About the Model
This is my 23 years old relative Athraa. The name ‘Athraa’ in Arabic means ‘Virgin’. It’s a loved name in Iraq because purity is considered a virtue and not something to be ashamed of—I agree with this not only because I am from the Middle East but also because I am Christian. It is a common name among Iraq’s Christians because the term ‘Al-Athraa’ (The Virgin) is used as a quick referral to the Virgin Mary.
Even though it looks like we played together when we were children, I had absolutely no idea her family even existed! It wasn’t until two years ago when Athraa and her family immigrated to Michigan, USA, that I heard about them. She is related to me from my mom’s family and my mom and hers were close friends as teenagers.
I’ve talked to Athraa a couple of times on the phone so when my family and hers decided to go to Niagara Falls last weekend I decided to take her photo...and I had something in mind! So I started looking for a green scarf and thank God, my sister had one. She laughed at the idea of the green scarf saying, “I’ve never worn a scarf in my life and now when I come to North America you want me to wear one!” Then I asked Athraa to put Arabic eye make-up on when she comes to the trip. She was looking forward to the photo shoot, which is always encouraging to the photographer.
The first thing you notice about Athraa is the way she talks. She speaks with such passion that all of her face’s features try to convey the message she wants to get across, and she starts signing with her hands, and her heads moves depending on the intensity of the topic! It is so cute, and everyone who meets her tells her that they love the way she speaks—she is very lovable. She also has a very beautiful voice when she sings. She sang a traditional Iraqi song and I was very surprised by how beautiful her voice was, even though my aunt had already told me that Athraa has a beautiful voice.
About Iraq’s Christians
I would like to talk about this because there are so many misconceptions about who are Iraq’s Christians. People usually think that there are no Christians in Iraq. For example, in high school I had an English teacher who asked me year after year if I was fasting in Ramadan (the fasting month in Islam) and I would tell him that I was a Christian. But he kept asking me that question the next year! People simply forget that Christianity originated in the Middle East, and that the total area of Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq is smaller than Ontario (so it wasn’t that difficult, geographically speaking, to spread Christianity)!
About a decade ago Christians used to make 2-3% of Iraq’s population, now I am guessing there are even less especially after the 2003 war. Iraq’s Christians are from four major ethnical groups: Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syriac people, and Armenians. Armenians fled to Iraq in WWI when Turkey was killing Armenia’s Christians under the Ottoman Empire; even Christians, especially Assyrians, in north Iraq were victims of the genocide. Nowadays many of Iraq’s Christians have permanently settled in other countries like Canada (especially Windsor, Ontario), USA (especially in Detroit, Michigan), Germany, England, Sweden, Spain, New Zealand, and Australia.
Here I am just going to talk about Chaldeans because my family, and so is Athraa’s, is Chaldean. Chaldeans are the native dwellers of what was known as Chaldea, and what is known today as Iraq. I don’t know if they came from somewhere else and settled in Iraq or they have always been there! After all the Garden of Eden was between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which run through Iraq (Genesis 2:14)! The Bible says in Genesis 11:28, “While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth”, and it says in Nehemiah 9:7, "You are the LORD God, who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and named him Abraham." (Ur is a historic city in southern Iraq.) When asked I just say I am from the Middle East, because it is so much easier than saying I am a Chaldean and then I get a blank stare back! And if someone assumes I am an Arab I don't correct them, unless they ask; to me it doesn't matter what my ethnicity is because the only thing that really matters is who I am in Christ.
As you have guessed by now being a Chaldean is not a religion or a faith but it is an ethnicity. However, traditionally (and by birth) Chaldeans are Christian; just like saying an Israelite is Jewish by birth, or a Russian is Orthodox Christian by birth. Most Chaldeans in Iraq are Roman Catholics. However, a lot of Iraq’s Christians, like me, have abandoned the Roman Catholic church and embraced other denominations that are non-traditional and teach salvation is through God’s grace only. I personally don’t belong to any denomination, but if I had to choose one then I would probably choose Baptists.
The mother language of Chaldeans is Aramaic; however, present day Chaldeans speak a modern version of the old Aramaic language. Aramaic was the business language of the Middle East in Biblical times. Therefore, when two different groups of people wanted to communicate they spoke Aramaic (just like English is the international language nowadays). The Bible says in 2 Kings 18:26, “Then Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and Shebna and Joah said to the field commander, ‘Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, since we understand it. Don't speak to us in Hebrew in the hearing of the people on the wall.’” Our Lord spoke Aramaic; actually, a friend of mine told me he understood some of the Aramaic dialect in the movie The Passion of the Christ. Aramaic, Arabic, and Hebrew seem to come from one parent language--or were developed at the same time and influenced greatly by one another--because there are many common words between them.
Athraa and I don’t speak Aramaic--we speak Arabic--because our parents didn’t speak it neither did our grandparents; this is common among people who lived in the city for many generations since Arabic is the national language of Iraq. I was often looked down upon by other Chaldeans because I do not know Aramaic (which is not a bad thing if you know my testimony), and Muslims often wondered how I could be a Christian and not speak Aramaic. Again, people were confusing ethnicity, religion, language, and nationality.
Finally, Athraa and I are Iraqis—that’s our nationality. I guess it is similar to an Aboriginal person born in Quebec, Canada, to parents who have been living in the city for many generations. His ethnicity would be Aboriginal, his language would be French, and his nationality would be Canadian. You see, it is not that difficult!
PS: I was going to title this photo "The Forgotten: Iraq's Christians", but then I realized that God doesn't forget His creation even if humans did--He definitely didn't forget me. Athraa and her family left Iraq because they received threads, "You must pay money for living in Muslims' land or pay with your lives." They decided to sell their house, pay the money, and leave the country. Sad how people like Chaldeans and Assyrians who have been living in Iraq before Arabs and Islam even existed are kicked out of their land, the land of their ancestors, and the only place they have ever known as home because suddenly it belongs to someone else! And now they are scattered all over the world losing their ethnical and national identity which they held for thousands of years.
Note: The above information about Chaldeans may not be completely accurate because Assyrians claim that Chaldeans are not the descendants of the original Chaldeans of Abraham, but are Assyrians who separated from the Eastern Church and joined the Roman Catholic Church about 5 centuries ago and so were called "Chaldeans" to differentiate them from Assyrians.
I am glad that this photo has won a 'beauty' challenge on dpreview.com: www.flickr.com/photos/f_j/4926403970/ :)
(Niagara Fall, ON; summer 2010.)