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Interview with Ali Bnayan – Archeologist, Assyriologist, and Sumerian Cuneiform Writer

This virtual interview was done in Arabic.

Ali Bnayan holds a BA in Archeology, the Department of ancient Iraqi antiquities, at the University of Kufa and now works at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. His specialties include reading and writing cuneiform in the Sumerian language and writing names and sentences by cuneiform on clay tablets.

Ali is a member of the popular committee in Najaf for protecting heritage and is the head of archeological team at ETANA (name of Sumerian king). Ali has held many workshops for pupils and students encouraging them to learn about the ancient history of Mesopotamia and cuneiform. He also publishes about the archaeological culture through social media. He has published articles in Iraq as well as outside the country like Sydney, Australia.

He has participated in a joint research at the International Conference on Archeology at the University of Kufa titled, A comprehensive view of the historic center of Najaf, 2019. His certificates include the use of modern technologies in the field of archeological work and museum display methods and their impact on tourist attraction. In addition, he was involved in the archeological survey which was held by an Italian team and the program of Education and Cultural Heritage Enhancement for Social Cohesion in Iraq in various archeological sites in Najaf. Ali is currently planning for a new project called The Rebirth of Cuneiform and Sumerian Language.

Interview with Professor and Novelist Kamal Abdel-Malek

Raised in Alexandria, Egypt, and educated in Montreal, Kamal Abdel-Malek is professor of Arabic literature, and a novelist. He has taught at Princeton and Brown universities. While at Brown University he contributed to and taught in the Brown University Program in Israeli and Palestinian Studies in Jerusalem. He also received the prestigious Wriston Fellowship for excellence in teaching and research.

He is currently the Chief Editor of the Arabic and World Literature, a scholarly e-journal published the London-based Andromeda Academic Services. The magazine is hosting a virtual conference November 7-8, 2020, titled Celebrating Arab Women: Agents of Change and Progress, held in honor of Nawal El Saadawi.

The following is Professor Kamal Abdel-Malek’s interview:

The Journal of Arabic and World Literature: Comparative and Multidisciplinary Perspectives (AWL) – what is it about and what makes its mission and vision unique?

I have founded The Journal of Arabic and World Literature AWL in 2019 and I am currently its Chief Editor. AWL is a new open access journal that provides a forum in both Arabic and English for researchers investigating literature by Arab authors inside and outside the Arabic-speaking world. The first issue was published in the summer of 2020. AWL aims to explore the intersection of national literatures, global literary theories, and current trends in World literature.

AWL offers an opportunity for scholars to engage in serious research and share their findings and musings with a wider circle of readers interested in Arabic and World Literature. If I have to choose a keyword to describe the concept behind this journal, it is “nexus” as the journal offers a forum in both English and Arabic for researchers to investigate the nexus between Arabic national literatures, global literary theories, and current trends in World Literature. The stress here falls on the “nexus” between Arabic literature and its global sisters, the intersections across these literary traditions, and the inter-associations engendered in the process of researching, writing about, and appreciating these traditions.

Your scholarly and fictional work is preoccupied with the question of how people from different cultural backgrounds relate to one another without losing their authentic selves.  What are some of the answers you’ve come across? 

What is bound to happen to our cultural identity when we associate with people from a different background, whether ethnic, linguistic, religious, or cultural? Many people, Arabs are no exception, would tend to guard against be assimilated into the alien culture of others. And guarding against the alien culture sometimes resembles guarding against a disease, fearing contagion, and taking precautions against the spread of such cultural virus.

Let me give you an example of such attitudes towards alien cultures. In modern Egypt, we have been struggling to determine the extent to which we Egyptians should borrow from Western culture. In fact the question was asked in a debate in  April 1930, between two prominent authors ‘Abbas Mahmud al-‘Aqqad (1889-1964) and Salama Musa (c. 1887-1958), two of Egypt’s most influential writers, met at the newly-built Egyptian University to debate Kipling’s famous line about the East and the West being the twain that would never meet. Al-‘Aqqad agreed with Kipling arguing that the historical record tallied with the truthfulness of Kipling’s line. No, retorted Salama Musa, the East and the West could find a common ground for understanding because both belonged to one human family and one human fate. Musa explained that Western Imperialists wanted the East to remain eastern, i.e., backward, so that they could maintain their control over it and that conservatives and reactionaries in the East were inadvertently helping imperialists by insisting on keeping the East eastern and isolated from Western civilization. The only hope for the East to rid itself of its torpor and backwardness, argued the socialist Musa, was to adopt in toto Western values and practices. Al-‘Aqqad disagreed. For him the incompatibility of the East’s spiritual identity and the West’s materialist one precludes any encounter. The debate was won by al-‘Aqqad with 228 votes to 132.

I have dealt with this issue of how to relate to other cultures without losing your own both academically and fictionally. I have published on the historical and literary, and even cinematic, encounters between Arabs and Jews, and Arabs and Americans: The Rhetoric of Violence: Arab-Jewish Encounters in Contemporary Palestinian Literature and Film (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005), and America in an Arab Mirror (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011). But it was my fiction, Come with Me from Jerusalem (Amazon, 2013) that provoked some controversy. It is a star-crossed love story, set in Jerusalem, between an Egyptian young man and his Jewish beloved against the background of conflicting loyalties. The conflict is mainly between their respective elders and their wider communities, and the pressures put on them to remain loyal to their authentic faiths and cultures. These pressures become unbearable all the way till the end when the two leave Jerusalem, the location of these contestations. But here the conflict takes the shape of a dilemma between freedom to love a member of the “other side” and the necessity to have and maintain peace with one’s family and elders. Quite the conundrum! I am currently writing the sequel where the story of these star-crossed lovers moves to Seattle in the US.

I believe that one needs to search for a way to keep one’s authentic self but, at the same time, engage other people’s cultures and worldviews. It is an ongoing process, a continuous engagement, a procession towards a goal and it may require a certain degree of perseverance and willingness to take risks and offer a degree of compromise. And these are not easy choices.

Your most recent book in Arabic is titled The Pyramid and the Skyscraper: America in Egyptian Eyes (1912-2011). In what ways are you comparing pyramids to skyscrapers? What is their common point? Is it a matter of history or architecture or both?

