|A girl holds up a sign that reads, “I am an Iraqi, I am a Christian” at Mar Girgis Church in Baghdad, July 20, 2014. Photo: Reuters|
DEARBORN — Are Chaldeans Arab?
It depends on whom you ask. It depends on your definition of Arab. And it depends on the answer of individual Chaldeans.
Anthropologists say a Chaldean would fit the general scholarly definition of an Arab.
But in his eulogy to Edward Said, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish recalls an exchange between himself and the late academic.
“And identity? I said. He said: It’s self-defense. It is the manifestation of birth, but at the end, it’s the creation of its owner.”
Ethnic and cultural categorization can be a choice.
Chaldeans are a Catholic ethno-religious community that hails from northern Iraq. While they speak a version of Aramaic in their villages, most Chaldeans in Iraq know Arabic.
Iraq is a founding member of the Arab League.
Their numbers dwindled in Iraq from 1.4 million in 2003 to about 500,000 today because of terrorist attacks against their communities and churches following the U.S.-led invasion.
Here in Southeast Michigan, tens of thousands of Chaldeans have established a strong presence in the northern suburbs.
Last month, The Arab American News ran a story about Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the physician who discovered elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint’s children. The piece was titled “The Iraqi immigrant doctor who saved Flint.”
Chaldean nationalists objected to the headline on Facebook, accusing the newspaper of playing down the fact that Hanna-Attisha is Chaldean.
But the doctor herself responded to the notion that Arabs should not celebrate Chaldeans’ accomplishments.
“I am Arabic and Chaldean and Iraqi and American and a woman and doctor and a mom and a wife and many other things,” Hanna-Attisha wrote in a comment. “This is how I identify myself and I am proud of all of those identities. This is not a time to divide our cultures, rather a time to come together — especially with so much intolerance and hate spewing from loud mouths.”
But most Chaldeans do not share the views of the doctor who saved Flint and see being Arab and being Chaldean as mutually exclusive.
Two major Arab American organizations are honoring Hanna-Attisha this year. The physician will receive Champion of Justice award from ACCESS in April. Hanna-Attisha will also be the keynote speaker at the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee’s MLK Scholarship Banquet next month.
What is an Arab?
Dr. Nabeel Abraham, a retired professor who taught Arab anthropology at Henry Ford College, said Chaldeans are Arabs from a behavioral, cultural point of view.
“They walk like an Arab; they talk like an Arab; they act like an Arab,” he said.
Abraham explained that being an Arab is not a racial identity.
“It’s more of a cultural, civilizational definition,” he said.
Abraham said Chaldeans share Arabic cuisine, music and customs; and most Chaldeans in Iraq speak Arabic.
“Some convince themselves that they’re not Arab,” Abraham said. “I would say, objectively speaking, they’re Arab Chaldeans.”
The veteran academic explained that Arab identity is open to pluralism — “There are Arab Assyrians. There are Arab Maronites. There are Arab Berbers. There are Arab Kurds. There are Arab Jews.”
However, Abraham added that, subjectively, if a group of people chooses to identify as non-Arab, there is no point in persuading them otherwise.
Asked about some Chaldeans’ nativist claims that they are the original people of Iraq, Abraham said, “Yes and no.”
Abraham said Islam spread throughout the Middle East about 1,400 years ago, but the people of the Arabian Peninsula were few; they did not populate the regions they conquered.
He added that over time the Levant and North Africa were Arabized and most people there adopted Islam.
According to Abraham, most Middle Easterners outside Arabia can trace their lineage to people who predate Arabic and Islam in those regions.
“Chaldeans are the native people of Iraq, but so are the others,” Abraham said.
Abraham said Islam accepted Christians and Jews as “people of the Book”, which helped preserve religious minorities in the Middle East.
Dr. Sally Howell, professor of Arab American studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, said there are many ways of defining who counts as an Arab.
“The simplest definition — the most commonly used one — is someone who has their origins in an Arabic speaking nation,” she said.
Howell added that by that description, Chaldeans are Arabs because they come from Iraq.
