Interview with Chaldean (Neo-Babylonian) Author Khairy Foumia

I find Khairy Foumia’s work fascinating, especially the book that took nearly 30 years to complete. His dedication is inspiring. Read on, and be inspired (the following article, written by me, was originally published by The Chaldean News).

In May of 2018, Shamasha Khairy Mikha Foumia published his seventh book, Catalogue Manuscripts of the Church in Telkeppe (540 pages), written in Aramaic and Arabic, which describes the 240 manuscripts he found in the library of the church of Telkeppe. He started this project nearly 30 years ago, in 1989. Born in Telkeppe, Foumia lived in Baghdad in his later years. Because his parents and other relatives still lived in Telkeppe, he and his family would visit there during the holidays and in the summertime.

During these trips, he went to Sacred Heart Church library which housed ancient manuscripts. It was not open to the public, but Foumia was given access to the library because of his strong relationship with the priests, having himself been a seminarian for seven years. The church had a separate library with thousands of books where people were able to borrow books.

“I wanted to catalogue everything,” he said. “These books are on their way to extinction so at least by preserving them, their image remains in peoples’ minds and researchers will have a lot of useful information.”

The library contained 212 manuscripts during that time, mostly of a religious and historical nature and written in Aramaic, classic Chaldean. Some were in Arabic. One gospel was from the 11th century. The printing press didn’t start until sometime between 1440 and 1450 so people relied on manuscripts.

“During prayers, we used two manuscripts of a book called Hudhra – one from 1679 and the other from 1689,” he said. “We’d place the Hudhra on a table, circle around it and pray. Those on the opposite side of the circle had to read it upside down.”

Foumia, fluent in reading and translating Aramaic, spent his time in the library measuring each manuscript, counting its pages, noting the title, content, each scribe’s name, color of ink used, number of columns, footnoting most of the names and places, and whether images were included. He’d read a 12-page of an old article written in 1976 by Father Yousif Habbi that covered 102 of the manuscripts. Foumia noticed many of the manuscripts were not catalogued and asked Father Habbi why he hadn’t included them. Father Habbi replied, “I didn’t have time” and suggested that Foumia take on such a project. 

“He pushed me to do this,” said Foumia. “That’s how I started on it in summer of 1989, and I really went in depth.”

Father Habbi died in a car accident on his way to Amman, Jordan.

Foumia, who currently helps at St. Thomas Chaldean Diocese in Southfield, translating the book of Hudhra from Aramaic to Chaldean (Surath), entered the seminary in Baghdad at age 14. There, he learned Aramaic and loved writing and translating Aramaic to Arabic. After three years, the seminarians were sent to Baghdad College for Jesuits (from the United States) where they no longer studied Aramaic but attended regular classes given by the government. He stayed with the Jesuits for another four years before he finally left in the tenth grade.

Foumia went on to get married from Hanaa Patrus Kakoz in 1975, and they had four children – 3 boys and a girl. He had to put his interests in writing and translating aside due to family and business obligations. But in 1987, he was able to tap into those passions again.

“When my brother took on the responsibility of managing our hotel, and I took on the responsibility of our trading company, I had a lot of leisure time,” he said. “That’s when I started reading and translating, getting back my language, and writing books.”

One of the books he wrote is called An Episode in History of Telkeppe and Yousif II Patriarch of Chaldean. The book was initially intended to be an article about Patriarch Yousif, who passed away in 1712.

“When I tried to publish it as an article in Bayn Al Nahrayn Magazine, Father Habbi said, ‘it’s too long. Either reduce it or make it a book.’ I said I don’t know how to reduce it, but I can add to it. So, because of Patriarch Yousif, I decided to write about Telkeppe too, and the project grew.”

When Foumia left Iraq in 1995, he took with him the notes about the church library’s manuscripts. He kept contact with a friend who updated him on the status of the library which continued to develop as people donated books to it.

“A couple of years ago, I received a digital copy of all the manuscripts so I went over them again to confirm accuracy of my research,” he said. “I edited my book again and added as an index the 28 manuscripts, which were later donated.”

Catalogue Manuscripts of the Church in Telkeppe has five sections: Section 1 (Holy Bible); Section 2 (Rituals); Section 3 (Religious Books); Section 4 (Miscellaneous); Section 5 (Arab and Garshouni – letters in Chaldean but read in Arabic). The book is available for sale at the churches and certain Middle Eastern Markets or they can be purchased directly from Mr. Foumia.

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