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Narsai David, a Bay Area link to north Iraq
Rob Morse <http://www.sfgate.com/templates/types/gatemainpages/images/clear.gif> Friday, August 2, 2002 <http://www.sfgate.com/templates/brands/chronicle/images/chronicle.gif>
With all the talk about the difficulties of a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq, I was surprised to learn that Narsai David has been crossing the border into northern Iraq since 1995.
The Berkeley food and wine expert has been visiting various humanitarian projects funded by the Assyrian Aid Society of America, of which he is president. How does this most civilized of Bay Area foodies get past Saddam into Iraqi Kurdistan?
It's as easy as his grandmother's miniature stuffed grape leaves, which aren't that easy at all.
"We flew to Damascus, drove across the desert to the Syrian town of Qamishleh and took a boat across the Tigris," David said of his visit to the land of his Assyrian ancestors in May 2001. "On the other side we saw a huge sign, in English, saying, 'Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan.' "
David said it was refreshing to see how well the Muslim Kurds and the Christian Assyrians get along. The parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan is 5 percent Assyrian, reflecting their status as a respected minority among the Iraqi Kurds. The Kurds and Assyrians, in turn, are oppressed minorities within Iraq, which barely tolerates the provisional state of Iraqi Kurdistan.
According to David, the open-air markets of cities like Erbil, the oldest city in the world, have more food and goods than those of the Iraqi markets under Saddam's rule. Still, Saddam's sword always hangs over northern Iraq.
"The no-fly zone is keeping Saddam Hussein out," said David. "Everybody in the north is frightened to death that if the planes stop flying because of a rapprochement with Saddam Hussein, they're finished."
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David and I sat at lunch pondering the meaning of all the Pentagon leaks of plans to invade Iraq. The U.S. has been talking about using Iraqi Kurdistan as a jumping-off point for the invasion. The residents of the region have been left in the lurch by the U.S. before. After the Gulf War, our current president's father urged the Kurds to fight Saddam, then left them to be slaughtered, along with Assyrians and other minorities.
French scholar Gerard Chaliand calls the provisional entity of Iraqi Kurdistan "a living paradox. . . . It is internationally protected and is developing because the regime of Saddam Hussein, which has shown itself to be their worst enemy, continues to endure."
Chaliand said he hoped that if a new authority emerges, the Kurds won't again be "the designated sacrificial victims, condemned to another exodus."
The same goes for the Assyrians, victims of many a forgotten exodus and ignored slaughter.
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When the great Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations fell in the sixth century B.C., Assyrians were left scattered across Iraq, Iran and Turkey. In the first century A.D., they were the first nation to accept Christianity.
In the early 20th century, the Turks slaughtered Assyrians, along with Armenians. Surviving Assyrians fled to Baghdad, suffering the loss of a third of their remaining population along the way. In 1933, the Iraqis massacred them.
Now, 3 million Assyrians are scattered from their homeland in northern Iraq across the world. The biggest Assyrian population centers in the United States are Chicago, where Narsai David was born, followed by Turlock, where he moved when he was 11.
David and his fellow Assyrian Americans do what they can. San Jose dentist Dr. Ashur Moradkhan donated 81,000 fruit trees to be planted in northern Iraq.
The Assyrian Aid Society, founded after the Gulf War, has built schools, homes and churches in northern Iraq. It has provided water, generators and textbooks, and has paid for teachers and medical care. Its Web site is www.assyrianaid.org.
Yes, there is a food angle. David, who for years ran Narsai's, the fabled restaurant in Kensington, is holding a fund-raising dinner at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco on Nov. 15. The dinner, sponsored by the likes of Sen.
Dianne Feinstein, Sen. Barbara Boxer and all the mayors named Brown, will feature the great Egyptian-born chef Michael Mina, Israeli chef Israeli Aharoni and Israeli-born Michael Ginor of Hudson Valley Foie Gras.
"If I could only find a way to get a Palestinian chef here," said David.
I think he'll find a way. After all, this is a guy who can get into Iraq. And he doesn't need an F-16 to do it.
Rob Morse's column appears Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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