“Historically and culturally, they were part of that Arab environment,” she said.
However, she said ethnic and national identities are complex and subjective.
Howell added that identity is elastic in nature and politics encompasses an aspect of its elasticity.
“It’s more about how you personally identify, how you see yourself,” she said. “It’s not always about how other people may want to categorize you or see you.”
Howell said the Chaldean community has a history that predates the nation of Iraq.
“They have a historic language that is different than the Arabic language, even though it is my understanding that the majority of Chaldeans in Iraq today speak Arabic, in addition to Aramaic or exclusively,” she said.
Howell noted that it is entirely up to individual Chaldeans to decide whether they want to identify as Arabs.
She cited a 2003 study she helped conduct, which found that 45 percent of Chaldeans surveyed said the term “Arab American” describes them comfortably.
But she suspects that number has shifted over the past 13 years.
“The political situation is driving Chaldeans away from that Arab identification,” she said.
Howell also said some of her Chaldean acquaintances distanced themselves from Arabness after Sept. 11, 2001.
Echoing Abraham, Howell said Chaldeans are one of the native peoples of Iraq.
“They are one of the indigenous communities there, but they’re not the only ones,” she said.
Andrew Shryock, a distinguished professor and the chair of the anthropology department at the University of Michigan, said Chaldeans are a part of the Arab World.
“Many speak Arabic at home and in their churches, and much of their community media is Arabic-based,” he told The Arab American News via email. “This doesn’t mean they should be expected to ignore their own ethno-religious background, which is not simply Arab, and is not Muslim either. Chaldeans have several identity options, and they vary among themselves in how strongly they identify as Arab or non-Arab.”
“Chaldeans are not Arab”
According to the Chaldean Community Foundation, an advocacy organization led by local businessmen, Chaldeans are from the Arab World but are not Arabs.
“Chaldeans differ from the majority of Iraqi(s) in three major aspects: first, they are Christian rather than Muslim; second, their ancestral language is Aramaic rather than Arabic; and third, most prefer to identify themselves as Chaldeans rather than Arabs or Iraqis,” reads a statement on the group’s website.
It is worth noting that under the foundation’s logo, its name is written in both English and Arabic.
Nabby Yono, vice president of community relations at the Arab American and Chaldean Council, said cultural and ethnic distinctions between Arabs and Chaldeans are a fine line.
“But I think that subject has been established that Chaldeans are not Arabs,” he said. “They have their own identity.”
Yono compared Chaldeans to Armenians in that they live in Arabic-speaking countries, but are not ethnically Arab.
“It doesn’t mean we disconnect ourselves from the Arab identity,” he said. “We speak the language. We read it. We write it.”
He said Chaldeans are intertwined in the Arab culture and should not be offended if they are called Arab.
Yono said more Chaldeans are disassociating themselves from Arabs after the persecution of Iraqi Christians by Islamist extremists.
Nidhal Garmo, a pharmacist and humanitarian activist, said her nationality is Chaldean Iraqi, but her culture is Arabic.
“I eat Arabic food. I dance to Arabic music. I speak Arabic. I write Arabic,” she said.
Garmo said growing up in Iraq, these sectarian and ethnic demarcations did not exist.
She urged unity in the face of turmoil.
“All that destruction that’s happening in the Middle East is because of these divisions,” she said. “I judge people based on their character, not religion.”
In her 1998 book, “Chaldean Americans: Changing Conceptions of Ethnic Identity”, the late sociology professor Mary Sengstock writes that the Chaldean identity became more emboldened in the United States.
“Recent first-generation immigrants, especially ones who resided in metropolitan areas such as Baghdad, Mosul and Basra prior to immigration to the United States, identified interchangeably as Arab, Iraqi, Christian Arab or Christian Iraqi in their homeland,” Sengstock’s book reads. “Upon arriving to join an established Chaldean community in Detroit, they abruptly experience a collective pressure to alter their accustomed identity to what accentuates their religious affiliation and ethnic descent, namely, to identify as Chaldean.”