Omari Rush has engaged the arts as both a passion and profession, and in each mode, he continues to enjoy discovery and deepening impacts. As executive director of Culture Source in Detroit and as the governor-appointed chairman of the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, he advances efforts to have creative and cultural expression thrive in diverse communities. Complementing that work, Omari is a board member of Arts Midwest in Minneapolis, the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies in Washington, D.C., and the Lewis Prize for Music.
Omari earned degrees in music from Florida State University and the University of Michigan, and extended his love for learning by managing the K-12 education program of the University Musical Society (UMS), by serving on the John F. Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education National Advisory Committee, and by serving as the chairman of the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation. A lapsed clarinetist, Omari now uses his voice to co-host an arts-focused radio show on WEMU-FM and recite Robert Frost poetry. https://culturesource.org/
Dr. Azar Maluki (MD), was born in Najaf, Iraq. He is a board-certified dermatologist, and was a consultant physician and professor at the University of Kufa, Iraq. He is married to Shaymaa Jakjook (M.Sc., Geography) and has two sons and one daughter. Azar first visited Minneapolis in 2011 and 2013 with a delegation of Iraqi health professionals as part of the exchange visits between Najaf and Minneapolis organized by the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project. He arrived in Minneapolis with his family in 2015 and joined the Dermatology Imaging Center in the Department of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota -Twin Cities Campus as a Research Fellow. Dr. Maluki has been actively involved in IARP in both Iraq and Minnesota, and has directed one short documentary film as part of the Iraqi Voices project. In October 2020, Dr. Maluki was elected as Board Chair of the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project.
Kathy McKay was a founding member of the Iraqi & American Reconciliation Project (IARP) in 2007. Kathy, along with several others in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, was interested in reaching out to Iraqis and learning more about the historical and current lives of the people of Iraq. Early activities included funding water filters for schools in Najaf as it was the Americans who had destroyed the water treatment plants. Several delegations of Iraqi professionals over subsequent years traveled to the twin cities area. In 2012 Kathy and a delegation of six others were hosted for two weeks in Najaf, Iraq. Kathy is now an advisor as Board Member Emeritus, enjoying the rich Iraqi Voices programs, community gatherings, and friendships she has made over the years. During her working life, Kathy was a licensed psychologist and health care administrator. https://reconciliationproject.org/
Roy Gessford was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. In 1994, he graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a degree in Urban Studies and Planning and minors in Law, History, and Economics. In 2012, he earned a Multi-subject Teaching Credential from the State of California. In 2020, Roy completed a Masters of Interfaith Action from Claremont Lincoln University. His graduate work has included courses on Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Roy has also served as a co-chaplain at Monterey County Jail.
Roy founded Let in the Light Publishing in 2012. Let in the Light has published numerous books by Fr. Michael Bazzi on modern and classical Aramaic and the Chaldeans. Roy’s Master’s thesis is published in book form as Preserving the Chaldean Aramaic Language. Aspiring authors are encouraged to submit manuscripts.
Roy Gessford had a twenty year career within the tennis profession both as a player and as a coach. Images of him playing tennis have run in Tennis Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. In A High School Tennis Coach’s Handbook, he shares insights learned during his tennis career. He has written for such publications as tennisplayer.net, Inside Tennis, and the Pulitzer Prize winning international newspaper The Christian Science Monitor.
Tell me about your journey into the study of Aramaic and learning about Chaldeans?
As a child I read the story of Daniel in the Lions Den. During this story, I was introduced to King Nebuchadnezzar. The letter “z” always fascinated me. King Nebuchadnezzar was the first person I had ever heard of with two “z’s” in his name. So, from an early age, I was introduced to Aramaic and the Chaldean people.
Tell me about your journey into the publishing industry?
I was coaching tennis at York School in Monterey, California. After 7 years of coaching boys’ and girls’ tennis teams, we headed into the fall season with only twelve girls on the team and four coaches. There is an old expression that “too many chefs ruin the stew.” One of the coaches was a former student of mine. I knew she would do a great job as head coach and I had always wanted a female to coach the women’s team. So, I approached the athletic director and mentioned that maybe this was the year for me to step down. To my surprise, he agreed!
