Dear reader, below is an unfinished draft of part 2 of a short story series I’m doing over at Substack. Due to an accountabilty mechanism I need to publish it, though it’s not totally edited. I will be publishing it in it’s final version and removing the draft soon.
If you want to read part 1 you can find it here:
Yav (7:12pm): Hey! Did you make it?
Yav (10:08pm): Yo Aya, please text me back, Khawa’s starting to worry
Yav (6:33am): Ayaaa
Yav (6:33am): aaa
Yav (6:33am): aaaaaaaaaaaaa
Aya (7:40am): Hey sorry, I was so beat when I got to Isa last night I didn’t get a chance to connect to wifi
Aya (7:41am): Just got up and eating some harissa. In 20 minutes Ashur is supposed to come and do an orientation
Yav (7:42am): Hey, I’m here
Yav (7:42am): That’s crazy, I’m so excited for you!!! How come you haven’t sent any pictures???
Aya (7:44am): I will! It’s just been so intense to be here. My head is spinning. I can’t believe it’s even real, Yav. There’s like 50 people here already and when we’re done fixing up Isa, it looks like we may have access to another abbey in Avignon. I can’t believe how fast things are moving.
Yav (7:45am): That’s insane! Are you serious? Project Chadesh is already getting another site?
Yav (7:45am): Did they tell you how they’re paying for all this yet?
Aya (7:46am): Not yet. Just rumors of an anonymous benefactor. I already feel like I know everyone so well from working together on the server for years, so I hope to learn more soon.
Yav (7:48am): Okay, gotta head to work. You’re living the dream Aya! Who would have thought you would beat me to Isa. Send pictures back to the Ankara chat as soon as you can!
Aya (7:49am): I will
Aya (7:50am): And thank you for everything, Yav.
They had voted to name their first city Isa, the Arabic name for Jesus. This was a nod to their Assyrian heritage since the first Assyrian city was called Assur after an ancient Assyrian god. But with Assyrians being Christians now the name needed an update. Aya liked this respect for tradition along with a willingness to modernize. The group was surprisingly anchored in history for people who seemed at first like a bunch of techies.
Aya put her phone face down on the shiny, hardwood table. The light streaming in through the windows was even more colorful than it had been in her bedroom, but this time it wasn’t because of dawn, but the ornate stained glass windows that lined the far wall. Aya sat with her back bold upright, picking grains out of her teeth with her tongue. The stools they’d inherited from the monks didn’t have backs on them, so it looks like she’d have to work on her posture.
The cafeteria where Aya sat was part of Le Barroux Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Southern France. Nestled in the picturesque medieval village of Le Barroux, the monastery sat on a rise overlooking vineyards, forests, and distant mountains.
It looks like Ashur’s big scheme had worked. For three years as Aya and many others were building the server, growing it from 200 members when Aya joined to over 8,000 now, Ashur had made connections with Monastic orders around France with the goal of gaining access to their increasingly abundant unused space. “Monasteries are perfect!” he would say, “They have a ton of land, they’re an aging population, and if we can come in and repurpose them for project Chadash, then they will remain the body of Christ! Without us they are just becoming museums, or worse, condos. Many brothers will be skeptical of us, but they fear the alternative more.”
He had been right.
Now they are updating Le Barroux Abbey’s 75 acres and transforming it into Isa, the capital of the free Assyrian Network State. They are building more housing and office space, putting dense permaculture food production and constructing a few labs on the far side of the property.
The Benedictines and Ashur had negotiated a 40 year lease and if it went well, other properties could be made available. On the one hand the Benedictines were happy to grant resources to passionate young Christians trying to create a more just world. On the other, the demand on their side was running out like grains through an hourglass, and they needed the money to keep up their other expansive properties.
Aya rested her eyes on the stained glass across from her, trying to pull herself into the present moment. She wanted it to feel real while it felt anything but. Then she allowed herself a glance around the room. The akunaia at tables had relatively familiar faces. Akunaia (Ah-coon-aya) is the Assyrian word for having a fraternal bond, being “brother-like,” and it is the word that they use at Isa instead of resident, or citizen or member. They were all Assyrian. But their clothes and hair and accents and facial expressions were different from back home. In addition to being Assyrians they were also Americans, Swedes, Germans, Russians, Iranians, French, and Iraqis like her. Over 14 nationalities were now represented at Isa according to the dashboard that had been tracking its growth since it opened its doors three months ago.
From the other side of the complex came the clear gong from the bell tower signaling 8 o’clock. Time for her meeting with Ashur.