The symbols may be architectural here, with the pyramid standing for Egypt with its ancient civilization, and the skyscraper standing for America with its modern and rather brazen showoff as a superpower. Remember that the pyramid was built as a massive grave for the powerful pharaoh, a strong and solid edifice based on the belief in the afterlife. The skyscraper, on the other hand, has modern ideas and architectural audacity, a pointer to the progress of a youthful nation embracing its role as a superpower on the world stage. And this audacity is manifested in the very name given to this modern-day edifice: skyscraper, a towering structure that “scrapes” the sky, unashamedly and unapologetically. Remember that Egyptians and Arabs in general, faced a great difficulty with the name “skyscraper” because the word for sky in Arabic is “ sama’ ” which is also the word for heaven, so when translating it literally it becomes “heaven-scraper” a blasphemous label.

The view of America which emerges from these accounts is at once fascinating and illuminating, but never monolithic. The writers hail from a variety of viewpoints, regions, and backgrounds, so their descriptions of America differently engage and revise Arab pre-conceptions of Americans and the West. The country figures as everything from the unchanging Other, the very antithesis of the Egyptian self, to the seductive female, to the Other who is both praiseworthy and reprehensible.

It may come as a surprise for many to read that in 1862 President Lincoln protested the presence of Egyptian troops in Mexico who were there at the time supporting the revolutionaries, or that Ismail Pasha, Egypt’s ruler in 1868 enlisted American Civil War veterans to modernize the Egyptian army, or that in 1880 the ancient Egyptian obelisk, otherwise known as Cleopatra’s Needle, erected in New York’s Central Park, was sent to the U.S. as a gift from Egypt. (For more on these events see, Michael Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present (New York: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition, (2008).

In 1910 the visit of President Theodore Roosevelt to Egypt elicited some negative reactions from Egyptian literati. The American president gave a speech at the newly-established Egyptian university Al-Jami‘a Al-Ahliyya (later named Cairo University), in which he attacked religious fanaticism but appeared to have expressed favorable views of the British occupation of Egypt. He is quoted as saying, “The training of a nation to fit itself successfully to fulfill the duties of self-government is a matter, not of a decade or two, but of generations.” (“The training of a nation to fit itself successfully to fulfill the duties of self-government is a matter, not of a decade or two, but of generations.” Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt (New York: Random House; Reprint edition, 2011, 38.)

Such views drew fire from Muhammad Farid, the famous Egyptian nationalist leader, and Ahmad Shawqi, Egypt’s Poet Laureate. (See the report in Al-Risala, no. 893 (1910).But this incident would not sour Egyptian feelings toward the United States. As it would be noticed in the next forty years since Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to Egypt, policies or views of official America considered inimical to Egyptian, or later Arab, causes would draw criticism and resentment while views of Americans as a people or America as a culture were often favorable.

Another book is called The Pain of Egyptians and its Remedy in Poetry: Ahmed Fouad Negm and his Poetic Heritage. How has poetry been healing for Egyptians? Have you ever written poetry? Has poetry, or writing in general, been healing for you?

I believe that poetry and writing in general has a healing power as it offers a kind of therapy for the aches and pains of one’s psyche. And here we find that what applies to individuals may apply to nations. In 1967 the Arabs were defeated by Israel so that after a mere six days, thousands of Arabs were killed and vast chunks of Arab lands occupied. Wounded nations, much like wounded individuals, need a period to grieve and find solace and it was at this moment that a native-born poet and his blind companion appeared on the scene to sing and strum the pain of the nation and to infuse in their revolutionary verse the hope that there is a time to lick the wounds, a time to stitch them, and a time to muster courage and stand up to resist. That was Ahmad Fu’ad  Nigm and his blind companion singer, Sheikh Imam.

Yes, I tried my hand in composing poetry, mostly about love. Please do not laugh when I tell you that I wrote a total of nine poems, all in one day! After that the guns of my poetical inspiration fell silent. But sooner the percussions of fiction-writing started to roll on, and I wrote some short stories and one major novel, entitled, Come with Me from Jerusalem. Now I can tell you that for me writing these pieces of fiction were therapeutically comforting, as they usually are written in the aftermath of some pain caused by parting ways with a loved one. Writing my pain in this case is like waking up in the middle of a nightmare and devising a way to escape the fatal blow before it crushes you.

You have Ahmed Fouad Negm in a several of your topics. Why did you choose him, particularly for the Egyptian Revolution of 2011?

Why Nigm?

He was one of Egypt’s most famous vernacular poets. Since 1967, his popular poetry has been frequently heard at protests and political rallies, and during January 2011 Egyptian revolutionaries sang many of his poems.

Nigm published over a dozen collections of poetry and his popular autobiography, under the title Al-Fagumi, was made a movie. In 2007, Nigm was chosen by the United Nations Poverty Action as Ambassador of the poor, and he won the 2013 Prince Claus Award for “Unwavering Integrity”. His presence on the Egyptian scene, as a poet and a commentator with biting remarks, will be sorely missed.

I met Nigm for the first time in 1989, and have kept in contact with him until his death. I still remember and relish my visits with him in his apartment in a popular neighborhood in Al-Muqattam region, and how we used to sit on the floor of his roof, talking about our country while chicken were running and cackling around us.

Nigm’s work has been one of the main topics for my academic studies, about which I published my first book, A Study of the Vernacular Poetry of Aḥmad Fuʾād Nigm (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1990). I later published two books about him in Arabic. I am currently working on a book on him, under contract by the American University of Cairo Press.

How has the Arab Spring affected the intellectuals?

There has been a stream of works of fiction and eye-witness accounts of the Arab Spring movements in the countries where these movements took place—in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and other. In 2013, the Egyptian Basma Abd Aziz wrote The Queue which depicts an unknown country where people are forced to ask the government, dubbed The Gate, permission to perform any activity even window-shopping. Mona Prince penned an eye-witness account of the 18-day demonstrations at Tahrir Square with the title, Revolution is My Name.   The Anglo-Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif published her own account of the Tahrir events, Cairo: My City, My Revolution.

I should also mention the steady flow of writings and recorded YouTube videos of the Egyptian fiction writer and activist, Alaa Aswani, who has recently published two novels, The Automobile Club and The Republic of As If.  That is also in addition to some collections of his journalistic pieces.

In Tunisia, the academic and novelist, Shukri Al-Mabkhout wrote his fiction, The Italian and Kamel Zoghbani his, Akhlat. So there has been a stream of works affected by the Arab Spring movements.

But here allow me to follow the example of the late JFK’s rhetoric and reverse your question: “How has the Arab Spring affected the intellectuals?” by saying to you: Ask not how has the Arab Spring affected the intellectuals; ask rather how have the [Egyptian] intellectuals affected the Arab Spring?

