Telling their stories – global persecution & displacement of Christians
** Podcast transcript from The Moving Icon show on Orthodox Christian Network (OCN) **
Broadcast Sept 2015
Most of you are aware of the intense persecution being experienced by Christians in the world. Whether it be the genocides in Iraq and Syria or the frequent turmoil in occupied-Palestine, much has been said in the media about their suffering and many of us have seen the graphic photos online. However, you ever thought about what happens afterwards to those who survive? Even when they flee to places of safehaven, like America or Australia, are their troubles really over?
This is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the nightmare as we, living in the Western World, like to think the worst is over. Unfortunately, even in supposedly pluralistic societies, these refugees are not necessarily made to feel welcomed. Instead, fear, prejudice and insensitivity leads to alienation and despair.
Today I’d like to discuss two very different examples: the 2009 indie film, Amreeka, which explores intolerance and Not Even My Name, a biography by Thea Halo about her mother surviving the Christian Genocide in Asia-Minor. These are unique stories because not only are they based on actual accounts but these stories are written by women giving us a different perspective on these terrible chapters in history.
One story at a time
Amreeka (Arabic for ‘America’) tells the story of Palestinian Christians, single-mother Muna and her teenage son, Fadi. Set in a blazing hot Palestine, Muna is an educated woman struggling to cope with working at an inefficient bank, negotiating Israeli checkpoints, looking after her mother and overcoming her husband’s infidelity. However, after being granted a Green Card they decide to leave their ancient homeland and go live with Muna’s sister, Radhda, and her young family in suburban Chicago. Muna hopes this opportunity will provide her talented son a better life and the chance to re-invent herself. But, upon leaving sunny Palestine they arrive to receive a welcome that’s anything but warm. In a cold, greyish post-9/11 America, Iraq has just been invaded and suspicions are high. Beside politics, we soon learn Muna feels inferior to her sister, a slim women married to a doctor living in a big home. On top of this Muna keeps several failings from her family, including losing all her savings and working at a White Castle restaurant.
The second item is the book Not Even my Name, which recounts the true story of Thea’s mother, Sano, a Pontian-Greek, who survived the exile of Christian minorities from Turkey in what’s commonly called the ‘Armenian Genocide’ during 1915-1923. The story was inspired by Thea’s life-long desire to help her mother find her ancestral home. Based on a handful of details, as her mother was only 10 years old at the time, this mother and daughter team travel to Turkey and go a journey that uncovers difficult memories. Along the way they come across a host of characters who help Thea better understand her mother, identity and coming to terms with history. According to the book, over 1.5 million Armenians, 750,000 Assyrians and 350,000 Pontian Greeks died on the death marches. A total of 2.6 million Christians wiped out along with another 1.5 million Greeks exiled. Imagine, millions of people being forced to wander the country-side, shepherded around like sheep. Another interesting fact not mentioned in the book is the word ‘genocide’ was created by Raphael Lemkin in 1943 who was greatly moved by the plight of these Christians. It’s also worth noting recently ISIS rebels destroyed a church and memorial dedicated to the Armenian Genocide in Syia.
The movie and book reveal the pressures Western societies impose on these people, inspired by ignorance and fear. Muna and her family are frequently mistaken for Muslims or Iraqis and therefore, absurdly, terrorists. Fuelled by over-zealous patriotism and prejudice, this negative environment begins to have an impact on Fadi at school. In an act of rebellion and seeking acceptance, Fadi intimates his cousin, Salma, to become ‘more American’; unfortunately this involves adopting the gangster lifestyle. This attitude of indifference and self-destruction turns the intelligent and talented Fadi into a broken and frustrated soul – was this the ‘reinvention’ promised? To him, and many others, they feel this conformity and rejection of one’s heritage is the only way to be accepted.
