Chaldeans--Are they Arabs?
The Chaldean State during the 11th-6th centuries B.C. controlled an area along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now present-day Iraq
By John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
The Chaldean faith is an old Middle Eastern Christian sect that is little known in much of that part of the world and even less so in this part of the world. Today’s Chaldeans, like many of the Middle Eastern populations we’ve looked at under this byline, have ancient roots in the region. They were an ancient, Semitic-speaking people that formed the Chaldean nation, from about the 11th-6th century B.C. Today they live in modern Iraq, other Middle Eastern countries, in the U.S., among other countries. Contributing writer, John Mason, looks at how modern Chaldeans define themselves, whether as “Arab” or something else.
History of the Chaldeans
Chaldean history is rich. Around the 11th century B.C. the Chaldean Dynasty is purported to have ruled a region along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in today’s Iraq. This kingdom reached its ascendancy during the 7th-6th centuries B.C. Chaldeans were not considered native to Mesopotamia, whose history dates to the 30th century B.C. They were not considered part of the Sumerian or Babylonian empires that dated to this earlier period. Rather, they were of Semitic origin, from the Levantine, a region comprising the eastern Mediterranean. Their language was distinct, close to Aramaic, the language spoken in the time of Jesus.
Bas-relief purported to be of ancient Assyrian-Chaldean warriors
Chaldeans were eventually absorbed into the Assyrian-Babylonian Empire and culture. They spoke the closely-related Aramaic tongue, which is still used today by people known both as Assyrian Christians or Chaldean Christians.
The Chaldean Christians broke from the Assyrian Church during the 17th century A.D., joining with the Roman Catholic Church. It was Rome that revived the name of the Chaldean Catholic Church in 1683. While the history of this Church is a bit blurred, in the absence of archeological and historical documentation, Chaldeans are believed to be ethnically continuous with the ancient Assyrians.
Background on Contemporary Chaldeans
Chaldeans live in many regions of the world, but predominantly in the Middle East and the U.S. The following are estimates of Chaldean populations:
Country Estimated Number*
Iraq 1.5 million
Syria 887,000-1.2 million
U.S. 400,000 (mainly in metro
areas of Detroit, San Diego
Australia 30,631 (census figure)
Interestingly, many Chaldeans came to the U.S. in the 1920s to look for work. Many settled in Michigan, especially in the Detroit area, in part because of available jobs in the automobile manufacturing industry. Some ended up working for the Ford Motor Company due to the generous wage of $5/hour offered by Ford. More recently, Chaldeans have arrived in the U.S. as refugees of the Iraq War, due to religious persecution. They have a reputation as entrepreneurs, many of whom are owners of small food markets.
Typical Chaldean small food market from an earlier era
Chaldeans—Arab or Not?
The author has Iraqi-Canadian friends whom he first met in Kurdistan, northern Iraq. They refer to themselves as Chaldeans, not Kurds, much less, Arabs. Within the family, the children speak Aramaic, the adults speak a mixture of Aramaic, Kurdish, and some Arabic. All of them, of course, speak English in their new abode of Canada. While most Christian Arabs in Iraq were forced to learn Arabic in the Saddam Hussein era, following that they were left in peace to speak their own, ancestral language.
Some Chaldean Christians say they are not Arab because, “we are Christians, not Muslims; our original language is Aramaic, not Arabic; and we see ourselves as Chaldean, not Iraqi, not Arab.” It is thus that they define their own identity. Many feel neither ethnically nor linguistically to be Arab.
Certain Chaldeans are not so adamant about their non-Arabness, including some living in Michigan, the U.S. They might say, “Some of us speak and write Arabic; thus we cannot just cut ourselves off from Arab culture.” Thus they are not necessarily offended if they are called “Arab.” Speaking Arabic, writing Arabic, liking Arab food and music, and having Arab friends is normal for some Chaldeans. Besides, in the face of anti-Arab sentiment in the U.S. since the 9/11 attack, some Chaldeans have accepted an Arab identity in unity with Arab-Americans generally, in defense against the stereotyped animosity Arabs have experienced.
