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TODAY

Sunday, December 8

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In the next week my father, my mother, my sister and I will cast votes for the Iraqi parliament. So will hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of Iraqi expatriates across the world, participating in the Out-of-Country voting program. Generally free from fear of terrorist attacks, intimidation, or coercion, the votes cast by these expatriates will certainly be a deciding factor in this election -- so important not only to the security of the world, or to the future of Iraq, but to the continued survival of a people. Before you start guessing which people, I'll clue you in -- my people. Assyrians. Or "Assyrians." Well, it's complicated...

My father draws good analogies. And he can come up with them on the spot. It's a marvel, really. When faced with the problem of Assyrian disunity in the face of a new Iraqi order, and an election which may determine the entire future of this group of human beings whose culture faces extinction, he came up with a doozy:

"In the Assyrian towns, they called me Yousip. In the Arab towns, they called me Yousif. In Chicago, they call me Joseph. And, believe it or not, in the Czech Republic they called me Pekipo. But at the end of the day, no matter what they called me, when I came home and looked in the mirror, I was always the same man."

I used to joke that Assyrians are the "minoritiest" minority in the whole wide world. We number in the single-digit millions across the whole world. Having suffered periodic massacres and abuses at the hands of Persians, Turks, Arabs, and then probably some more Arabs, the Assyrian Diaspora has moved in several waves since the late Nineteenth Century, and headed in different directions: Russia and Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Scandinavia, Australia, Canada, and Rogers Park. And environs.

One would imagine that this distinction of being one of the smallest of all minorities would encourage us to close ranks, join together, create harmony from chaos through one sure, sturdy voice. Alas, Fate -- with whom we were already not performing very well -- had a different plan.

You see, there are three types of Assyrians. Well, at least three. We go by different names. There are three "big" types of Assyrians. There are Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Suryoyo. Now, all three are "Assyrians," because they speak some version of the same language (Neo-Aramaic, it is usually called) and because they originated in the same region (the Fertile Crescent area), as well as being Christians (this is where it gets tricky. More on that later.) All three are descended from the ancient Assyrians of the Bible, who lived in Nineveh, Babylon (Ur) and thereabouts. Now the three types of Assyrians -- Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Suryoyo -- agree that they are all Assyrians, but only in English. The trouble comes in Aramaic -- because the word for "Assyrian" is Atouraya. But Chaldeans, who are Roman Catholic, associate that word with the Church of the East (sometimes called the Nestorian church), which was excommunicated by Rome some time in the 6th Century or so. The Assyrian Assyrians are members of this Church of the East. This is a problem, because Chaldeans speak the language, look the same, have the same traditions, the same names, eat the same foods, and come to the same parties, and live in the same general areas in Iraq. But if they refuse to go by the name "Assyrian," it is a little hard to claim national unity, isn't it?

And at a time of renewal in Iraq, this is an especially big quandary. So my father, one among a group of respected, hard-working Assyrians -- professionals, intellectuals, politicos, and the like -- traveled the country, barnstorming the Assyrian population centers all over North America to convince all the different Assyrians that we were all, in fact Assyrians. Chaldo-Assyrians was one of the compromise names that was decided upon.

And when the freedom fighters and resistance groups in Iraq got together to put together a slate for the up-coming election, they decided to call it the "Two Rivers" slate. (To avoid using any national name that may offend any one group or another).

Slate? You may be asking. Why, yes. The Iraqi election has over three hundred slates, of which each voter may choose only one. Let me explain:

According to the proportional representation system Iraq will (and much of the world already does) use, each voter chooses a party's slate. One voter, one slate. Then, the number of votes each slate receives is divided by the total number of votes and indexed to a universe of 275 seats (which is how many seats the parliament will have). This determines how many seats each party is allocated. So, say 10,000,000 vote. Let's say one slate gets 1,000,000 votes. That means that slate got 10 percent, so they will take 10 percent of 275 seats, or 27.5. I'm not sure if they round up or down or what. Anyway.

So having a unified slate was essential -- and we almost pulled it off, too. Except that one group of intellectuals and politicos with a distaste for others went ahead and got on the ballot, too. Much to the chagrin of, well, logic (and probably to the extreme glee of Fate, our aforementioned foil) this threatens to pull votes away from the central unity slate, thereby making it more difficult for the Assyrians of Iraq to gain real representation in the Iraqi parliament. And, hey, that's not good.

Luckily, the hundreds of other slates also ensure that no other single slate will pull too many seats down. Still, we're not a very large group. Why couldn't we get on the same page on this one thing?

The Kurds, among whom the Assyrians live in the North of Iraq and with whom Assyrians have historically alternated between feuding and siding with, are the largest and most well known minority group in Iraq. The three major Kurdish political parties and militias -- the Kurdistan Workers Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and the Kurdish Democratic Party -- have existed for decades, armed to the teeth, fighting the Turks, the Ba'athists in Iraq, defending themselves and their towns often even from each other. In some cases, these groups have taken the lives of thousands of their own compatriots. So what did these huge, diverse, and feuding organizations come up with on the eve of this historic election?

One slate. One!

Oi.

Assyrians -- Chaldo-Assyrians, "Assyrians", we -- need to get our act together this week and vote with one mind, one vote, and one steel will. If not -- and I'm reminded of another master of analogies, who said, "All the world is a stage." -- our bit role in this global production will quickly fade from memory, and history will record it as farce.

Next week: Iraq the Vote Part II: Yipee, I voted! (Or, possibly, Damnit, Because of {some very extenuating circumstance} I Was Unable to Vote!

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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