The Monument And The Dwarfs

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Posted by farid from ( on Monday, August 18, 2003 at 1:17PM :

The story of the making of this monument...the first Assyrian monument anywhere in the world in the past 2500 years is an illuminating tale about us.

It began in 1983 with the an idea that it was time for Assyrians in America to make some signs of life, some indication that they were living there, that they existed and that they could come together in sufficient numbers to produce such a thing. I stumbled onto Narsai David, we talked and he agreed to call together some Assyrian bussinesspeople he knew for a dinner meeting at his really and truly "famous" restaurant in Berkeley, California. The date was set, calls and invitations went out and I hurried up the bronze model for the monument, which was to be unveiled on that evening.

The kitchen served up a delicious meal. Almost all those invited came. There were doctors, businessmen and women and some other professionals. The model of Ashurbanipal was on a pedestal, draped, at the front of the banquet room. After the wine and food, Narsai got up to present the idea and explain that we would fund it by giving copies of the bronze models to donors, at $5,000 a pop...there were also lower categories. He spoke well, as he always does and then unveiled the model. I got up next and gave my reasons for doing it. To get the ball rolling, pay for incorporation as a non-profit foundation...stationery etc. we raised $3,000 that night and got the first pledge for a model. Dr. Vallo Benjamin of New York would be the first to actually send a donation but he asked us to use his model to raise more funds.

Over the next two years donations came in, sometimes unsolicited, through word of mouth. Having Narsai be president of the foundation certainly shored up my non-existant credibility...whoever heard of an Assyrian anything raising that kind of money for a project...any kind of a project...unless there were victims at the center of it. At a foundry in Berkeley I started the clay monumental figure, eight feet tall. When the clay was completed we had a sort of preview for supporters as well as the Director of the San Francisco Art Commission. After that moulds were made and a plaster duplicate cast which was then moved to an old warehouse of Narsai's where I started the carving phase and applying all the details. When that was finished I made rubber moulds of the sections and we were ready to cast the sculpture in bronze.

On a visit to Mexico City I found a foundry that could handle the job at a big savings, even with shipping costs. I crated up the mould sections and put them on a ship bound for the Mexican port town of Lazaro Cardenas, somewhere between Acapulco and Puerta Vallarta. Then I got a Jeep, drove down through Baja Caifornia to La Paz, loaded us both onto a ferry and threw up all the way across the Sea of Cortez to Puerta Vallarta. I drove from there to Mexico City, had my Jeep stolen...or parked it somewhere and lost it, I've never been sure which...rented a truck and drove to the coast. Picked up the crated moulds, paid a few bribes and arrived back in Mexico City where I delivered the moulds to the foundry. Then I went to San Miguel, rented a small apartment for six weeks and carved the base.

I went back to California where Narsai and I re-started our travelling dog and pony show and took it on the road to raise funds. We spoke in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago...wherever we could. We'd gotten a grant from IBM for around $25,000 and the other ten models were rapidly being disposed of. The Art Commission had long since given us final approval with only the actual site having to be finalized. Golden Gate Park, my preference at the time, was out of the limits to everyone. The idea of placing it t the Main Library in Civic Center was just being floated but had to be passed on by a few commissions so there was time yet.

When the monument was ready, I drove down again, had it crated and loaded onto a truck for Tijuanna. In those days trucks couldn't go but a few miles past the border into the States so I rented a trailer, had the crate loaded onto it and drove back to Berkeley. By now the unveiling date had been set and the Library location had been tentatively approved...but not before our Assyrian brethren, the ones who hadn't done anything to help, stepped forward to make their contribution...better late than ever.

Here's where our Achilles Heel comes to the fore and takes over for the head. There had been rumblings that my version of Ashurbanipal was not the "real" Ashurbanipal. Experts, very like like Homer and Aprim, stepped forward to say that it was a national Disgrace to have our king wearing a mini-skirt, that everyone knew Ashurbanipal had only two items of clothing, as you could plainly see on any carving and they were both floor length with a slit up the front. Some said my statue wasn't Ashurbanipal at all and hinted that there was a Baathey plot afoot to "Arabize" Ashurbanipal...or "Gilgameshize" him...or maybe it was "Ashurbanipalize Gilgamesh...or Gilbanipal the Arabs...something like that... and to prove it was Gilgames, like he Europenas said it was, they produced a photo of the famous sculpture that nowhere on it says "Hi, I'm Gilgamesh"... one that competing experts call by different names. We tried explaining that we weren't out to render a historic likeness...that this was one contemporary sculptor's modern interpretation based on ancient styles etc. and the lion cub hadn't been snatched from Gilgamesh or the statue called by that name...but merely was a common symbol of royalty among the Assyrians...besides, I liked the lion was cute. I couldn't have known then that I stood a good chance of being skinned alive after this project, but something told me anyway that I should crowd as many Assyrian styles and motifs onto this one statue, just in case.

