Shamweel Warda attended elementary school in the village of Qabar Shamiyah, one of the Assyrian villages located on the banks of the Khabur River in Hasakah Province. He went on to middle and secondary school in the city of Hasakah, before finally moving on to Damascus University to study Arabic.
Shamweel remembers the school festivals he participated in when he was a student during the 1970s, such as the celebrations for Eid al-Jalaa that would take place in front of the Hasakah Municipality building. Students from all schools would gather under the supervision of the Ministry of Education. “We would chant the slogans of different political parties with conflicting ideas,” he says, “such as the Communist Party and the Baath Party, and this sometimes led to a rivalry that would break up the celebration and the intervention of military education coaches, who were quite authoritarian and severe. When President Hafez al-Assad rose to power these celebrations took on a populist character.”
Shamweel taught Arabic in a number of different schools, including the Trade Secondary School in the 1980s and the Fari’a Secondary School for Gifted Students, where he has taught for about fifteen years since the school was established in 1998. “With the rest of my teaching colleagues,” he says, “ I was trying to teach the children the values of freedom, of evading repression and respecting the rights of their female peers, making them understand their equal humanity. My relationship with my students was quite paternal, and I tried to promote the value of integration among them all regardless of their different nationalities and social classes.”
Shamweel talks about different school activities that encouraged students’ talents, such as contests in poetry, literature, music and art. Along with his colleagues, he would attend school dances, trying to foster a sense of community and familiarity among the teaching staff as well as between teachers and students.
Shamweel learned beekeeping in a special workshop during his studies. Interested in experimenting further, he placed a single hive in the family orchard. Once the bees were settled they began to proliferate, and the number of hives increased.
Shamweel continued to pursue his beekeeping hobby for about thirty years, until the Khabur River drought left only a single struggling beehive behind.
He describes the Khabur River during the 1980s, when it was a rushing waterway. “The Khabur River,” he says, “ was a destination for everyone coming from outside Hasakah. The banks were lined with parks, restaurants and cafes, surrounded by green fields that delighted the visitors. It was a flowing river, with a beautiful waterwheel that worked around the clock.”
Shamweel’s family owned a farm by the riverbank, full of fruit trees. He spent the entire summer in his village, taking care of the trees and giving summer lessons to students.
“We would gather on the farm in the summers,” says Shamweel, “and all holidays and occasions were celebrated surrounded by relatives in an atmosphere of joy and warmth. Some of them pruned the trees while others picked fruit, and the women prepared food while the children played together happily.”
Shamweel describes the prevailing social relations between the members of Hasakah’s community, a community both ethnically and religiously diverse. Men and women exchanged visits, went on outings together during special occasions and holidays, and lived in peace, without any care or concern about anyone’s religion or nationality or sect. There was no difference between a Muslim or Christian or Kurd; everyone lived together as a single loving family.
Among all the special occasions, Shamweel remembers the Spring Festival celebrations most fondly. “During the Spring Festival,” he says, “the Assyrians would ascend to the top of Mount Abdulaziz in an atmosphere that felt like an international festival. They would reenact the building of the Ishtar gate and everyone was in traditional Assyrian costume. Someone would dress up as the Assyrian King and others as his band of warriors, in full regalia and weapons. Not to mention the music and the singing, the special visits and meetings with friends and loved ones in an atmosphere of total freedom. Much like a wedding, where everyone in a community, whatever their nationality or class would gather together to celebrate, these festivals brought everyone together, our numbers swelling to 30,000 people, and all of this would take place with the support and protection of the government.”