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Cosmic Goddess

June 30, 2016

‘Interesting how we began with Nammu, queen of the cosmos, only to end with the perspective of woman as Queen of the household…we have moved women from the public to the private spheres; what can we do to encourage them back into public space?’

Last Tuesday, I attended ‘Iraqi Women: Between Home and Diaspora’, an event organised by the recently formed Iraqi Transnational Collective. The above quote is an insightful comment, referring to a short talk I gave at the start of the evening, and a meaty panel discussion relating to the Ja’fari law and a questionnaire showing some Iraqi women as quite satisfied in-the-home. The speaker managed to zoom out of a busy verbal space, to reflect and deliver a wider perspective of our evening, and ended with a question. A feat I find impressive, as is not the norm at such Middle Eastern type discussion forums. More on that later.

Originally, I’d planned to attend as an audience member, as well as a member of the ITnC collective, but when my friend Sara Alsaraf was (understandably) unable to deliver a story she had offered to read, I offered to step in. My mouth acted before my brain, as usual, so the preparation for my short talk happened hours before the event. A full transcript of this can be found below.

Back to the discussion.

Tuesday evening was wonderfully full, and in my experience, of having worked with various Iraqi migrant groups in the UK, it always is. When Iraqis gather, who generally are hopelessly segregated through sectarian violence, or at least portrayed as such in the media, they do not want to leave one another. We struggle to end the evening. As one person put it: the conversation at the door on the way out is longer than the one indoors. Most questions, in the panel discussion, look like statements that are thirsty for a release.

There’s often a need for Iraqis to broadcast a viewpoint or idea- and I can include myself in this category!- where a person has a monologue that does not need engagement from anyone else, which if allowed to run free, can run for miles. I understand the impulse to broadcast as an individual’s basic need to be seen and heard, even witnessed, and ultimately validated as a human being. An essential nutrient that’s sadly undernourished in most Iraqis, and those in the surrounding MENA region, where we cap conversations and censor discussions, to conform to the standard viewpoint. 

Our bloody history repeatedly represses those in the minority. A historic imprint many migrants continue to carry, especially those who chose to escape their home for such reasons. My mother continued to whisper the name ‘Saddam Hussein’ for some 15 years after leaving Iraq, having grown accustomed to walls-with-ears. Maybe our need to broadcast is also an act of defiance, needed to be strong and flowing to avoid any blockage.  

In the context of workshops, I’ve encouraged dialogue over discussion, which implies a deeper, embodied experience of sharing than an intellectual heady one. I’d experiment with allowing individuals to unleash their verbal stream-of-consciousness, encouraging other participants to simply listen without interruption or commentary- and there is an exercise to help support this that I’ve personally found very helpful- but how much space can we realistically give/ and take? 

On Tuesday, as usual, with both events I have attended and those I facilitated, audiences/ participants are left wanting more time and space, as well as some who had left early of course. I don’t know if there ever could be enough to complete what some of us need to gain a sense of completion.

Tuesday evening felt like a tasty appetiser, with some familiar ingredients that were reminders of both Iraq and London, and which did their job to leave us wanting more.

Details of the event last Tuesday can be found here, and if interested in learning more about ITnC’s work then get in touch via our Facebook page.

______________

Transcript of my talk:

This evening, I’m standing in for our dear friend and colleague, Sara Alsaraf, who I spoke with yesterday, and who is sad not to be here in person with you, but for a very happy reason: Sarah gave birth a few weeks ago, earlier than expected, and is now fully attending to her beautiful baby boy at home.

Sara intended to read a story of one Babylonian goddess, but as I’m not familiar with that story, I’ve chosen an earlier Sumerian goddess to talk about, and will tie this into later history, then bring it all back to this evening.

[Storytelling on a pretty large scale, so please bear with me.]

———

Our Sumerian goddess, Nammu…

Nammu is said to have been supreme and alone, the One, needing no one and the not created by anyone. She is the primordial creator of the cosmos, goddess of the sea and mother earth.

Nammu was so full of love, of energy and light, that she, through her own primordial waters, gave birth to An, the sky god and to Ki, the earth goddess. Then [it gets a little incestous here] An and his mother, Nammu, give birth to the god of water and wisdom, Enki.

It’s actually Enki who chooses to create humans, and chose to sculpt them out of clay, and to fashion them in the images of her parents and siblings…in the image of the gods.

