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The Assyrians as an example

When we discuss the role of music as a symbol of identity, the Assyrian immigrant group in Sweden is particularly interesting in several respects. Above all, the Assyrian group differs from most other ethnic groups in Sweden in three essential areas:

  • For Assyrians there is no "homeland" to return to. The dream of the old Beth Nahrain, or Mesopotamia, seems like an utopia to most of them. They realise that life in Sweden is not of a temporary nature and that they will probably continue to live here for several generations. In addition, the uniting national concept of an origin in the ancient Assyrian Empire is in itself far from unproblematic.
  • They have deliberately chosen an ethnic identity as Assyrians rather than the Syriac identity which has religious associations. When we in Sweden distinguish between Assyrians and Syrians, we do so on grounds that have never applied in the surroundings that these people come from. The term Syrian alludes to the Syrian Orthodox church, while Assyrian refers to an ethnic kinship with the inhabitants of the ancient Assyrian Empire. (In the Swedish language the distinction is more obvious since there are two terms for the English "Syrian": Syrier = native of Syria, and Syrian = Christian from the Middle East)
  • Within the group the Assyrians themselves have actively worked to establish and cultivate ethnic distinguishing marks, in particular language and music.

Basically, the Assyrian/Syrian group is far from homogeneous. People differ from each other in language, ethnicity and religion, depending on which part of the region they come from.

In this complex situation in permanent exile and with no great hopes of ever being able to return, a strong nationalistic movement has burgeoned, based on the idea of a common Assyrian identity. What means are used in the attempt to create an Assyrian "we" – a sense of community built on an ethnic and cultural foundation?

All the interviewees have pointed out the important role that the so-called "national music" plays for the Assyrian identity. But what do they mean by national music? For the Syrian Orthodox believers, no specifically Assyrian music existed outside the church until after the First World War.

Today Assyrians are scattered over virtually the whole world. The Assyrian electronic newsletter Zenda quotes the following population figures for 1996 in descending order:

The majority of Assyrians live in their ancestral homeland, which is now part of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Here is a geographical breakdown.

Iraq 2,000,000
Syria 700,000
USA 300,000
Brazil 80,000
Iran 50,000
Lebanon 40,000
Russia 35,000
Sweden 35,000
Australia 30,000
Germany 30,000
Turkey 20,000
Canada 20,000
Armenia 15,000
France 15,000
Georgia 14,000
Holland 10,500
England 8,000
Austria 7,000
Greece 5,000
Belgium 5,000
New Zealand 3,000
Switzerland 3,000
Italy 3,000
Other 100,000

Total: 3,432,000 (Zelda nr 10 1996)