Literature, evocative, high-powered, genuine literature, composed by serious-minded writers sensitive to nuance, can be a guiding force in a given society and culture. I think we often think of literature, particularly in the academy, as a reflection, a mirror that projects back how a society or a culture looks like. Literature may show the grand assumptions and tacit norms of the culture but it can also play a role in shaking the props and rearranging the mental furniture in the culture. Can we imagine the French Revolution without the great ideas of the French philosophes and writers like Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu? Ideas like the rule of the people by the people, of equality, and brotherhood, of people being equal citizens in a republic not subjects of the supreme monarch.

Likewise the Arab Spring would not have been conceived of without the ideas and struggles of enlightened writers and citizenry who have protested against autocracy, inequality, and absence of democratic rights and freedoms. Fiction writers like Alaa Al-Aswani lays bare the ugly underbelly of the Egyptian society in his highly acclaimed novel, The Yaqoubian Building (2002), Sonallah Ibrahim exposes the rot that has set in the Egyptian society in novels like, Dhat, and Jamal Al-Ghitani, Hikayat Al-Mu’assasa (Stories about the Establishment). I must also mention here the role of poetry in galvanizing people against the unjust regimes. Take for example the vernacular poetry of the great Egyptian poet and activist, Ahmad Fuad Nigm(b.1929). In as early as 1990 I published my book, A Study of the Vernacular Poetry of Ahmad Fuad Nigm (Leiden, 1990) that provides an analysis of the social and political meanings in the protest vernacular poetry of Ahmad Fuad Nigm. In this book I show how Nigm portrays Egypt as a society composed of contending social forces and it is concerned with the cause of liberating Egypt from class inequality and political oppression. Being an example of genuine popular expression, Nigm’s protest poetry appears to pose a challenge to the political establishment, which considers Nigm as a provocateur, as well as to the majority of scholars to whom vernacular works have no place in their canonical definition of “high” literature.

For Nigm, the way to achieve such liberation is through a people’s revolution that will ultimately pave the way for a new society—is this not what exactly happens in Egypt January 2011? But the Arab Spring did not remain a spring forever. Change has already taken place and the spring was followed by the fall season. Someone somewhere in the Arab world is now writing a novel, a short story, a poem, a film script about the deleterious effects of a popular revolution that has gone awry. Let’s remember once again the French Revolution and how the Bastille prison had ended up with more prisoners after the revolution than the day it was pry-opened by the revolutionaries, and how the promising period of the revolutionary Maximillien Robespierre, who twisted Rousseau’s ideas, had ended with the “Reign of Terror.”

The International Conference on “Celebrating Arab Women: Agents of Change of Progress” will be in November 7-8. What is the purpose behind forming this conference?

Women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region contend with social practices founded on patriarchal values, confining them to a secondary position in these male-dominated societies. History, past and contemporary, is, however, replete with examples of inspirational Arab women who transcend this socio-cultural reality, and successfully subvert that dominant narrative. These women have carved out public space for themselves and others throughout history, and have thus been effective agents of change. Examples are authors and historians, such as Huda Shaarawi, Nawal El Saadawi, and Fatima Mernissi, and writers like Sahar Khalifeh, Liana Badr, Huda Barakat, Ahlem Mosteghanemi, Leila Abouzeid, and Meral Tahawi, and the 2019 Man Booker Prize winner, Jokha Alharthi.    

Our aim is to observe this year’s International Women’s Day by organizing a conference that celebrates the contributions of Arab women, past and present, to honor them, and to call for substantial change towards women’s equality in our Arab region. Some of the topics that the conference will cover are:

  • Nawal Saadawi: A Vindication of the Rights of Arab Women
  • Fatema Mernissi’s Double Critique of Arab and Western Views on Women
  • Women and Media in the MENA region: New Subjectivities
  • Women Writers in the MENA region: Alternative Narratives
  • Women Filmmakers in the MENA Region: Cinematic Language as Action

The conference is held in Honor of Nawal El Saadawi. How did you meet her and what are your thoughts about her and her work?

The idea behind the conference came to me as a result of my frequent visits to Cairo and conversations with Nawal Saadawi over the past few years. I felt that we should honor her and celebrate with her the remarkable achievements she has made in promoting the rights of Egyptian and Arab women and in exposing the various degrees of injustices they suffer in our present-day Arab societies.

I first met Nawal Saadawi in a conference in the US, and I was much impressed by her presentation on women and their plight in the Arab world. Being familiar with some of her works at the time, I heard from her what I more or less expected: Arab women are oppressed by a patriarchal and regressive regimes and religious dogmatic restrictions. But what I didn’t expect was her harsh criticism of Western feminists and their mis/understanding of the plight of their womenfolk in the Arab world.

I have had extended dialogues with Nawal Saadawi about some of the burning issues in our current Arab society–issues related to freedom of expression, status of Arab women, war and peace, individual and society, childhood memories, views on the West, etc. The dialogues shed light on Saadawi’s work and views on creativity and rebellion, literature and social changes, moving us from the traditional stand on literature as a mirror of culture and society to literature as a guiding force in culture and society. Could we imagine laws protecting the bodies of little girls in Egypt without the direct influence of Nawal’ Saadwi’s fictional writings and activism in the last half century?

What is the role of women in the Arab World, especially as a writer? How influential are they? Is Nawal El Saadawi an exception? Or are there others like her?

Women writers in the Arab world have been playing a vital role in effecting societal and cultural change. Think of the Egyptian Hoda Sha‘rawi in the 1923 who, upon her return from International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Rome, removed her veil (hijab) in public at the Cairo train station, and called for the emancipation for her womenfolk, paving the way for legislation in behalf of women’s rights. Think of Dorriyya Shafiq, feminist, poet, who, as a direct result of her efforts and hunger strike, Egyptian women were granted the constitutional right to vote in 1956. And now Nawal Saadawi who has been hoisting the banner of women’s lib in Egypt and beyond for the last fifty years. So as you can see Nawal Saadawi belongs to a whole genealogy of women writers and activists. Beyond the Arab world, I must mention the Moroccan feminist and academic, Fatima Mernissi, author of seminal works such as, Beyond the Veil, Scheherzade Goes West, among others.

Do you visit Egypt often? When was the last time you went there? What was your observation in the changes that have occurred, particularly after the Arab Spring? 

