All Things Assyrian
Reclaiming the Christmas Kileche
By Dean Kalimniou
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The Assyrian pastry called kiliche.
That moment in the earth's celestial orbit fast approaches whereby a family meeting is called at Casa della Kalimniou. The sole purpose of same is to allocate by means fair and consensual, the task of preparing the traditional sweets for the Christmas and New Year period. Sometimes I am allocated the kourabiedes, at other times the melomakarona, and generally speaking, the Chrystopsomo is a collaborative effort, whereby I do the kneading and the mixing, and my wife's more refined aesthetic is visited upon the decoration, which is as ornate and as convoluted as a diatribe article. Yet never, ever, am I entrusted with the creation of the last of our Christmas, stalwarts, the kileche, for it is alien to my sensibility and occupies a space beyond the margins of my poetics.

I am ideologically opposed to the kileche, due to the fact that in our household, they share equal footing with koulouria at Easter time, and with melomakarona and kourabiedes, during Christmas and New Year. They are the Assyrian default festive sweet, rolled and folded with nuts or dates and they are absolutely, mouth-wateringly, tongue-pantingly delicious. Manifesting themselves in various combinations and permutations, such as the enticing coconut versions, in the interests of family harmony and maximisation of palate pleasure, we make them all.

So delectable are they, that Assyrians tend to enjoy them with tea all year round, a pernicious pastime, reeking of a singular lack of restraint, that is tantamount to the Greek culinary heresy of baking Pascal koulouria after Easter and all year-round. Even more heinous in my diptychs, are those heterodox Assyrians who, having lived in Greece prior to migrating to Australia and becoming inspired by the culinary forms existing, practise the pestilential art of baking their kileche in the shapes of koulouria. Verily, this is the abomination of desolation as spoken of by Daniel the Prophet, the true mark of the Beast, and I make sure that when I come across them, I destroy them in my mouth, crushing them between my teeth, so that not even the crumbs of such iniquity remain to plague our existence, mouthing verse as I do so: "And the widows (or blenders) of Ashur are loud in their wail,/ And the idols (or eggs can be substituted according to taste) are broke in the temple of Baal;/ And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword (or butter-knife, whatever is available),/ Hath melted like snow (I like to substitute coconut here instead) in the glance of the Lord! (or MasterChef. Same thing)."

Unfortunately, most Assyrian kileche-makers I know do not read Lord Byron and they smile politely but awkwardly as they take my plate and offer more koulouro-kileche. In the lead up to Christmas, I decline, quoting more verses from Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib," namely: "And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,/ The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown," for after all, it is a time of fasting.

Kileche, in the form of kulichi, have been adopted by the Russians as well as the Arabs and whenever we embark upon the task of making baklava and launch into an interminable argument as to whether the sweet was invented by the Greeks or the Assyrians, my wife attempts to assert primacy by cleverly adding to her well-stocked arsenal, the spurious assertion that the ancient Babylonians were known to make similar cookies as the kileche called qullupu, which were known to be round in shape (qullu), also taking another etymological leap and also attributing the term to the Semitic term "kull" meaning whole, as if the terms whole and round were somehow semantically indistinguishable, which, coming from a populace that does not distinguish between vowels in its alphabet, should not come as a surprise, even if, as they claim, we received the gift of our own alphabet from them, a proposition I am duty bound to spurn in the interests of maintaining the integrity of our national narrative.

I will have none of this. I could, if I was so minded, attribute the word Kileche (which is the plural form of kilecha) to the Greek κύκλος, (round), but that has already been adopted into Syriac, a medieval form of Assyrian, as "quqlion." To head off the anticipated argument that κύκλος sounds like the Babylonian qullupu, I steel myself to riposte in advance that another word for round, στρογγυλός, has also been adopted into Assyrian as "estrangela" which also means round in that language and is used to denote one of the cursive Syriac scripts, so there is ample etymological precedent to infer that the slender Assyrians turn to us in order to express rotundity. It was, after all Herodotus, who put the Ass in Assyrian, causing the confusion between Syrians and Assyrians that has afflicted the Assyrian people ever since and probably explains the real reason behind their uncomfortable relationship with vowels referred to earlier.

Nonetheless, I strenuously maintain that the Assyrian word "kileche" as well as the Slavic word "kulichi" all derive from the ancient Greek word κόλλιξ, or kollikas, or kollikion or in plural kollikia, meaning a roll or a loaf of bread. I pursue my polemic, by positing that there is a school of thought which contends that in the Greco-Syrian pronunciation of Antioch, kollikia was pronounced "kollichia." As my wife's eyebrow arches in disbelief, I interpose between her and the parabolic equation that determines the full extent of its supraocular curvature, the fact that in his play "the Acharnians," no lesser personage that the great Aristophanes himself, called the Boeotians "κολλικοφάγοι," or roll eaters. Considering the propensity of modern day Assyrians to daily quaff kileche with copious amounts of tea, it is an epithet whose transmigration to them, would be well deserved. My wife absorbs this information with equanimity borne of complete indifference. There are no comedians in the classical Assyrian tradition, save Lucian, who wrote in Greek, and is thus largely impenetrable to her tribe. I harbour hopes that our eighteen-month old son will be the second Greco-Assyrian to break the Assyrian comedy barrier, considering that his first word was "αστείο," but his mouth is too full of kileche to make any meaningful contribution to the debate.

As we project decontextualized nuggets of history and linguistics at each other, the pile of kourabiedes, melomakarona and kileche grows ever larger and the ones already baking in the oven cause the kitchen to become redolent with the ambrosial smells of indescribable longing and seasonal joy. I stand with muted respect as the piping hot kileche cascade onto the kitchen bench and as I dust my kourabiedes, find myself vaguely musing as to what would happen if I Helleno-baptised the said kileche in icing sugar.

"Don't even think about it," my wife cautions. "Why is it so important to you that kileche, and almost everything else, is Greek anyway?" she teases as she takes the nuts out of my hands and begins to crush them, slowly and methodically, with intense deliberation, over the melomakarona. As she pulverises them, my resistance crumbles, like the crumbs of an over-assertive kilecha and I busy myself with the arcane preparations that will cause my long-dead grandmother's Chrystopsomo to emerge renascent. After all, it is not the biscuit but rather its name that is the bone of contention here and there are plausible reasons why Umberto Eco declined to name his epic, "The Name of the Kilecha."

As we prepare the table for the Christmas feast, I muse that rumours that Alexander the Great died in Babylon as a result of eating a questionable Babylonian kilecha are probably apocryphal, considering that the personage of the kilecha in the local lore is sacrosanct and exists above interrogation. Nonetheless, I place the bowl of kileche as far away from me as possible, for one can never be too careful, even if, as is now customary at Christmas, my wife will invariably choke on a kourabie which I have steeped for too long in rose-water, and thus, in her infinite mercy, forestall the inevitable.

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