Hundreds show up to learn about Assyrian culture

9/26/2005 4:23:50 PM
8th Annual Assyrian Food Festival. Bet-Nahrain Organization Ceres, California

Even though the state of Assyria no longer exists, the traditions and customs of Assyrian culture still flourish.

Hundreds of people attended the eighth annual Assyrian Food Festival, held Saturday and Sunday at the Assyrian Cultural Center of Bet-Nahrain in Ceres.

"I love to see people gather here together," said Fred Chalita, a native of Iraq who has lived in Turlock for the past 19 years.

"People come from all over to meet each other," he said.

Janet Shummon, chairwoman of the festival, said the event is designed to present several different facets of Assyrian culture - food, art, history, and traditional dancing and music.

"The idea is for both Assyrians and non-Assyrians to celebrate and understand the culture," Shummon said.

The festival, which drew about 1,500 people last year, also serves as a fund-raiser for the Assyria Vision television station, Shummon said. An official turnout figure for this year hasn't been tallied.

The Assyrian empire, which fell in 612 B.C., covered parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. More than 20,000 Assyrians live in Stanislaus County, according to the center.

At the cultural center, posters of ancient Assyrian art dating back to 1000 B.C. lined the walls, and a small market sold jewelry, CDs, books and decorations.

But the main attraction was the food. On the menu for dinner was rizza (Assyrian rice), lula kabob (beef kabob), k'taita (chicken), bademjohnta (grilled tomato) and lakh-ma (bread). A pastry shop sold sweets, including baklava and halva, a fudge-like treat made with syrup from grapes.

Organizer Doris Gewargis Bebla said the recipes for much of the food and pastries date back thousands of years.

In addition to food, a booth served traditional chai tea. Nino Sargis, who served tea, said chai tea is for Assyrians like coffee is for Americans.

Assyrians from Iran drink the tea plain, Sargis said, and those from Iraq drink it with milk.

"I love to show all Americans our traditions and explain everything," Sargis said. "It makes us closer to each other."

People sat in large groups at tables, eating dinner while music was performed on stage. Fayez Merza, a native of Syria, sang Assyrian and Arabic music while playing the oud, a Middle Eastern instrument similar to a guitar.

Several dancers dressed in ornate costumes later performed traditional dances with U.S. and Assyrian flags while members of the audience stood and clapped along to the music.

Bee staff writer, Christina Salerno can be reached at 578-2330 or