I visit Egypt twice a year, during the summer vacation and the winter break. The last time was in December 2019 and January 2020. I was unable to go in the summer this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The most exciting time that I witnessed in Egypt was during the Arab Spring of late January and early February 2011. I spent several nights at the Tahrir Square in Cairo and the Saad Zaghloul Square in Alexandria. It was a remarkable scene to witness Egyptian youth chanting revolutionary slogans and hoisting banners demanding change and calling on Mubarak to step down. They were organized in groups taking care of various tasks, distributing water bottles and checking the IDs of individuals wishing to join their inner circles in the tents pitched inside the enclosure where the revolutionaries will spend the nights. In the morning there were other groups of young men and women in jeans cleaning the squares and pavements.

But the most visible change was in citizens’ attitude to authority. Mubarak is no longer in power. There is now criticism of figures of authority more than at any time. There is criticism of the powerful president and his ministers, criticism of social customs and religious dogmas, and loud voices demanding a renewal of religious givens.

The Egyptian people are now at the point of no return to putting up with dictatorial rule. The impact is at present felt in the way international media covers the Arab world. There is no more Egypt or Syria as states but as people, as Egyptians and Syrians. Egypt is not Cairo and Syria is not Damascus, each is now the whole country with its countryside and outlaying regions and borders. It is the people not the states that are now the main focus of reports by pundits. Remember the powerful chants, “The People want the downfall of the regime!” It is the people; it is we the people, the new citizens of the free country, not the subjects of the autocratic rulers. The people have connected all the necessary wires for the new life of freedom and the intellectual current has throbbed back to life.    

It seems that a lot of Arab literature is based on ideology and politics. Is that a strength or weakness? Is that the reason behind the strong censorship in the Middle East?

A good writer does not set out to write in accordance to an ideological or didactic yardstick. Doing so may result in works lacking depth and literary value. Think of Russian literature in the 19th-century with great writers like Dostoevsky and Chekhov, and the lackluster Soviet literature after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

The Arabic literature of the 1950s and 1960s reflects the period of wars of independence and struggle to be free from colonial powers, and was affected by the introduction of such literary trends like   “committed literature.”

The age-old notion prevalent in Arab cultural history is that literature ought to have a didactic purpose and mission. Remember that the Arabic word of literature is adab, which also means good manners, social graces, and etiquette. So the purpose behind producing literature and consuming it is to educate and to edify the people. For each poem or a piece of narrative there should be a moral to present, a lesson to offer, a method to draw pointers to the straight path. But there are exceptions; one of the most outstanding is found in the tales of the Arabian Nights, which aims more to entertain than to edify the listeners/ readers.  For this reason the Egyptian authorities banned in 1980s a copy of the Arabian Nights brought by a traveler from Beirut, and they also banned the poetry of Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm claiming that what constitutes “good” art as “Undoubtedly art and creative works that are worthy of respect are the ones which are based on delicate sentiments and good words, not sheer insolence. It added, “Moreover, a good creative poet who deserves to be honored by the state and its head is the one who “does not allow himself to descend to the level of the riff-raff.” (Nigm, Ishi ya Masr, p. 138).

So as you could see ideology acts like a pre-emptive strike against good literature and art in general, for both cannot thrive in a stifling ideological atmosphere, nor can they arise out of perfect states of good or evil. Neither in Hell nor in Heaven can there ever be creative art.

Interview with a Principal of a School that Promotes and Celebrates Diversity

Mr. Steven Slancik has worked in Utica Community Schools for 24 years. During his six years at Schuchard, the school received multiple awards, which include being named a “Reward School” by the State of Michigan in two areas: Overall Growth and “Beating the Odds.” The school has also been named a “National Title I Distinguished Schools Award Finalist” and “The Mackinaw Center for Public Policy’s list of most improved schools twice, ranked as the 77th best elementary school/middle school in the state of Michigan out of 2,203 schools in 2019.

Born in Saginaw, Michigan, Slancik attended Grand Valley State University where he graduated with a dual major – Special Education and Psychology. His endorsements were CI (Cognitively Impaired) and EI (Emotionally Impaired). He attended Saginaw Valley State University for his Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. He is married to Heather, and has 3 children (Justin – 18, Carter – 16 and Abbie -11) and two step-children (Jacob – 21 and Kyle – 18).

Schuchard Elementary has 630 students. 85% of the students live in a home where a second language is spoken. 70% of the students at Schuchard live in a home where Arabic and/or Chaldean is spoken.

“Cultural Proficiency has been a focus at Schuchard for many years,” he said. “It is an ever-evolving endeavor as we are always trying to improve our understanding and knowledge of our community. We strive to surpass the idea of tolerance and focus on celebrating and using our diversity to make us a better school. Whether it involves adjusting our menu, providing translators and/or translated documents, or adapting our events around cultural and religious holidays; we are always trying to ensure that every student feels cherished and important.”

On November 1, 2019, Schuchard Elementary hosted their first ever “Cultural Celebration Day”. Based on the feedback of parents, students, staff and presenters, it was an incredible success!

This will become an annual event. They already have several ideas and plans in the works on how to adjust and make next year’s Cultural Celebration bigger and better.

“We should admit that depending on how school looks in the fall due to the pandemic, the 2020 version may have to be adjusted for this school year,” he said. “As a result of this event, the city of Sterling Heights awarded us the Sterling Heights Diversity Distinction Award.”

Schuchard has become a role model and a beacon for providing an appropriate education for all students. “Other schools look to us for guidance on how to adapt instruction to fit the cultural needs of students,” Slancik said. “We lead by example, showing other schools that there are no acceptable excuses for not providing every student with the best education possible.”

Schuchard and all of Utica Schools has been focusing on the Social-Emotional side of teaching. Their teachers completed multiple trainings on this topic during the school year, and Slancik took part in a 40+ hour professional development this summer where he learned how to use “the whole child” as a basis for differentiating our instruction.

Prior to the social-emotional training, staff at Schuchard spent several years focusing on Cultural Proficiency and what it means to truly respect and celebrate other cultures. They focused on several aspects that included using more culturally-relevant examples in their teaching and examining the distinct gender gap they had at Schuchard. Through readings, discussions and bringing in community experts, they concentrated on strategies and ideas that could improve the education they provide to the 630 students at Schuchard Elementary. For a 3-year period (2016-2018), Cultural Proficiency was the biggest professional development focus for them as a building and school district.

How far would you travel for your life’s calling?

