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Ivan Kakovitch: Mount Semele

Ivan Kakovitch’s life work is a novel telling of the tragedy of the modern-day Assyrians from around 1915 to the Mount Semele massacre of 1933. As well as giving a very detailed account of what happened to the Assyrians during that period, Kakovitch also tells the story of his grandmother, Sonia (nee Shmoni Nona) and, in particular, of his great-uncle Michel Nona, both of whose stories are very much bound up with what happened to the Assyrians. In April 1915, the Nona family are living in the village of Mar Bisho (now in Turkey, near the border with the North-Western part of Iran). They are off to a wedding in Urmia but Bessie, who is eight months pregnant with Sonia, decides not to come. The Assyrians live near the Kurds and have generally had good relations with them, despite the religious differences (the Kurds were Muslims, the Assyrians Christians). Indeed, throughout this book, we will see the two nations both fighting one another and helping one another. However, while at the wedding, they learn that the Azaris and Kurds are to attack. The Assyrians escape unhurt and Sargis and his son Michel return home to Mar Bisho. When they get there, they find the place deserted. Suddenly a group of Kurds arrive. The Kurds were, in fact, returning stolen property but Sargis mistakes their approach as hostile. He fires at them, they fire at him. Sargis is killed as is the Kurdish sheikh’s son. The Sheikh is magnanimous, giving Michel his son’s horse, which Michel names Susa (Assyrian for horse) and, more importantly, giving him his protection.

Bessie has escaped with some help and gives birth to Sonia but it will not be for some time that Michel meets his sister. Much, though certainly not all of the story, focuses on Michel. He will go to France and attend a military academy there. He will gradually become a leader of the Assyrians. He will even (involuntarily) be made to fight for Makhno in Russia, where he will gain a considerable reputation. Above all, he will try, unsuccessfully as it turns out, to establish the Assyrians as a nation with a recognised territory. The major powers, particularly the victors of World War I, are the worst enemies of the Assyrians, particularly the British. Their attempts to establish an independent territory are thwarted at every attempt as the British (and also the French and Americans) fear that the Assyrians will be under the sway of the Soviet Union. The British and French have carved up the Middle East, and created Iraq and Iran, which they intend to control. The majority of the inhabitants of Mosul are Assyrian but they are driven out, finding temporary shelter in Syria before they are driven out by the French and into Iraq, settling on Mount Semele, before the final massacre.

It is a very complicated story, which Kakovitch describes in great detail, both as regards what happens to the Assyrians and their dealings with the major powers, other dispossessed peoples such as the Armenians and Kurds, as well as the countries of the region, particularly Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Kakovitch also gives us a fairly detailed account of Michel’s love life and his wanderings as well as telling us about the culture of the Assyrians. That the book is a plea for the Assyrians is clear but it is still a fascinating story, which is probably very little known in the West.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by Mandrill, Alexandria, Virginia