestors.

Tony Khoshaba is one such individual. Since 2007, he has curated a yearly event called Mesopotamian Night, which celebrates Assyrian culture by showcasing ancient traditions and championing the preservation of one of the world's oldest surviving languages through an evening of music and performing arts.

Khoshaba was born in Iran and immigrated to the US after the revolution of 1979, when the reigning monarchy was overthrown and replaced with an Islamic republic. He grew up learning the language now known as modern Assyrian, Aramaic or Neo-Aramaic—a language tied to the Aramaic of the Christian Bible. Khoshaba's mentors urged him to maintain the language no matter where life took him.

Khoshaba took heed. The founder and director of Mesopotamian Night hosts the 11th installment of the event on Jul. 13.

Proceeds from this evening go straight to northern Iraqi schools that teach the language Mesopotamian Night is trying to preserve—humanitarian aid in the form of an education that honors the Assyrian tradition.

Mesopotamian Night is both a showcase of culture and a party. The festivities begin at 5pm with wine and conversation. The variety show starts at 7pm, spotlighting traditional and modern Assyrian art and performance. In many of the vignettes, the Assyrian language takes center stage.

Kicking things off is a 28-piece orchestra and choral group performing a piece titled Qala d' Qarna. The lyrics were written more than a century ago by Dr. Freydun Atturaya, an Assyrian physician and activist; the music was composed about 40 years ago and has since been rearranged for the symphony orchestra.

Then it's on to the San Jose-produced Assyrian musical comedy Majnawta, or Eloping. Fed up with the barriers they face in pre-revolution Iran, Ashur and Ashorina decide to get hitched on their own.

During an intermission, attendees can bid on Assyrian art including sculpture, painting and calligraphy. After the auction, the evening takes a contemporary turn, as Emanouel Bet Younan and Talal Graish sing popular Assyrian hits backed by a live band.

The artistic director of the production, Fred Elieh, says Mesopotamian Night has revolutionized Assyrian cultural expression. According to Elieh, the event led to the creation of the first Assyrian musical—2012's The Tall Handsome Prince. He also contends that the first Assyrian opera was inspired by Mesopotamian Night.

For Khoshaba, that's great news. The more Assyrians who create using their native tongue, the better. Only 2 to 3 million people globally speak the Assyrian language presently, Khoshaba explains, and an event like Mesopotamian Night helps to galvanize the preservation effort.

"I think we have a cause that is important internationally, too. This language has historical significance," Khoshaba says. "We don't want this language to die, because it's part of world heritage."

This ancient language provides a vital key to understanding history, particularly through the study of ancient texts. Dating back to at least the Bronze Age, many of humanity's most cherished stories, myths and historical accounts were first recorded in Assyrian. Given this fact, Khoshaba says even non-Assyrians should be able to see the importance of preserving this ancient language.

Mesopotamian Night
Jul 13, 6pm, $50+
California Theatre, San Jose

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