Aya stood in the morning sunlight with her eyes closed, trying to count the different bird calls coming from the orchard and surrounding forest. Although the air was still crisp, the sun of Southern France was warm, and she was able to unzip her jacket and feel the solar heat on her chest and stomach.
Right as she was sinking into a meditation a pair of hands came from behind covering her eyes. “Guess who?!” exclaimed a familiar voice.
“Naj?!” replied Aya excitedly. “What are you doing here?” Aya spun around to face her friend. “Last time we talked you weren’t even sure if you could go remote! And now you’re at Isa? This is amazing!”
“I know!” said Naj, “I found out last month that I could transfer to the Munich office and go full-remote. I kept it a secret so that I could surprise you, since you told me back then you were coming out with the January cohort.”
Aya and Naj stood face to face for the first time after three years of online communication, their friendship deepening in real time as they took in each other’s real faces and bodies.
“You’re taller than I thought!” said Aya. “and are a lot fitter than I expected for a computer programmer, haha.”
“Oh, why thank you! I’ve been crushing the Proof of Workout channel. I’m number seven in women in the Americas” said Naj, putting her hands on her hips and twisting 90 degrees jokingly revealing her profile.
“Oh god, but you’re even more of a ham in real life,“ said Aya, laughing.
[Portrait of Naj]
“Haha, well you’re exactly as I’d imagined you, very petite and cute as a button.” Naj said.
“Wow, very sweet. Please stop,” Aya said smiling and blushing. She knew that people thought she was cute, but couldn’t help but feel a certain objectification that came along with it. Somehow being ‘cute’ made you more of a ‘thing’ in some people’s eyes. But Aya loved Naj so could never feel offended by her.
They began to catch up about their travels when they notices a man with green eyes suddenly by their side. They must have been so caught up in their excitement they hadn’t seen him approach. Aya almost didn’t notice his stern expression and weary look, it transformed so quickly into a warm, approving smile. “You two know each other?” he said. “That’s amazing!”
[portrait of Ashur]
“Yeah,” Said Naj. “We met on those global calls three years ago, before everyone broke off into smaller teams.”
“Oh yes, oh yes, you’re Yav’s cousin!” Ashur said with recognition. “You’re one of the OGs indeed. I still remember that speech you gave on your first call about wanting us Assyrians to have a country of our own. It was a stirring talk!”
“Thanks” said Aya shyly. There were parts of her motivation to start a new state for the Assyrians that she didn’t feel like she understood or controlled, and it made her a bit uncomfortable to talk about it. It was like a part of her unconscious that would come to the surface and almost take control when talking about certain subjects, and then descend again leaving her feeling a little confused about why she had just been so confident about things she didn’t know much about.
“I have to apologize for not being present on the server the last year or two,” Asher said. “After we got the regional teams set up I had to start working on fundraising and forming political and religious alliances, so I had to leave it up to my [deputies] to manage things on discord. I think it worked out in the end,” Ashur said, gesturing with open arms at the beautiful monastery and gardens all around them. “And now we can start a new chapter of laying physical foundations to build on top of the amazing digital ones you two have been building,” Ashur said as he pressed his open palms together in a gesture of prayer and thanks, bowing to each of the girls in turn. “What you’ve done with the Artist’s group Aya is a dream come true. We use your logos in all of our press and media output, and all the illustrations you guys produced played no small part in how we were able to ingratiate ourselves to so many so quickly. It’s like a key that opens up the heart, and after the heart is open, they’re willing to hear us out.”
“And you Noj,” Ashur said, orienting himself to her “The dashboards you and your team designed are amazing. They were one of the decisive factors in France allowing us to sponsor so many residents. You were able to prove that as a cohort we collectively earned above the average wage in France, so would not be competing for jobs. On the contrary almost all of us are paid by companies outside of France, so it’s just a capital inflow for the region. You are a wizard.”
“I think of myself more as a neo-enchantress, but I’ll take the compliment.” Naj said, joking.
Ashur grinned even bigger. He seemed to like having face to face conversations with all the members of Project Chadash after so much time on the computer. But he couldn’t hide his [weariness]. He was climbing a mountain many had said was impossible, and he looked like it.
“But now you’re going to have to forgive me,” said Ashur “I’m aware of your work, but I don’t really know your stories. Would you mind catching me up a bit on who you are and how your experience with Project Chadash brought you here? By being invited to Isa you’re already considered leaders in the community, but I want to learn how that happened. Here, let’s sit and get to know each other, then we’ll join Layah and take a tour.” He gestured to a table and chairs in dappled shade, overlooking the fields and mountains in the distance.