———

[made of clay and in the image of the creator… is this sounding familiar?]

These parallels with later biblical narratives, also include the first account of ‘Eden’, the creation of many languages (as declared in the Old Testament), the story of the flood and the man assigned to save humans with the help of an ark… and the list goes on and on.

———

Nammu remains the earliest recorded deity in history, predating Yahweh, the name for God in Judaism, which I mention as reference, being the earliest of the three Abrahamic religions.

According to Genesis, Abraham’s home can be traced to Babylonia, to the ancient city of Ur. Today, this would be in Southern Iraq, specifically in a place called تل المقير in the town of Nassiriya [not far from Basra].

Scholars may debate the existence of Abraham, but what is harder to dispute is the Babylonian influences on the Old Testament, later reworked into the Christian bible, and later still, finds its influence into the Qur’an. 

This is a historical view, where ‘new’ religions are not created in a cultural vacuum, but are re-worked, re-interpreted versions of what came before.

When Abraham went on his infamous travels [starting in Ur and ending in Judea] he took with him these Babylonian ‘stories’. Before the Babylonians, there were the Sumerians, who are our earliest point of reference for these stories.

The Sumerians, with their brick pyramids (the ziggurats), are attributed with the invention of writing. And their favourite topic to write about were their gods and goddesses.

[A little time-frame here…]

Abraham lived around 1,800 BC, and the Sumerians existed (literally) thousands of years before that, around 3,500 BC.   

———

So moving a few thousand years on from when we last left Nammu, and seeing her through an updated Babylonian lens:

She has now moved from being the first and only One, to existing amongst thousands of gods and goddess, their consorts, daughter and sons, and lovers.

Her name has also changed to ‘Tiamet’, her new Babylonian identity, who’s main role, in an adapted creation story, is playing nemesis to the Sky god, Murduk.

Murduk would have essentially been Nammu’s great, great, great grandson.

[sounding a bit like an ancient soap opera, right?]

Murduk is portrayed as the masculine hero.

[I imagine him complete with bushy beard, hairy chest and gold medallion]

He meets Tiamet in a battle, and by then, she’d created some ‘demonic monsters’ to help fend for herself. But these were no use.

He murders her, and from her carcass, light explodes to create the universe.

[‘And then there was light.’]

———

Eventually, when later Babylonian priests re-tell this story, our goddess is practically erased from history and disappears from the creation narrative altogether.

[Until archaeologists traced her remains in the 19th Century.]

And the biggest difference between the Sumerian narratives, and the later Babylonian and biblical ones, is that whilst Sumer’s original creation story had an empowered female at its centre, the Babylonians and their predecessors had replaced her with a male god.

———

[As well as Abraham’s profound diasporic influences on the bible, as a migrant from Ur…]

What seems relevant this evening, is how such, later writings have managed to diminish and marginalise the female role in history, and in turn, the significance of women today.

I wouldn’t go on about how Iraq had progressive women doctors, lawyers and such back in the 1940’s and ’50’s, as that might imply women in Iraq today have regressed in comparison. When I believe it is the circumstances, the entire context [in Iraq and the wider MENA region] that is caving in, and not the women themselves at fault.

It is wonderful that we are gathered here to celebrate and explore Iraqi women today, both in and out of Iraq, and we will hopefully listen to some real life stories and witness many exceptions to such marginalisations.

For now, I would also like to invite a tribute to an often undervalued, yet all too common, female role: that of the mother.

In today’s masculine driven world, we seem to value the progressive, professional woman, the educated and forthright woman, those fighting for causes and battling for space, even the career mums…whilst the majority of women, not least in Iraq, take on the simple, everyday, responsibilities of motherhood.

And if the first ‘full-time mum’ [so to speak], who also happened to be the Mother of the Cosmos, Nammu, was elbowed out of history, what chance does the average human mother, not least in Iraq, have for her voice to be raised and her story to be heard?


Some online references for more info:

Gillian, M. E.’s Alban’s Melusine the Serpent Goddess in A. S. Byatt’s ‘Possession and in Mythology (2010). 

‘In the Beginning…’ blogpost, from The Queen of Heaven WordPress blog site (3rd September 2010).

Stikker, A.’s Closing the Gap: Exploring the History of Gender Relations (2002). 

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From → Artistic, Community

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