English Feature Broadcast June 22, 2002
For ten hot days this summer, the American Folklife Festival brought artists, craftsmen, dancers and musicians as well as thousands of visitors to the National Mall in the center of Washington, D.C. The festival celebrated the cultures of the countries of the Silk Road – the ancient trade route used by merchants carrying goods between Asia and Europe. Today, New American Voices goes back to the Folk Festival to talk to some visitors and a participant.
George Stifo and Hedro Lahdo are two young men from the East Coast state of Massachusetts, who enthusiastically joined a troupe of Assyrian folk dancers from Syria performing at the Folklife Festival.
Sound of Assyrian dance music
Nineteen-year-old Hedro Ladho immigrated to the United States just a year ago. Now he has completed his senior year in high school, and in the fall will be going on to college to study business. He said he had no difficulty adjusting to life in America.
“Actually, it was easy. The only thing that was hard, was the language, the English. And it wasn’t really hard, because my friends helped me. Everyone was nice to me, everyone in school was trying to help me a lot to learn the language. They were nice people.”
Mr. Lahdo says the performance of an Assyrian choir and dancers at the Folklife Festival was a great opportunity to acquaint Americans with some aspects of their ancient middle-eastern Christian culture.
“We want to show, like, we are Assyrian, our language, our culture, what we are, what we are trying to do. People would, like, come to us and say, thank you guys, nice music, nice dancing.”
Hedro Ladro’s friend, George Stifo, is twenty-five and a software engineer for a computer company in Massachusetts. His family came to the United States fourteen years ago, but still maintains many Assyrian traditions.
“At home we speak Assyrian, which is also called Syriac and is a dialect of ancient Aramaic, and outside I speak English with everyone else, when I’m with my friends. Even some of my friends are picking up some of the Assyrian words, here and there, epecially with voice mail. When they call and they hear me say “hello” in Assyrian, which I say “Shlomo”, and they hear that, and now every time they see me they say that in Assyrian.”
But George Stifo says he is also an American.
“Of course I love being Assyrian, of course I am Assyrian, but I’m proud of being an American as well. I mean this is my country. I live here, and I’ll serve this country with my life. It’s my country.”
Another new American at the Folklife Festival, Firuza Yagodaeva, is also committed to preserving her culture. Mrs. Yagodaeva, a full-bodied woman with a regal bearing, is a Bukharan Jew. At close to 60, she is a premier dancer with a Bukharan Jewish ensemble from New York called Shashmaqam.
Sound of music of Shashmaqam
Shashmaqam is composed of Jewish immigrants from Dushanbe in Tajikistan and Samarkand, Tashkent and Bukhara in Uzbekistan. They take their name from the city of Bukhara, which was for centuries a focal point for the Jews of Central Asia. Most of the members of Shashmaqam left what was then the Soviet Union in the seventies. Firuza Yagodaeva came to the United States from Dushanbe in 1976. In New York her first job was running a restaurant, in which she also performed, cooked, and presented visiting dancers. She became part of a large and thriving community.
“We have a big Bukharan Jewish community. And they have a lot of restaurants open now, and a lot of doctors, you know. Every place they open businesses. We all the time live in the community together. If somebody dies, or have party, or weddings, we all come together, everybody help. Very beautiful, very close, everybody very close. I love my New York. I’m American now. I’m an American citizen. Thank you God.”
Mrs. Yagodaeva is a psychologist as well as a dancer, and now works as a teaching assistant in an elementary school. Her husband is a bus driver. She carries on - and passes on to her three children - the religious traditions she brought with her from Central Asia.
“We eat kosher food, we make the holidays, Yom Kippur and Roshashana, all holidays we do it together, we go to synagogue and pray to God, shabas we do it, every Friday night we light candles, Friday we cook for Saturday, Saturday we eat, the whole family together, my sons come, my daughter-in-law, everybody come together, everybody comes to my house.”
Firuza Yagodaeva is about to open a dance school to teach young people in her community the traditional Bukharan Jewish dances, as well as Tadjik and Uzbek folk dances, and belly dancing. Her two grown sons are more interested in American music, she says, but her eleven-year-old daughter loves the ethnic dances, and will, in all likelihood, continue to preserve the Bukharan Jewish culture in her native country, the United States.
Music of Shashmaqam