In my battles with the moderators of several of our zoos I've said often enough that this penchant for hiding behind closed doors and only allowing those who agree with you inside can't be good for us...because it doesn't prepare us for deal in the world as Assyrians, not just as engineers and accountants and what nots...but as Assyrians, discussing, arguing about and even fighting intelligently over the things that concern the Heritage.

One incident stands out among many relating to the monument that illustrates how ill equipped we are, especially our most "passionate" patriots, to conduct ourselves in an appropriate manner befitting people who claim to be descended from the glorious Assyrians and not your garden variety cannibals.

Before the actual installation could proceed there was a bit of business that had to be settled. The monument was a gift to the city, it cost them nothing. We even provided a fund for its maintenance. But, in return for this gift...which cost us about what a driveway does to a modest home in the Bay Area, the city of San Francisco gave, to all Assyrians everywhere, a small plot of land you couldn't buy if you wanted to at any price and gave it to us for as long as there in an America...for free. The Board of Supervisors had to be assured that the city would not be forced to assume any financial was a technicality...just had to be entered into the official log etc.

We weren't the only item on their agenda that day at the large chambers where the Board of Supervisors meet in City Hall There were other issues to be taken up and the seats were all filled. Now, that day happened to be the day right after the city election for a new mayor. It had been a dramatic fight to the wire with the underdog and outsider, Art Agnos, a social worker of some kind, coming from nowhere and beating the well known politician who was assumed to be a shoo-in, John Molinari, a politician's politician who also happened to be the Head of the Board of Supervisors...sitting right up there between his fellows...the day after he lost the election he should have won. Everyone in the room knew it and all eyes were on him at various times to see how he was taking it. He was taking it very well...until it came to our turn.

When Molinari came to us, he recognized Claire Issacs, the Director of the Art Commission who was seated beside Narsai and I. She went up to the mic, explained the case, assured the Board there was no fiscal responsibility for the taxpayers...and that should have been it. But...from the back of the room came a voice anyone who'd been at a convention would recognize. The kind that says..."Mrrr. Prrresidenttt"...usually followed by, "pointttt of uurrrrdrrr...pointtttt of UURRRDRRR!" The voice came from a young Assyrian-type man who was accompanied by another Assyrian-type of man and an Assyrian-type of woman. They looked nervous as they approached the mic in response to Molinari's invitation to them to make what comments they had. Narsai and I, knowing sort of what to expect, braced ourselves.

The lead speaker said he represented who doesn't...and went into the long list of things wrong with the statue...the dire consequences to follow should it be installed...I don't think Simele was mentioned but it could have been. Molinari and the other eight members sat up there at the raised tribunal and patiently endured what must have been complete and utter nonsense to them. The man went on...and seeing he wasn't getting anywhere, waxed more and more poetic and absurd. Molinari interrupted a few times to point out that any questions about the statue should have been taken up with the Art Commission over the last three years that it'd been involved and not now and not before the Board of Supervisors who weren't in any case qualified to judge of these arcane matters or authorized to do anything but consider taxpayer liability in this matter. This did no good except to "inflame" the passions of these three because they were "defending Ashur"...I guess.

Their main speaker, who'd worked himself into a sweat by now, had an inspiration and came up with the following example, to show the Board just what a heinous crime was being perpetuated if the monument of Ashurbanipal/Gilgamesh was installed. Direcing his comments to John "M O L I N A R I"...he said something like this...putting up a statue of Gilgamesh and calling it Ashurbanipal would be like...would be then it hit him) putting up a statue of Al Capone and calling it Abraham Lincoln! he paused for effect and was just about to expand on this when Molinari held up his hand for silence. In a calm but bemused voice...taking in the roomfull of people as he delivered his speech, he said, "As long as we're all standing up for our ethnicity here let me do the you mean to stand there and tell me that the worst example you could come up with had to be an Italian American"?

It was impolite to laugh...but we couldn't help it. Stifled yucks came from all around...ours being mixed with shame and embarrassment that anyone, let alone the descendants of Ashurbanipal, could be so dense as to stand there, in front of a roomful of people, having warpped themselves tightly in the self-righteous mantle of those grieved and offended for their ethnic group's sake...could be so damn lame as to look into the eyes of the Head of the Board of Supervisors they were appealing to for his indulgence and sympathy...look right past the nameplate as big as day with the honorable Italian-American name "Molinari" on it...and still bring up an Italian-American thug and killer, as an example of all that's loathsome and despicable...that would defile an upright man like Lincoln to be compared with.