Noor Matti’s calling was to go live in Iraq and serve the people there, so that’s what he did, and that’s what he still does. His charity work was particularly helpful in 2014 after ISIS attacked the Christian villages in northern Iraq.

Noor was raised in Ankawa, Erbil until his family was forced to flee in 1992 due to deuterating situation in Iraq. He spent two years in Greece as a refugee, until his family was allowed to reach Detroit. A stranger in the US, Noor looked to music as a way to escape the confusing new land, as he rode the MP3 wave and began to create mix CDs for classmates. In 2012, the media opportunity finally came, as Noor was hired by Babylon Media in Ankawa, Iraq, to establish the country’s first ever all-English radio station. By 2018, Noor was tapped to also host a weekly international Arabic show on Babylon TV. Since 2014, Noor has held the operations manager position for the Shlama Foundation, where he has coordinated 200 projects to be implemented. ​

Evette Kassab – Not only is Evette proficient in Surath, but she can read and write in Surath as well. Volunteerism has played a major role in Evette’s life. She co-founded the non-profit, E’rootha, in 2008 to preserve the identity of the Chaldean Assyrian Syriac diaspora and to inspire a cultural awakening within the youth of Michigan. From dance classes, language classes, a mentoring program for refugees, and a sports camp to genocide awareness events and art shows, she has actively worked to develop these initiatives for the past decade.

To contribute to Shlama, visit https://www.shlama.org/

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.

Interview with Dr. Yaacov Maos, A Jewish Native Speaker of Aramaic

I met Dr. Yaacov Maoz last year when he traveled from Israel to Canada and the United States. He stopped at the Chaldean Museum and we discussed his interesting and very important projects.

The Ezra and Nechemia immigration campaign of the 1950-1951 winter marked the peak of Aramit-speaking immigration to Israel. Some 100,000 Jews who had been living in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria brought a forgotten Jewish culture dating back thousands of years to Israel. Its crowning glory was the spoken Aramit language. Nearly half a million of their descendants now live in Israel, and fifty to one hundred thousand of them speak the language. The large majority of the world’s Jewish Diaspora, both in the west and the east, had yet to hear how one of the two founding languages of the Jewish people is spoken.

Dr. Yaacov is leading the campaign to revive and preserve the Aramit (Aramaic) language. He was born to a family that immigrated to Israel from Mesopotamia and is a native speaker of Aramit ( ארמיתThe Jewish version of Suret). He received his academic training principally at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he wrote his doctorate on aesthetics in rabbinic thought, which deals, for the most part, with Aramit in the Talmud and Midrash. During this period, he also completed rabbinic studies at the HUC without accepting ordination. He has had two books published (in Hebrew), Poetic Justice – poetry and short stories, and God, Love and Aesthetics – a theological-philosophical essay. He is currently engaged in research of rabbinic thought, lectures on Judaism and Israeli society, and is a social activist for the promotion of interfaith dialogue.

Dr. Yaacov works at the Israel Association of Community Centers, where he is Director for Content Development and has published Festivals in the Community, a series of widely distributed booklets, the foremost of which is the Haggadah of Identities, a Passover Haggadah with an Israeli commentary. He is involved in strengthening Jewish pluralism, in promoting dialogue between different sectors in Judaism, in the connection between Israel and the Diaspora, and in developing understanding between Jews and Arabs in Israel. He has led several conferences with his associates in the Tikun Movement, the most outstanding of which was the Matrouz International Conference, in which Arab colleagues from Morocco and France participated.

Dr. Yaacov has established a public council of intellectuals and a committee of social activists for the revival of the Aramit (ארמית) language. He has opened study groups and created a Facebook group, held a preliminary conference on solidarity with the Assyrian nation, published journalistic articles, spoken on radio broadcasts, and appeared on television. He maintains contact with the Assyrian diaspora leadership the world over on a daily basis and seeks to increase awareness throughout the Israeli public of the Assyrian nation’s suffering, its cultural richness, and the wonderful opportunity strategic cooperation with the Assyrian nation offers.

“Do not so easily dismiss the Aramit language for we find that the Holy One, blessed be He, honored it in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings.” Yalqut Shim’ omi

To support the revival of the Aramit language in Israel, contact Dr. Jaacob Maoz through FB messenger https://www.facebook.com/groups/2350381341679059/user/100010233378560/

Interview with author and entrepreneur Jacob Bacall

This is an interview I did with Jacob Bacall, who epitomizes the successful Chaldean American. Chaldeans are Neo-Babylonians, an indigenous Aramaic-speaking people whose lineage dates back to ancient Mesopotamia. Jacob immigrated to Michigan in 1977 and quickly established himself as a successful businessman. He has written several books about Chaldean Americans including the following:

About the book Chaldeans in Detroit: Chaldeans (pronounced Kal-de’an) are a distinct ethnic group from present-day Iraq with roots stretching back to Abraham, the biblical patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam who was from the “Ur of the Chaldees.” Chaldeans are Catholic, with their own patriarch, and they speak a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. Chaldeans began immigrating to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, when Iraq was known as Mesopotamia (the Greek word meaning “land between two rivers,” the Tigris and the Euphrates). Lured by Henry Ford’s promise of $5 per day, many Chaldeans went to work in Detroit’s automotive factories. They soon followed their entrepreneurial instincts to open their own businesses, typically grocery markets and corner stores. Religious persecution has caused tens of thousands of Chaldeans to relocate to Michigan. Today, the Greater Detroit area has the largest concentration of Chaldeans outside of Iraq: 180,000 people (it’s estimated that since 2014, Detroit actually has the largest concentration of Chaldeans).

Jacob’s second book is called The Chaldean Iraqi American Association of Michigan, more commonly known as CIAAM. This was not simply an association of just a group of early immigrants who escaped prosecution or were merely looking for better life for their family and loved ones. They were indeed good-hearted individuals who strived to build a solid foundation for a well-rounded community in this new land for the immigrants, the United States of America. The CIAAM exemplifies the success of immigrants that have migrated to Detroit from Iraq, providing a place for social gatherings, community discussions, family celebrations, and education to those yearning to learn more about the Chaldeans of Mesopotamia, their successful migration to America, and the contributions they are making in Michigan. Today, CIAAM has more than 900 active families as members, strengthening the recreational, social, and business bonds among the large “family” of Michigan Chaldeans.

This interview was hosted by the Chaldean Cultural Center, in collaboration with the University of Michigan [Detroit Chapter] and Unique Voices in Films.

