A Promising Academic

Nineb Lamassu officially deregistered from his PhD in 2018Lucas Maddalena

In early 2013 Nineb Lamassu, a PhD researcher in Cambridge’s Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, received donations of manuscripts from the families of two prominent Assyrian writers. However, after ceasing work on his PhD and cutting ties with the University, the location of the manuscripts is now unknown.

Nineb Lamassu is a former student of the University of Cambridge. Beginning in 2011 Nineb received over $200,000 in funding to complete a Mphil and PhD at the University of Cambridge and to act as a research assistant to Professor Geoffrey Khan, who would also be his PhD supervisor. Nineb worked within the Faculty of Asain and Middle Eastern studies from 2011 until his formal deregistration in 2018, he never completed his PhD and eventually drifted away from Professor Khan and the University.

Though the cultural homeland of the Assyrian people is Northern Iraq, the diaspora are now scattered across the world by conflict and persecution. This has created a culture and set of languages that is especially at risk of being lost to time. 

Nineb’s funding was provided by the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation (AUAF), an American organisation based in Illinois which funds cultural, educational, and humanitarian projects for people of Assyrain ethnicity around the world. For Nineb who, according to Professor Khan, “had a difficult early life, having spent much of his childhood in refugee camps without formal education”, this was an amazing opportunity. The initial three-year funding installment alone paid $128,604 to finance a research assistant position at the University of Cambridge for a three year period in the area of Assyrain studies. By 2016 Nineb would be the sole beneficiary of $223,267 donated by the AUAF, as shown by documents provided to Varsity by the AUAF. 

Professor Khan commented that during the completion of his MPhil and the first year of his PhD Nineb did “pretty well” and “made an important contribution” to the Cambridge Assyrian Language Documentation Project. And it was during this period of academic success when, in 2012 according to Professor Khan, Nineb “had the initiative of asking the family of a deceased Assyrian writer, Youel Baaba, to donate the writer's library to our Faculty.” 

In fact, Nineb reached out to the families of two influential Assyrian writers. He made contact with the families of Youel Baaba, who passed away in 2010, with the approval of Professor Khan. Yet he also secured a second donation from the family of another Assyrian writer, Sargon Boulus, who had passed away in 2007, without Professor Khan’s knowledge. The families agreed under the promise that Nineb, working with the now defunct Modern Asyrian Research Association (MARA) would catalogue and digitise the collection of over 500 books, letters, maps, and family trees. Professor Khan supported the initiative, formally accepting the books by signing the letter of acceptance.

By 2013 a letter from Nineb to the Baaba family stated that “the private library of your late father has now arrived to our faculty library and our librarians are now in the process of cataloguing the books.” Nineb followed up with the family again in 2014 to ensure them that he and his colleagues “are slowly but surely working on cataloguing your father’s books, and plan to shelve them very soon.”

Yet as Varsity has been able to confirm, this was not the case. “Our librarians” were not working on cataloguing the collection. As far as Varsity has been able to discern Nineb was solely responsible for the cataloguing project.

Holes in the Story

Max Joseph is an Assyrian artist and writer who was contacted by the families of Mrs Boulus and Baaba to look into the whereabouts of the collection in 2019. He is also Nineb’s most vocal and active critic. Speaking of the initial acceptance of the collection he told Varsity: “I recall that Prof[essor] Khan was not really interested in these collections – that they were something he acquiesced to at Nineb's request, and had no real plan or space for them in the faculty library.”

He went on to say that “Nobody at MARA could tell me if they had the capacities to digitise all of this material as per Nineb's promises, and it was clear to me quite quickly that they needed a lot more resources to do it.”

“In reality, he stopped working on his PhD quite a long time earlier”

According to Professor Khan when the collection was originally received it was stored in the basement of the faculty where they would wait to be catalogued before they could be shelved in the library. However, between 2013-2015 the faculty library was undergoing a major refurbishment project, meaning that the collection could no longer be stored there. It was at this time, around 2013-14, when Professor Khan said that Nineb “took the books to his home, with a view to cataloguing them there.” The cataloguing was never completed.

While Nineb had deregistered from his PhD in 2018 Professor Khan also insists that “in reality, he stopped working on his PhD quite a long time earlier than that.” Professor Khan told Varsity that Nineb had “abandoned his studies” about 5 years ago and also reports that he had ceased work “in the second year of his PhD”. Given that Nineb was formerly listed on the faculty website as beginning his PhD in 2014 it is most likely that it was between 2015-2016 when Nineb ceased work on PhD.

In May 2017 a letter from the UAUF to Nineb said that they had made “multiple attempts to contact you over the last month”. The letter also states that Nineb had missed a flight to Chicago that the UAUF had purchased on his behalf without any warning, and asked Nineb to “reimburse the UAUF” for the $1,172 the flight had cost.

