Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Memoirs of a Babylonian Princess

Memoirs of a Babylon Princess

I have finally started reading Memoirs of a Babylonian Princess, a book written 200 years ago by a woman from Telkaif in northern Iraq, my ancestors’ once Christian town which was overtaken by the Islamic State in the summer of 2014. The fact that this little gem of a book, and its author Maria Theresa Asmar, were practically buried into oblivion among its own people is quite disturbing to me, to say the least.

I first learned about Memoirs of a Babylonian Princess when I had to cover a story in the summer of 2012. Emily Porter PhD, an Iraqi-British artist, author and activist, had traveled from her hometown in Great Britain to do work at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York regarding Asmar’s memoirs. She gave a lecture at Shenandoah Country Club about this memoir, and like Porter, I was amazed that few, if any, people in our Chaldean community had heard about this 720 page book.

Porter had stumbled upon this book when she was searching through a friend’s library.

“I found a book about Telkaif that briefly mentions Memoirs of a Babylonian Princess, followed by the criticism that Maria Asmar exaggerates in her work,” said Porter. “I thought, over 700 pages of a memoir, written by a woman from Telkaif in the early 19th century, and all this person has to say about it is that the author exaggerates in her writing?”

Maria was no ordinary woman, either. She traveled alone to Europe, the Middle East and other parts of the world. She met with Queen Victoria and even dedicated her book to the queen. She set up a school for women in Baghdad and welcomed western Christian missionaries, who then bribed the Turkish government to give them the licence for the school and forbid Maria to carry on with her project. Left frustrated and angry to have been treated this way by fellow Christians, she sought sanctuary with the Muslim Bedouins. She set about recording their daily lives, everything from the weddings and celebrations to their assaults on other tribes.

As I read her memoirs, I am in awe of the rich material it contains and of the beauty in Maria’s literary voice. I also find it interesting that while her work was neglected by her own community, in Great Britain and even in the United States, it has received a much wider and respectable recognition.

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Creating Alternative Ways to Serve Our Country

Army

This afternoon, I actually had free time on my hands, alone. Wanting to take full advantage of this rarity, especially now that it is summer and my children are home from school, I drove to the bookstore. I treated myself to a white chocolate mocha and browsed through the book shelves. I picked up a small book that called out to me, titled The Thing You Think You Cannot Do. I opened to a page that talked about the author’s experience in Iraq.

I walked with the book to the café and sat at a table next to the window. I returned to that page, and read something that I thought was quite appropriate to share for the Fourth of July Holiday. Here are excerpts of what the author, Gordon Livingston, M.D., wrote in Chapter 10, Beware of ideas on which we all agree:

“No shared feelings are more firmly embedded in the American culture than the admiration and gratitude that we have toward the young men and women who have served in our most recent wars. Their sacrifices are celebrated at every opportunity, and stories about our “wounded warriors” and their families are a stable of the nightly news. Our great national spectacles – sporting events, holidays – become occasions for patriotic celebration and remembrance, rife with clichés (such as “Freedom isn’t Free”) designed to reassure us that, while we personally have not chosen to sacrifice anything during wartime, we at least appreciate those who have made the choice to do so. They stand in their camouflage uniforms often looking a little mystified at the applause.

The reflexive impulse to treat our troops as heroes serves an important part aside from relieving our guilt at having done nothing ourselves. The war in Iraq, no less than other wars, involved the morally ambiguous process of killing large numbers of people who posed no threat to us. Because the instruments of destruction were our sons and daughters, we find it hard to take responsibility for asking this of them without regret and self-examination. Ignoring our misjudgments and redoubling our admiration for the young people who risked everything on our behalf are far easier….

The “Support our troops” bumper magnets that blossomed as the invasion of Iraq commenced could have just as well read “My country, right or wrong!”

And so we venerate those who put themselves in fear-inducing situations on our behalf and did whatever they could to survive. Most of them are neither heroes nor killers, just patriotic people volunteering to hazard themselves for reasons that to them seemed good at the time. Can we deal with our fears in some way that does not involve the use of bullets or high explosives? Can we celebrate those willing to take risks while creating alternative ways for young people to serve their country that are less costly to them and to others in distant places who love their children in the same way that we love ours?” 

I hope that we value our troops enough to listen and reflect upon the questions Mr. Livingston posed before us, and invest the time, wisdom and love necessary to find answers for these powerful questions.