Last update: 2019-05-27 15:33:46
Review of Joseph Yacoub, Qui s’en souviendra? 1915: le génocide assyro-chaldéo-syriaque, Cerf, Paris, 2014
On the centenary of the First World War, Joseph Yacoub, Honorary Professor of Political Science at the Catholic University of Lyon, forcefully addresses the question of the extermination which befell the Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac population in the Ottoman Empire during the first decades of the twentieth century. It is the “forgotten genocide” that occurred at the same time as the much more well-known genocide of the Armenian population and that ended with the deaths of 250,000 people, according to data reported by the author (p. 23), shaking the existence of the Christian communities in the vast historical land of Mesopotamia, between modern-day Turkey, Iraq and Iran’s border regions.
Skilfully administering personal zeal and archival analysis, the author aims to recover the memory of these events, constructing a detailed passage through their places and voices. In the introduction, two aspects emerge that are central within this context: the abundance and diversity of sources, which come from both the Syriac-Assyrian-Chaldean camp, from the sphere of Christian missionaries of different nationalities and faiths, and from the Western records and press from the time, and the illustration of the causes of the eradication of the memory of these events, especially from 1925 onwards. As regards this first aspect, apposite quotation of numerous documentary sources serves to prove that “this genocide is not an unknown geographical and cultural field, and even less a new area of investigation” (p. 21). At the same time, the plurality of evidence shows how the eradication of memory of the genocide was a political choice, and not due to a lack of information and awareness.
In addition to establishing the historic nature of the terms genocide and ethnocide (a term which was appropriately coined at the end of the Second World War), the author does not just highlight the brutality of the massacres of 1915-198, but the planned nature of their execution. These elements were already present in the years in which these incidents took place, and they tell the other side of a tragedy that, despite becoming an international matter between 1915 and 1925, had to give way to the demands of national interest and the new geopolitics of the Middle East.
Qui s’en souviendra? is therefore a text that offers the reader a comprehensive outline that is also reader-friendly. The concise presentation of first-hand accounts is certainly the most valuable aspect. Perhaps because of the need to bring all the elements together, there is little exploration of these events situated within a broader analytical perspective. Indeed, the profound historical changes that involved the Ottoman Empire in those decades and that ultimately led to the bloodbath of the First World War are interpreted according to the static categories of nation, nationalism and nationalisation-Turkification, without attempting to further explain the broader significance within the context of the uniform model of the Nation State being imposed from above. This is heightened by an absence of references to organised political activities both with regards to the Armenian situation and the Syriac-Assyrian-Chaldean experience. These references, which would not detract from the main objective of documentary reconstruction, would have not endorsed the trend of creating a hierarchy of suffering, which the author himself denounces. In fact, far from relativising the work of reconstructing the memory of the massacres, the historical context of the genocide provides precious support for the necessary work of analysing the controversial period. Even in the smallest details, it brings to light the tragedy of a nineteenth century modernity and its contradictions, which, in the Middle East as in Europe, were smashed on the rocks on the First World War, and a form of peace that was largely constructed on the oblivion and eradication of the suffering of the “smallest.” It is a historical passage for which the modern world still seems incapable of accepting proper awareness and responsibility.
To cite this article
Paolo Maggiolini, “Redemption of the Syriac Memory”, Oasis, year XI, n. 21, June 2015, pp. 138-139.
Paolo Maggiolini, “Redemption of the Syriac Memory”, Oasis [online], published on 31st July 2015, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/redemption-syriac-memory.