Interview with Iraqi Australian writer Hajer Al Awsi

A bundle of joy and contradictions, Hajer is an Iraqi-Australian writer that is trying to figure it all out. From screenplays to short stories to essays, she explores themes of womanhood, dysfunctional families and every now and then she’ll tell you how she feels about that trending topic on twitter. She has a Medium blog where she shares her many opinions about the world.

Hajer has exhibited ‘Loss and Freedom’, an audio installation featuring Zainab and her parents accounts of the night Zainab runs away from home. Most recently, Hajer’s first folklore piece, ‘The Tigrisian Women’ set in an imagined ancient matriarchal Mesopotamian society featured in a Sydney Writers Festival project being rescheduled to 2021 but currently available online now: https://www.finishingschoolcollective.com/hajer-and-faith.

WN: Tell us about your writing journey – when did you start writing and then decide to pursue it as a career?  

HA: I started writing at the typical coming of age period—17 – as a way of dealing with the many existential crises I was having. As soon as I left school I volunteered at the local arts center where I met other young people my age.

WN: What are the themes in your writing and why have you chosen these themes?

HA: Naturally, I find myself writing a lot about womanhood as a Muslim Arab woman but also a lot about dysfunctional families. I try and find the humor in the migrant experience along with all the struggles. In particular, I tend to focus on the experience of the second generation immigrant. It’s an experience that hasn’t been explored a lot with a Middle Eastern perspective but is so important. Being raised either predominantly or entirely outside of your parents’ homelands means you and your parents have entirely different cultural understandings, perspectives which often times means very different values. I find that space really interesting and comforting to explore in my writing.

WN: What has been your experience as an Iraqi-Australian writer?

HA: Initially, I shied away from writing specifically Iraqi characters or from an Iraqi perspective and instead chose to write from Levantine perspectives especially Palestinian and Lebanese. I was raised in part by Palestinians and in Australia the predominant Arab population is Lebanese so these neighboring cultures felt familiar but also distant enough to explore. As I grew into myself and dealt with my internalized discomforts of Iraqi culture I’ve become more and more fascinated and driven to write about my specific identity. There is immense richness of culture in Iraq and stories from the diaspora especially are quite scarce. So I finally came to my senses and realized that there was this whole gap in the literary world that I could take advantage. It’s exciting but also important.

WN: You founded a Facebook group called Iraqi Diaspora Creatives. What is the idea behind forming this group and how has been the response?

HA: Yes, it was born of my frustration with finding diasporas Iraqi voices in the arts both globally and in Australia. I was looking for someone to mentor me through a play that relied a lot on understanding Iraqi diaspora culture and found it immensely difficult to find anyone overseas and in Australia. I knew that there were people out there and was determined to find them. I had thought about forming some kind of network for a while and so finally did it and called it the Iraqi Diaspora Creatives Network. I was lucky to have another online Iraqi focused page, ‘Shakomakodotnet’ to cross promote the network on their page and had a rush of a few hundred people follow the instagram page and join the Facebook group. It’s going much better than I anticipated and I’m really happy about that.

WN: You recently helped organize a letter to the creators of the series Baghdad Central. What was letter about and the purpose behind this campaign?

HA: Yes. I noticed very quickly while watching it that the Iraqi dialect sounded very forced or just wrong altogether. While the actors were Arab, admittedly a step in the right direction, there was only two actual Iraqis in the whole cast. I began to research the show and who was behind it and it quickly emerged that it was not written by Iraqis, but by middle aged white men, though it framed itself as being from an Iraqi perspective. The production company, Euston Films is alarmingly entirely made up of white people which inevitably means the profits of a supposed Iraqi story is going to non-Iraqis. This made me feel really uncomfortable. I opened up the conversation to the members of the Iraqi Diaspora Creatives Network and an overwhelming amount of them felt the same way. We were all felling fed up of being dismissed by the system and felt an urgency to speak out.

WN: Can you share the most rewarding aspects of being a writer?

HA: When someone feels moved or seen by something I’ve written. It’s always so heartwarming and motivates me to keep putting work out there.

WN: What advice would you give writers who are starting out?

HA: Write as much as possible and consume as many stories as possible in as any and all mediums. Allow yourself to respond emotionally to what you are consuming. Then sit back later and make an assessment of what you liked and didn’t like about the story, the techniques used or you wish they used. This way you exercise the muscle of analysis that is so precious to the process of writing and any kind of storytelling.

Sponsored by Chaldean Cultural Center http://www.ChaldeanCulturalCenter.org Unique Voices in Films http://www.UniqueVoicesinFilms.org University of Michigan [Detroit Chapter]

Interview with Author & Coach Dr. Deborah Al Najjar

Dr. Deborah Al Najjar is a writing and career coach for creatives and academics. She is co-editor if we are Iraqis with Professor Nadje Al-Ali and has taught writing, literature, and American studies at Wayne State, Oakland University, Henry Ford College, and The University of Southern California. She currently has her own coaching business at desirecompass coaching. You can learn more about her services by visiting her website https://www.deborahalnajjar.com/

When did you decide to be a writer?

I decided at fourteen in ninth grade when I took a writing course with Mr Shusterbauer at Mercy High school. I was focused on fiction through my twenties. I am feeling a desire to return to fiction writing more recently.

What is your book We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War about?

The co-edited anthology with my friend and colleague Dr. Nadje Al-Ali is an anthology featuring artists, academics, activists who are of Iraqi descent. It is a chronicle of essays, poetry, painting, fiction, academic interviews. It is first and foremost a creative endeavor and an expression of people’s lives and beliefs.

How has your 30 years teaching and working in academia influenced your life?

Teaching has had me hone in on my purpose which is to be a public servant and to serve students in particular. We are all students of life and have a strong craving to keep transforming our lives for the better.

When and why did you decide to provide coaching for writers?

As I was finishing my PHD in 2017, I did a coaching program to help me get more focused on completing my dissertation. I did some coaching myself and launched my business. It felt very organic and in flow at the time. I have been working in the self-development field as career and academic coach for over three years now. I shifted away from the high pressure career path I was on (academia) to one on one coaching and some group coaching. Coaching is in alignment with my training as an educator. It is also in alignment with my disposition and character as a motivator and public speaker.

What is your upcoming program about? The one that takes place from September to December.

My upcoming program is a group coaching container where someone can start and complete a book project by the end of this year. We will have different levels of accountability. The clients will be working one on one with me and within the group to have a great deal of support and attention. I have a writing zoom bootcamp that they can join for additional writing timing and structure.