This conflict between Old and New World-views is perfectly illustrated when Radhda uses the analogy of a tree being uprooted from its home and transplanted to a different place where it struggles to grow. Radhda (born in Palestine) and her daughter (born in America) are two extremes. For example, Radhda tells her daughter that their home is effectively on Palestinian soil. In response Salma calls her delusional telling her that they live in America. Although she may have a point, she loses merit when one looks at her self-destructive lifestyle and rejection of her origins which cannot be forgotten. We see that Radhda’s home-sickness has made her insensitive to others not familiar with her culture. However, this conflict is reconciled in a scene between Manu and Fadi. Fadi makes a good point that how can one expect things to remain the same when starting again in a very different country. Manu resolves his insecurities highlighting if they didn’t belong in Palestine and didn’t belong in America then where could they go? Every place has its difficulties, all one can do is remain strong and rely on their heritage to give them direction. This also reconciles Radhda’s dilemma of the uprooted tree – though it may have difficulty taking root in new soil, it needs time to adapt to the new environment.
Amreeka stresses in order to live together we cannot rely on oppression, but incorporate the best of both worlds. Muna is a great example of this. Though she may not hold herself in high regard, she’s a highly tolerant and insightful individual which you very quickly respect. For example, we see Muna introduces a co-worker to falafels, Arabic and Radhda to burgers. She also holds no resentment. Even upon learning the school principal is of Jewish heritage, she does not express any ill feelings towards him despite the treatment her family experienced in Palestine; this a high admirable. If these persecuted Christians are going to make such an effort we need to do the same. In another scene, Muna is applying for a job and the interviewer asks if Palestine is one of those ‘Israeli-speaking countries’. Yet it is Muna who feels more foolish because of her ascent rather than the man with his lack of general world knowledge. It’s this ignorance that results in what I call ‘Cultural Genocide’.
In Not Even My Name, the author’s sisters, despite being of Pontian Greek and Assyrian heritage, instead wanted to be regarded as Egyptian and her brothers as Turks because of ordinary American’s lack of awareness of their cultures. Thea recounts how her teachers insisted she was confused, that Assyrians no longer existed; they were an ancient people from biblical times who died out. Or when she said she was Pontian, Americans had no idea what she was talking about and as a result she gave up and stop talking about her heritage. Such ignorance and wide-spread lack of general knowledge causes such people to abandon their identity and forget their origins, erasing the memory of an entire people. Cultural Genocide results in the loss of thousands of years of culture and entire living-libraries of knowledge. So what the Genocide didn’t finish off an uninformed society can help. Ignorance coupled with fear comes at a great cost – is this the price for acceptance?
So how should our societies resolve these tensions: through knowledge and understanding. By learning about these cultures we can make our societies more tolerant and in the process better our world. As revealed in Amreeka, did you know that Chess was invented by the Arabs? And that the phrase, ‘Check-Mate’ is Arabic ‘Chuck Matt’ for ‘the king is dead’? So you’ve been speaking Arabic without knowing it. Even the word ‘OK’ is an abbreviation for ‘Ola Kala’ which is Greek for ‘all is good’, used to help communicate with British soldiers during WW2. In Not Even My Name, Thea’s mother cooked not only American-style holiday foods, including apple pie and turkey topped with pineapple and marshmallows, but regional dishes such as stuffed grape leaves and cham-bo-rak, a meat pie cooked in a pan and bread rolls with black seeds. And think of this, if one had to fully adopt ‘the American way’ then Orthodoxy would be in conflict with American spirituality, which does not favour ‘tradition’.
By the end of the film and book it’s obvious that fear, prejudice, conformity, ignorance and extreme-patriotism feed one another. However, I want to stress it’s not the entire population, whether it be America, Australia or Turkey that’s insensitive. Minorities, fuelled by ultra-nationalist and patriotic agenda coupled with lack of knowledge, are the ones who spread this hatred into the wider society. In Amreeka, Muna is helped by her co-worker, the bank employee from next door covers for her and the school principal always being there to help her. In Not Even my Name, they meet several young Turks who provide invaluable help and hospitality on their journey, making Thea wonder how the genocide could have even happened based on the hospitable nature of these people.
In short, by not understanding and learning about the histories and culture of these persecuted Christians we’ll be the losers.
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