After a few stabs at half-apologizing and explaining it away, the three retreated to the back and Ashurbanipal cleared another hurdle. But there was one more yet to go. The Libraray Commission had to vote next and we weren't surprised two weeks later when the same three showed up for that meeting. Again there was a good-sized crowd present plus the seven members of the Commission. this time though the three didn't speak...they'd aready been to see one Commissioner in particular, a Jewish woman...and I only mention that because our best defender there that day was also Jewish...who throughout the meeting kept coming back to the "controversy" within the Assyrian people's own community over the appropriateness of this statue. She even raised doubts that Ashurbanipal's library at Nineveh was the first of its kind, or any great shakes at all. Luckily for us the issue was directed to the Head Librarian for the State who happened to be in attendance and he spoke very eloquently about the greatness and the unique nature of the library at it was indeed, to the best of our knowledge, the world's frist true library and not just a private colection, because Ashurbanipal made a point of sending scribes far and wide to copy, if they coldn't buy, all and any books on every subject ever written about. Additionally these had been collated with a guide and index and catalogued according to subject etc. and were open to scribes and others for research.

As to the "correctness" of the interpretation we were also fortunate that Jo Hansen, the Art Commissioner for Sculpture, was there and gave a well reasoned and learned talk on the function of Art...something she said the ancient Assyrians were masters of...and generally shrugged off as immaterial to Art the issue whether or not this was REALLY Ashurbanipal. With the one woman still protesting...even that some other site besides the excellent one they'd given us at the side entrance would be "better"...the Library Commission ratified it. Even when the meeting adjourned and people filed out, we could see our three Assyrian patriots go up to the woman as if complaining in her ear...all three of them speaking at once and gesticulating...even trying to start up conversations with other Commissioners.

Months later, after the installation, I happened to run across William Daniel at some function and I asked him why he'd sent those three to try to head off the monument at the last minute. I knew they were his students or some such thing and he didn't deny it. His reply is the cherry on our icing. He said...and I quote, "I never thought you'd actually do it". Now don't rush off and think you know what this says. Everyone attending any convention, state or national...attending any picnic...going to any party for those three years that we were building the monument, knew about it. In Daniel's case, my family knew him very well and I'd seen him at my grandparent's home several times...yet never once had he mentioned Ashurbanipal or let on in any way that he knew about the monument. It hadn't been only money we'd asked for...we'd asked for other kinds of help and gotten it too...some of it which proved very valuable. Initially I'd placed a lotus flower in Ashurbanipals other hand...symbol of eternal life etc. I knew about his library but hadn't thought much about it's significance. A friend...I won't mention his name here, but I have before, took strong excetion to this when I saw him and said point blank, "you should put a tablet in his hand instead, after all he was famous for his library". And that was the flower went and in his hand there's a clay tablet. And, as it turned out, it was the tablet and the library connection that won us that gorgeous it wasn't just money we needed to help us make the best monument we could.

Yet William and his students sat it out all three years...never came forward with a suggestion, a critique, a hint...a disagreement or showed any signs of awareness of or interest in the Ashurbanipal Monument...because they never thought we could do it and also, wouldn't want such a thing done...and they never tought to roll up their sleeves and HELP us do it. Instead they stood by...which if enough people had done, there could have been no monument. They did nothing, convinced we'd fail and then awoke with a start one day to see we'd actually pulled it off...or were in danger of doing it...and THEN they made time...THEN they got out their books and cross-references and they got together and planned stratedgy and maybe bought some new clothes and THEN they drove far away and parked and walked and climbed stairs and waited and waited...only at the end and only to stop a project they hadn't bothered to improve or help with...but felt it their patriotic duty now to derail.

That's us folks...or rather it's the "us" who make an issue of being REAL Assyrians...guardians of a flame...what flame? These are people who prefer to live their fantasy life as descendants of Ashurbanipal...but can't begin to function as such in the real world without bringing ridicule on themselves and shame to the rest of us.

There's no question that the monuments we built were the best damn effort of their kind ever attempted in the last 100 years or so since Assyrians first arrived in America (I'm not bragging's easy to be hot stuff when there's absolutely no competition anywhere just because of the fear of the kinds of things they put me through.). You know that because the leadership, once it woke up to the crime being committed...against them...labored like lions to ruin what they could. You know it was significant because it scared the shit out of them, made them behave in ways they'll be ashamed to have related and spread they're going to be for the next 100 years. It had to happen...those of us interested in being us had to have our eyes openned to what these leaders are all about...not that we didn't suspect it, or feel pretty certain about it...but to have it actually happen, in one city after another and with one leader after another, brings it into sharp focus...and THAT boys and girls...was the real monument.

-- farid
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