ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now a story about some of the oldest stories in the world and the people who tell versions of them today. The Assyrian Empire dominated the Middle East thousands of years ago. Millions of Assyrians are alive today trace their roots back to that time. It's become hard for them to hang on to their traditions. War and turmoil in countries like Iraq threaten their heritage. NPR's Alice Fordham met an Assyrian man in Britain who's trying to save the stories and the culture.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: When I meet Nineb Lamassu at Cambridge University where he's a researcher, it's a very English tranquil summer day, but he transports us to his Middle Eastern homeland as he plays me something from the archive of his research.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).
FORDHAM: This is traditional poetry of the Assyrian ethnic minority, and the story of Lamassu's whose love for it begins when he was a little boy living in Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
NINEB LAMASSU: Kirkuk is actually - was an example of coexistence and a beautiful example of the Iraqi multi-ethnic multi-religious mosaic.
FORDHAM: But in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, it could be dangerous to be from a minority or politically active. His father was both, and so they ran away to Iran to a refugee camp with other Syrians. Most were from remote areas and they kept kids entertained the old fashioned way with long poems. There was one particular guy, Lamassu says he was just amazing.
LAMASSU: So we - as kids, we would go around the tents, try to find his flip-flops outside the tent. And we would know that he is in this particular tent tonight and, you know, performing his stories and, you know, doing his art. And we would beg to be allowed in so we could hear him.
FORDHAM: It affected him the rest of his life.
LAMASSU: In a cold winter night in a refugee camp, freezing - literally freezing in a tent, but kept warm by the animated performance.
FORDHAM: When he grew up, Lamassu became an academic researcher and traveled among the Assyrian diaspora recording the epics as told by men he calls bards...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).
FORDHAM: ...Including the storyteller from the refugee camp. Lamassu tracked him down living in New Zealand.
LAMASSU: It almost felt I was back in the refugee camp right in that tent on that cold winter night with him, he had not changed.
FORDHAM: Lamassu tells me there's a bard living nearby in London, so of course I want to meet him. It feels a little odd to be looking for an Assyrian bard to sing me an ancient poem in a busy suburb of London where most people are actually originally from India, but inside a totally ordinary gray-terraced house, there he is.
KHOSHABA JABER: My name is Khoshaba Jaber.
FORDHAM: Khoshaba Jaber.
Khoshaba Jaber was also born in northern Iraq in 1952 in a little village, and his dad used to sing him the epic poems.
JABER: You remember when you are child, your father or one old man in the village coming to tell you stories or legend. And we when he was singing, you hear him. And when you hear him, you - it becoming in your memories.
FORDHAM: But when he was just 8, his father was killed in a tribal dispute. After that, it fell to the little boy to sing the poems.
JABER: It is beginning like that (singing in foreign language).
FORDHAM: I'm going to tell you a little about the story because it's wild, and contained within this contemporary poem are echoes of ancient stories from Greek myths to Assyrian epics to the Bible. The hero of the tale is named Qatinu, he's the product of virgin birth - just like Jesus. He becomes a shepherd and goes to a magical garden to take on a female monster who's been terrorizing people.
JABER: He went to that monster - big monster woman - monster to the garden. And when he went there, and he went in that tree - was big tree - and he was hiding himself.
FORDHAM: His story continues - Qatinu defeats the monster and then goes on a quest for a plant that grants eternal youth, a theme that also crops up in the ancient epic of Gilgamesh.
JABER: He know which stone - is which cliff is that one.
FORDHAM: After about an hour, the story ends with another echo of the Bible - Qatinu dead in a cave with a stone in front and a prophecy of resurrection.
JABER: And the sun will be opened and come in Qatinu, and he will free us from the enemies, but he's still there (laughter).
FORDHAM: Bravo, bravo. (Clapping). It's elements like these that are tantalizing to researchers like Lamassu because they raise questions of how far back these tales go, whether they're even versions of a precursor of some of the ancient texts. And there's another factor that makes Lamassu's work valuable right now. In Iraq, ISIS has destroyed a number of ancient Assyrian sites, calling them idolatrous. He was speaking at a conference recently and the man introducing him...
LAMASSU: He showed ISIS destroying the ancient Assyrian monuments and heritage. And he said, if we cannot keep them and preserve them, maybe we can preserve our other heritage that they cannot destroy.
FORDHAM: And that's what Lamassu is trying to do with the poems, trying to capture at least the memory of an ancient people whose presence in their homeland is gradually fading away. Alice Fordham, NPR News, London.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALABAMA SHAKES SONG, "DON'T WANNA FIGHT")
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