Another colleague of mine, who worked with Chaldeans in the Detroit area for more than three decades told me that “Chaldeans Arabness depends on the following factors: the closeness of their homes and work to big cities in Iraq, their economic situations dependence on Arab populations, and last, whether they were born and raised in Iraq.” My colleague went on to say, “Chaldeans who came from Iraq have the most beautiful meaningful Arab names and have been characterized as scholars in Arab literature and culture.”
On the contrary, some Chaldeans from Iraq have been pressured by their local religious communities or others to reinforce their identity as members of the Chaldean Christian faith. In this situation, they perhaps assumed that their Christian roots would distinguish them from Muslims behind the 9/11 attack. In any case, the issue of Arab identity in the U.S. is a very sensitive issue, regardless of religious identity.
Arab Identity—a Fixed or Relative Definition?
Defining an Arab is a least a two-part exercise. It involves a definition, first, from the “inside” and, second, the “outside.” Inside means an individual or grouping’s self-definition. Outside means a label based on ethnic, cultural and linguistic criteria used by, say, an anthropologist, linguist or cultural historian. Defining oneself as Arab or non-Arab may be a question of one’s birth. But it may also be a matter of how one sees oneself or defends oneself in this conflictive geopolitical world we live in. Thus, some Chaldeans use the ethnolinguistic-religious label to define themselves, resulting in a conversation something like this:
We’re Christians of Assyrian background and speak Aramaic as our principal language. We live or lived in an Arab country, so perhaps we spoke Kurdish (an Indo-European language spoken by Kurds in northern Iraq) and Arabic as second or third languages, but we identify with our language from birth, Aramaic, along with our Assyrian historical roots and more specifically, as Chaldean Catholics.
How more specific can someone get in defining themselves, where they’re from, what their ethnic roots are, what language they were born with, and what religion they espouse?
Interior of St. George’s Chaldean Catholic Church in Michigan
However, as we’ve seen, when circumstances change, such as immigrating to the U.S., their self-definition may change. In the latter case, they may define themselves in solidarity with the larger Arab population in the face of anti-Arab sentiment in the political arena. But, equally, in distancing themselves from the Islamophobia that is politically inspired, they may join together to solidify with their ethnoreligious group of origin.
So, Just What is an Arab?
There are ways of defining one’s degree of “Arabness.” For example, was one born in an Arab country? Does one speak Arabic or read and write Arabic? Is one’s body language based on gestures like that of an Arab? Does one like Arab-style food? Enjoy Arab music? Share in the feeling of belonging to the larger Arab culture?
As one moves across these degrees of Arabness, one’s identity as an Arab becomes diluted. Especially when one does not speak Arabic as her or his first language, combined with the fact that one is not a Muslim, but a Christian.
In earlier pieces on this website by the author, we’ve discussed the “Arabness” of Kurds in northern Iraq, Berbers of North Africa, Druze of Lebanon, Alawites of Syria, Maronite Christians of Lebanon, and even so-called “Arab Jews” from around the Arab world. In some of these cases, the people of concern are pre-Arab, in that they were in place before the expansion of Arab Muslim peoples in the 7th century A.D. Others emerged after that expansion.
Chaldeans are a case in point of the former, namely that they are an ancient people of non-Arab origin. In fact, they have a long, historical record of being non-Arab. They also have a long tradition of being very early Christians. Chaldeans also fit many of the other “degrees” of Arabness, but can certainly, on a subjective basis, claim to be, shall we say, “less Arab” or “not-at-all Arab” than some other candidates.
What Is an Arabized…You Name it? (Berber, Kurd, or Jew)
“Arabized” generally means influenced by Arab culture. This might include some Kurds, Berbers, and Jew, among many others. In this sense, an Arabized person is one whose upbringing has been influenced by Arab culture, language, among other aspects. But that definition is little-used in self-defining. You rarely hear someone saying they’re an “Arabized” Kurd, Berber or Jew. Sure, they’ll say they speak Arabic, mostly as a second language. But they don’t see themselves as Arab. Thus, perhaps, Arabization is a more academic definition. And therefore, less precise or useful. Nevertheless, it may help those who do not wish to define themselves as Arab to be able to at least say that they have been influenced by Arab culture and language.
This is no means the last of our chats about what it means to be an Arab.
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.