You mentioned that although your program is open to people of all backgrounds, you want to pay specific attention to the Arab American community. What is the reason for that?

I have worked with all kinds of people my whole life. My education is in American studies and ethnic studies. I care about racial, sexual, cultural justice, integrity, and being conscious about one’s identity in the world. We are here to help one another. We are here to transform the world into a more just world for one another. Our own group and other groups. There are way more Arab/ Iraqi writers out in the world but not as many as there could be. There certainly are not that many Chaldean Iraqi writers, painters, artists have visibility. I would love to be of service to my communities of writers and artists. If someone needs help, I am happy to work with them. We need a diversity of points of view out in the public.

What has been the biggest challenge for you as a writer?

My biggest personal challenge has been grief blocks and maybe my own insecurities about being true to myself. What is that I really want to write about? I have a lot of stories to tell and maybe I have feared judgment or condemnation. I have done a lot of work to release those stories/ misperceptions. Writing a book is not only about talent, commitment and time management. It is about releasing all your old stories that you have inherited and that you have chosen to invest in (whether it was a conscious choice or not).

What has been the most rewarding aspects of being a writer?

The most rewarding reality of being a writer is honoring myself. Showing up to the practice and the excitement of discoverring a fresh perspective or new crisp sentence that surprises me.

What do you advice writers who are starting out? What about established writers?

The advice I give new writers. Keep it simple. Established writers? Let go of perfectionism and what you think you know. Let go of the work you already did or the writer you believe you are. Keep the stakes low. Stay focused on your passion not on the outcome. Essentially, all the advice is the same. Show up to the practice and the writing and get out your head. This is advice I need first and foremost, I can be my own worst enemy.

What other services does Desire Compass Coaching Provide?

I have one on one coaching on career changes, completing degrees, starting or returning to school. What is your purpose? How can you get focused on creating more flow in your life, your business? Do you have grief or wounds from the past that you have not processed? I do Emotional Freedom Technique (tapping), a somatic approach to releasing stress. I have both a spiritual and pragmatic approach to coaching. Lets not get stuck in the past or in the stories we have about our lives.

What are Dr. Al Najjar’s future work plans? Where do you envision your writing and coaching business in 5 to 10 years?

I hope to do more writing and publishing myself. I envision myself working and teaching groups and maybe back at a University as a motivator, public speaker, educator. I hope to continue having clients whom I serve one on one. I would love to coach grad student groups or professors on lowering stress, getting more of the dream writing completed, and finding joy in work/life.

This interview was hosted by the Chaldean Cultural Center, in collaboration with University of Michigan [Detroit Chapter] and Unique Voices in Films.

Interview with artist and author Paul Batou

Written by: Weam Namou

Paul Batou was born in 1959 in a tiny village on the border between Iraq and Turkey. When he was two years old, the Kurds destroyed his village in an act they called “ethnic cleansing.” This forced his family to migrate to Mosul and eventually to Baghdad, where he lived among Arabs. His family rented a room with six other families. Almost forty people shared one small kitchen, bath, and toilet. He described his home as “more like a prison.” Even though his family spoke a different language, Aramaic, they managed to survive. Batou’s mother was forced to work like a slave in a hotel while his father traveled back and forth from Baghdad to the north in order to restore their land. He could not imagine working in a city while others stole his land.

Paul Batou4

None of Batou’s siblings completed their education, but thanks to his aunt’s generosity, he was enrolled in a Catholic school. He performed very well, especially in art and science. At first, he drew simple Disney characters, and then graduated to Western wild west-style pictures. At the age of twelve, he wrote his first short story, which was a love story based in the city of Kremat, where he grew up. His journey as an artist continued throughout high school.

In 1989, Batou traveled to Italy to study art, but his father refused to finance his studies. He returned to Baghdad and was accepted in a pharmacy school, so he followed that direction. Luckily, the school had a studio for the arts. One of the protocols in Iraq was that each college must have a music and art department to be used for students’ hobbies.

The following is an excerpt from the book Iraqi Americans: The Lives of the Artists

WN: Why didn’t you study art in Baghdad?

BATOU: The College of Fine Arts was exclusive to the Baath Party. I didn’t even bother to apply because I had no desire to become one of their members. I was fortunate that the director of the studio in the pharmacy school was one of the most famous Iraqi artists, named Abdul Ellah Yassin. That’s how I practiced and learned art in a more professional fashion. It was as if I’d missed something and then found it. I was hungry to absorb all the knowledge I could in art.

WN: While living in Iraq, did you have any serious encounters with the Baath Party?

BATOU: My problems with the Baath Party began after I received my bachelor’s degree. I was accepted to continue my master’s degree in toxicology. However, because of my friendship with Abdul Salman, a Shia Muslim student who was disliked by the Baath Party, my art teacher told me that, like my friend, I would not have a chance. My friend and I took our case to the minister of education and eventually to the minister of health, who refused to help us. When we asked him why his daughter was going to England for the master’s degree when her scores were lower than ours, he replied, “She is my daughter and I want the best for her.” The minister’s final advice was for us to join the army.

One of my classmates from elementary school had become a powerful person in the Iraqi intelligence agency, the Mukhabart. I had helped him in his academic study in pharmacy school and we used to play together during childhood. He offered me the opportunity to study nuclear pharmacy in Sweden. In return, I would receive an excellent pay and my family would be provided with a nice home and a comfortable life. It was either the army or studying abroad and joining the Mukhabarat. It was like having to choose between heaven and hell. I chose hell.

I served in the army five years during the Iraq-Iran war. The first few months, I was on the front line, and every night I asked myself if I had made the right or the wrong decision. I played by my principles, and my principle was not to give up my freedom. I later wrote a poetry book, My Last Thoughts About Iraq, which is based on the notes and soldiers’ quotes I jotted down during the time I served in the war, from 1983 to 1988.

Matters changed when I was placed in the medical unit and began focusing on helping as many people as I could. We were in a city that bordered Iran, where there was shelling and wounded men every day. That’s when I forgot my doubts and questions. God gave me peace in my heart, and I ended up staying in order to help the people who needed me. I stopped feeling like I made a bad decision and I felt happy to be a pharmacist. I’m helping more people now.

WN: What was the driving force behind leaving Iraq and coming to America?