“Aya, why don’t you start.” Ashur nodded toward her as they took their seats.
Aya thought back to that first call that her cousin Yav had brought her to when she’d met Ashur and Naj and many others for the first time. She became almost dizzy trying to apprehend how much her life had changed since that moment, how the trajectory had started to curve and bend until it finally took an entirely new course to a monastery in France.
“It’s hard to summarize..”
“That’s okay, we have all morning.” Ashur said. “Take your time. I want to hear the whole story.”
Aya pictured herself sitting back on the couch next to Yav.
“Okay! What did you think?” Yav said, shutting his laptop as the call ended. “I think you made a good impression. Everyone seemed to like your whole “we need a homeland” speech. Where did that come from by the way? You’ve never said anything half that provocative to me before.”
Aya adjusted herself on the couch and leaned her head against the backrest. She felt like some tectonic object inside of her was shifting and it was not comfortable. “Yav, what the hell are you guys doing? Does it strike you as a bit inconsiderate to try and go around giving people hope that we can start some kind of a country together? We’ve been through enough as a people…”
“Hey hey, what the hell?” Yav broke in, “You said you wanted to come. You asked me for information, then you showed up for the call, then you gave some stump speech like a 20 year old Iraqi revolutionary, and now you’re mad at me?”
Aya rolled her head on the backrest to look at him. He had a point. Why was she feeling anger? Wasn’t excited just two minutes ago? “You’re right, Yav. I just..” she fell silent.
Yav got up and sat back down in a chair facing Aya from the side. He stared at her and said “Tell me what’s going on. You’ve lived here with my Mom and I for eight years and I’ve never seen you show an interest in anything but drawing. All of a sudden you’re interested in this completely wild experiment about starting a new country, and then as soon as you learn more about it you get angry.”
Aya searched her feelings. Searing hot ones, freezing cold ones, hollow ones. They squirmed in her like worms. “Yav, my family has barely survived two genocides in four generations. My father was killed by extremist thugs trying to defend Mosul. My family came here with nothing eight years ago, and now my brother has disappeared and probably joined [some separatist group]…” she paused. Yav listened intently “I’ve never wanted to have hope. Yes, I’m sick of us being the pawns of larger nations, pushing us around and sometimes even trying to destroy us. I just.. “She trailed off again, her eyes gazing past the far wall, a thousand miles away, or maybe she was looking deep inside of herself. “I want to believe, and I don’t want to believe. Because it’s painful, because of everything we’ve lost, and because no one’s ever told me we can try to control our own fate… And if I believe that, what does that mean for my life?”
The question hung in [humid Turkish] air. Yav took a deep breath. His cousin had never said this many words put together to him in their lives. He now realized that her stern and dismissive exterior had been protecting wounds which laid unhealed all these years. He felt bad for her. Yav had lost his father too, but to a traffic accident when he was eleven. It was horrible, but less tragic than your father being shot to death by insurgents overrunning your city while he was bravely defending it.
“Look, join the group.” Yav broke the silence. “You clearly care about this. You’re half right, we have no idea if it’s going to work and we can’t make any promises. But when you talk about this I see your heart for your people. If you just go back to normal and don’t look any further, you’re going to regret it.”
Aya sat empty now, no longer overflowing with feeling. She felt something like a draft blow through the inside of her body. Her life was empty, utterly without meaning, and she knew it. She worked, she chatted with her friends, she hoped to meet a boy (but never made the effort). But none of it was going anywhere. “Okay, I’ll join.” she said. She turned her head and looked at her cousin, “Thanks Yav” she said with an exhausted smile. She rubbed her face with her palms and felt the top of her head to make sure her braid was in place, trying to regain composure.
“Don’t thank me. Just don’t forget the fire. There’s a long road ahead” Yav said, tossing Aya a slight, sympathetic smile. Then he got up and left.
- 3 months later -
Aya sat at the cafe, sketching. She had joined an artists group in Project Chadash that met every two weeks to share and discuss work. For completed works she got points and badges, which she could care less about. But she loved the accountability and camaraderie of the group.
The artists group was one of twelve active “working groups” on the server and it was a [‘Level one’] group which meant new people could join it. Other level one groups were Writers, Graphic Designers, Musicians, Marketing / Branding, Coding, Film, Philosophy / Theology, Caravan. All of the groups did what they sounded like, and Caravan was in charge of staying abreast of all of the groups and sharing cool progress from each to the others so that everyone could stay focused on their individual communities while also staying abreast of the larger effort.