“I did my best to support him but he ended up taking advantage of my support”

For Professor Khan, however, Nineb’s abandonment was more than just professional. “It is a very difficult situation if a student stops working,” Professor Khan told Varsity, “The [Nineb’s] college was trying to help but it kept saying that they needed to support him further. This is an extreme case of something that does happen all across the University.”

“I did my best to support him but he ended up taking advantage of my support. I feel like my graduates are part of my family. You can have a very good nurturing relationship but it also means that the person who receives the nurturing can abuse it.”

Ongoing Ties

Following Nineb’s abandonment of his work, as part of his investigation Max Joseph revealed that he had subsequently left England to pursue a political career in Iraq. Based on official ballot records and Nineb’s own campaign videos Max Joseph discovered that Nineb had been in Iraq campaigning in the elections. Although Max suggests that Nineb may have been in Iraq from as early as 2016, this conflicts with reports that place Nineb in Cambridge in January 2017. Regardless, video footage of Nineb’s campaign video from 2018 shows Nineb posing with an unearthed skeleton at the site of the Simele Massacre.

It is also stated by Professor Khan, Max Joseph, and Nineb himself that in March 2018 Nineb had begun working for an unnamed NGO in Iraq. However,Varsity has been unable to confirm this, partly because all of Nineb’s Facebook posts between 2015 and 2020 have been deleted. 

There is also clear evidence that despite abandoning his work and formally deregistering from his PhD, Nineb maintained an active and involved role in promoting himself as a member of the University right up until 2019.  Almost two years after he had abandoned his studies a 2017 NPR article states that Alice Fordham met Nineb “at England's Cambridge University, where he is a researcher”. Speaking to Varsity this year Alice said that “I met him at the faculty, and was struck by his passion for his work.”

Professor Khan told Varsity that Nineb, “tends to use his historical connection with Cambridge University to get favours.” Later, in 2019, after Nineb had deregistered from the course he appeared at the British Museum to give a talk on Modern Assyrian Folklore and Culture. Nineb was listed as affiliated with the University of Cambridge and appeared alongside other academics from the University despite having absolutely no connection to the faculty or University. 

On the 13th November 2018 Nineb also released his ISurit App to the app store. The app is a platform that allows users to record words in endangered Assyrian languages in order to aid the preservation efforts. However, following its release Professor Khan seemed concerned about the implications of Nineb’s project for the efforts to preserve Assyrian languages.

Speaking to Max Joseph in June 2019 he said: “I don’t know what will happen to the data that he is gathering. It is only in his hands”. Professor Kahn maintains that Nineb having exclusive access to this data source would harm the documentation project as none of this data would be able to be catalogued by the University. 

Yet, on the 25th of October 2019 the ISurit app announced a new partnership with the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Middle Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. In a Facebook post it was announced that “has now teamed up with the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (FAMES). As a result: all the data submitted via iSurit will be stored on FAMES’ North-Eastern Noe-Aramaic Database Project (NENA Database). 

Professor Khan told Varsity that Nineb had approached him and offered to make the data from his app available to the University. Professor Khan accepted, however, he told Varsity that he has not yet received any data from Nineb or the app.

Since appearing at the British Museum in 2019 Nineb has not made his location known, and according to his Facebook page he currently lives in Ankawa, Iraq. There is no evidence to confirm whether this is actually the case. Varsity has been unable to find any further information as to the current whereabouts or condition of the collections. 

“I was roped in as an outsider and did what I could, only motivated by pursuing accountability and the best interests of my community”

Rifts in the Community 

However, as Professor Khan told Varsity “the sad thing is this implosion in the Assyrian community. Max Joseph and [another young Assyrian] are at loggerheads with Nineb to the extent that there is a kind of civil war.” Max told Varsity : “Had I not intervened myself and investigated, Nineb would simply have ignored the families, kept the donations himself, and Cambridge would have been none the wiser.”

“Everyone will have an opinion about this in our community but I just wanted to put the facts on table” Max told Varsity, adding: “I was roped in as an outsider and did what I could, only motivated by pursuing accountability and the best interests of my community. I gained nothing else for it.”

“I feel like I have been exploited by two sides.” Professor Khan told Varsity. He went on to explain that while Nineb was still in Cambridge, Max could have solved the problem. He and his friends could go and take the books, but Max doesn’t want to do that mainly because this would solve the problem. He wants to fuel the fire and keep this going.”

Speaking of his involvement with Max Joseph’s series of articles, Professor Khan said that “when I was asked to do an interview I was in a state of despair because I was really frustrated with Nineb. It put me in a difficult position, it drew me into an internal battle within the Assyrian community.” Professor Khan had also contacted Max Joseph with “repeated requests” in which “I asked him to take down the article and he refused”. Professor Khan felt that “it had served its purpose and wanted to go on in a positive spirit, and focus on the positive things in the Assyrian community.”

Nineb Lamassu, the AUAF and the University did not respond to requests for comment.