The Assyrian people of Stanislaus County have a history and culture as rich as the pastries offered at this weekend’s food festival, and they’re eager to share it.
The festival, at the Assyrian Cultural Center of Bet-Nahrain, serves up grilled marinated chicken and tender beef, roasted tomatoes, savory rice – and those traditional pastries, variously filled with walnuts, dates, apricots and spices.
There’s entertainment including traditional dances and folk music. There’s a marketplace and a traditional Assyrian tea house. And there’s an educational element, with cultural displays and knowledgeable members of the Assyrian community who are working to keep their people’s heritage alive.
Assyria was a kingdom of northern Mesopotamia, which is known as the cradle of civilization. “We were among the first nations to accept Christianity,” said Doris Bebla, who is in charge of food for this weekend’s festival, “and in the 21st century, we’re still being persecuted.”
Across the Middle East, Christian communities as old as the religion itself feel their very survival is now at stake, threatened by militants of the Islamic State group rampaging across Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, thousands of Christians have fled their homes after they were made to choose between leaving, converting to Islam or facing death.
“Because we don’t have our country anymore … and the genocide going on in Iraq, we’re trying to preserve our culture and history and reach out to the community at large to learn about our culture,” said festival Chairwoman Janet Shummon.
With Assyrians being a scattered people, that goal becomes harder, she said.
But it helps that Stanislaus County has one of the United States’ largest Assyrian populations, estimated at about 20,000.
And while the youth sometimes have to be dragged into learning about their Assyrian heritage, Shummon said, a crisis like the purge happening in Iraq and Syria spurs the young people to become more engaged.
At the festival, it’s the young people who are modeling ancient Assyrian costumes and performing traditional dances. The event runs from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. today, and there will be dance performances at 1:30, 3:30 and about 5 p.m., with the fashion show at 4.
After the performances, live music continues, and many festivalgoers join in traditional Assyrian dances. Simple dances are taught to anyone who wants to try.
This is the 17th year for the festival, and every year, the number of non-Assyrians who attend grows. “That was one of our goals,” Shummon said of the organizers’ outreach efforts.
Many of those newcomers really seem to enjoy it and become repeat visitors, Bebla added. People come to the festival from as far as Sacramento, San Jose and the San Francisco Bay Area, the women said.
Festival volunteers were prepared to feed about 500 Saturday and anticipate 700 to 800 today.
The cooks began marinating beef and chicken two days ahead of time and were busy grilling Saturday. “It’s a very long process,” Shummon said. “Maybe 15 ladies have been baking for the past month and a half.”