BATOU: Freedom. The turning point in my search for freedom was when I started reading and painting the Epic of Gilgamesh. That story had a major impact on my thinking as a human and as an artist. Gilgamesh and his long journey and search for life, love, and freedom opened my mind and caused me to look back at my roots as a Mesopotamian. I became more determined to love my land and my people and to fully understand that this is my Iraq, not owned by Shiites, Sunnis, or Kurds. The Christians of Iraq are the natives of Iraq. They carry the heritage of Iraq.

Seeing my friends, mostly artists, writers, and poets whose thinking was in opposition to that of Saddam’s ideas, taken by Baath Intelligence or put in prison or disappearing from the university affected my thinking. I realized I am not free. If you search for freedom while under the dictator rule, either you think to exit Iraq, or if you can’t do that, your alternative is connecting to whatever makes you feel free. To me, the gypsy culture, writing poems, painting, and playing classical guitar provided me with the ideals that I live by and the freedom to express myself among the people who fear God and pray all day.

In 1989 I moved with my family, a wife and a son, to Athens and eventually to the United States. Although it was difficult in the beginning, the image of America being the land of freedom and opportunity lived up to its name. I found American people very helpful. They assisted me as best as they could. One person who played a big role in my success was a friend and pharmacist by the name of Ira Freeman. He offered me a job in his pharmacy even though I had no experience with computers and I didn’t know the name of the drugs since they were different than what I had learned in Iraq. He even provided me with financial assistance to get me through.

One thing you learn in America is that you have full freedom. Humans with freedom will have more powerful production than humans under oppression. I’m happy in America, but I miss the friends I left behind in Iraq. I’ve written many times that I can’t feel joyful and happy when my friends in Iraq are sad and worried.

One day my father told me Iraq is my homeland. It was called Mesopotamia before, the land of two rivers. My mom said any land that gives you freedom is your land. I ask myself one question. Could I have done all this in Iraq? Would I get the same support to express myself freely, with no restrictions? The answer is no. Only true freedom will make you a professional pharmacist, artist, writer, and musician. How many people living in Iraq now missed that opportunity? Freedom is what makes a country and its people great. Finally, this is my land. I lost my home in Iraq. I don’t want to lose my home here. The way to keep my home is to restore the world to peace.

Front Cover (painting)

WN: Why do you think that America is not very familiar with Iraq’s art?

BATOU: Everyone agrees there was a big arts movement in Iraq long before Saddam came into power. Many artists had traveled to Europe and accomplished such extraordinary work there that they were very well-known there. While American professional observers who deal with art know about the high standards of art and music in Iraq, the general public does not know. The United States and Iraq did not have good enough relations to create programs where Americans can come to Iraq and witness, for themselves, Iraq’s culture or people, or for Iraqis to come to the United States and do art exhibits.

Since there was no cultural interference or exchange with Iraq, Americans didn’t know anything about Iraq’s history, culture, and heritage. That’s the one reason that the US failed with Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Yet our cultures are similar in a way. It’s about new invaders who came in with a different culture and changed Iraq to what we see now. This is a repeat of what happened to the Native Americans, when Europeans invaded the Natives’ land and changed their beliefs, religions, and way of life.

WN: Have you visited Iraq since you left? 

BATOU: I once felt that even if I visited Iraq for one or two weeks, that would mean I would have to give up my freedom for one or two weeks, which I didn’t want to do. Then, in 2014, I finally visited the northern part of Iraq for two weeks. It was the first time I was there since I left in 1989. Things were stable and people were generally happy when I visited. I told them, “It can’t be sustained. Things will not end happily.”

WN: What made you say that?

BATOU: The government offices were unorganized and corrupt. You can’t maintain a society with poor politicians and poor thinkers.

Everyone focuses on the Islamic State, but the war in Iraq has been ongoing since 2003. I believe Saddam was only one person and we, the Iraqis, gave him his power. We became his hands and eyes, his army and secret police. We the Iraqis created the dictator. Iraq for the Christians was not a paradise before his rule. We lived among a lack of knowledge and education. Iraq was always a land of fear and discrimination. Maybe the Islamic State did something good. It brought the world’s attention to us. Before then, no one knew or cared about the minorities in Iraq.

The Islamic State has a positive presence in the Middle East. They cause people to examine their thoughts and beliefs about killing others, which were happening even before they entered the picture. Saddam also tried to destroy our identity and culture, but not in this way.

WN: Can you tell us about Minor Dreams and Confessions, two of your paintings?

I painted Minor Dream in the 1990s during the sanctions against Iraq. I used to have family there and you could feel the pain and suffering of the people during that time. I thought about the kids, especially after what Madeline Albright said in regards to half a million Iraqi children dying due to the sanctions that made it difficult to access milk and prohibited other basic foods and medicine items. When asked by the TV anchor if the price is worth it, Albright said, “We think the price is worth it.”

I also painted Confessions in the 1990s, and this relates more so to the Christians of Iraq, when the Arabs conquered Mesopotamia. You know how you confess your sins to the priest and the sins will go away? I confessed so that I can wash away all the sins of Iraq. I shouted and cried, but I am tied up. I cannot reverse the history of Iraq. It’s God’s Will that it falls. After reading the Bible many times, I found that God insulted Babylon repeatedly for having enslaved the Jewish people. The wars, the sanctions, the invasion— they are punishments from God. They are consequences of the past.

WN: How do you plan to restore the world to peace?

BATOU: The way to make a change is through what I do with art and what you do by writing books. We become a voice for the people who cannot express what is in their minds and hearts. Our job is to explore the world through beautiful art. Our job is not to condemn Islam, Christianity, or any other religion, but to provide people with a vision.

For me, art has a universal message. Part of art’s universal message is to deliver beautiful pieces with nice colors, logic, and philosophy for all humans. My colors reflect the tone of the Earth, the language of the universe, the cry and pain of the oppressed people.

As an artist, I go back to that civilization, that beauty, and ask myself, why do I need to restore that Iraq? It’s because it represents the great civilization, the beauty, the knowledge about all humans. My love for the US plays an important role in my art. Since 9/11 there has been less freedom in the US, affecting the way people live and think. One of my goals is to restore that freedom.

Usually artists, whether they are American, Iraqi, or from any other country, don’t like war. Our concern is mostly for the innocent people who will suffer, whether those people are the citizens of Iraq or our troops and their families in America.

Paul Batou 15

 This interview was hosted by the Chaldean Cultural Center and UofM Detroit Center. http://www.ChaldeanCulturalCenter.org

http://www.paulbatou.com