So, I had given up my job and had some free time. I turned to God in prayer for my next steps and the answer came to write a book. So, instead of going to practice everyday, I used the time to write. By the end of the season, I had a manuscript. The tennis canon is quite slim and I knew that finding a publisher for my book on coaching high school tennis would be difficult. So, I self-published.
Later, my Aramaic professor, Fr. Michael Bazzi, asked me to publish his works. This expanded into publishing Dr. Errico’s works. Nowadays, I look at manuscripts from anyone ready to publish on the intersection between spirituality and education.
How did you meet Fr. Michael Bazzi and become his publisher?
I had finished a graduate level course in Hebrew and received a Youtube video of Dr. Errico teaching the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic. I called Dr. Errico and asked him where I could learn Aramaic. He referred me to Fr. Michael in San Diego. Fr. Michael ended up allowing me into his intermediate Modern Aramaic class that spring. I’ve also taken Fr. Michael’s Classical Aramaic class three times.
At one point, I was researching Chaldeans at the library and found a book that mentioned Fr. Bazzi’s name. When I told Fr. Michael about the book, he asked me to purchase a copy for him. I included my tennis book as part of his purchase. Because Fr. Michael is a former volleyball coach, I think he related to my book. Shortly thereafter Fr. Michael asked me to be his publisher.
After agreeing to be Fr. Michael’s publisher, I realized I had taken on quite a lot. Apple computers did not even have Aramaic as one of their languages. But, I persevered and now we’ve published over ten books together. Fr. Michael has a new book coming out this month in Aramaic, Arabic, and English. The book is called The Life of the Tilkepnaye. The book was meant to answer questions about what village life was like in Tilkepe, Iraq. This book should be of interest to many of your listeners, as I know many Chaldeans in the Detroit region have ties to Tilkepe.
You finished your Masters this year (2020) from Claremont Lincoln University. A Masters of Interfaith Action is a very unique degree. How did you find the program?
Actually, the program kind of found me. The Society for Biblical Literature was hosting a conference in 2014 in San Diego, California. In the conference room that sold books, I met some representatives from Claremont Lincoln University who sold me on the program and ended up offering me a scholarship. After having searched far and wide for a graduate program, this program was a godsend.
I took the scenic route through this graduate program. What could have been completed in eighteen months took me five years. This turned out to be ok as it led to a much richer final project. By the time, I had finished the degree, Claremont Lincoln University no longer offered a degree in Interfaith Action. The name had been switched to Peace and Social Justice. So, you are right, Weam, it is a rare degree.
What led you to write your thesis on Preserving the Chaldean Aramaic Language?
Taking courses and publishing books on Aramaic had opened my eyes to the great need to preserve the Aramaic language. As you may well know, Aramaic is almost a dead language. And, humanity can’t afford to lose the oldest spoken language, a language spoken by so many important people throughout history, and the root language of Hebrew and Arabic.
My original idea for the project was to record native speakers in San Diego and contribute to the audio archive at Cambridge University started by Dr. Geoffrey Khan. Then one of my advisors, Dr. Keith Burton, had the idea to teach an Aramaic class to an interfaith group. This idea seemed in line with the degree program and the teaching I had already started to do of Aramaic. The idea led to a fascinating project where I was able to document the learning of the interfaith group and establish teaching as a way to preserve Aramaic.
Aramaic is an endangered language. What can anyone listening do to help preserve Aramaic before Aramaic becomes a ‘dead’ language?
I’m sure you have many native speakers listening to your program. One idea is for native speakers -with discretion- to share Aramaic with their neighbors. I consider Aramaic the most significant language alive, and we all need to do our part to preserve the language.
For example, this morning I received an email from a friend in San Diego. This friend is American but has really taken an interest in the Chaldean people including learning a few phrases in Aramaic. She was standing in line at the grocery store when she started a conversation with a young mother behind her. Upon learning that the mother was Chaldean, she greeted her in Aramaic. This led to a rich and fruitful conversation between the two ladies. My friend said just having this conversation, “made her day.”
For those who are not native Aramaic speakers, everyone can still contribute to preserving Aramaic. The number one way to do this is to start learning the language. Not everyone knows Aramaic still exists. However, there are many websites and books on Aramaic. At Let in the Light Publishing we sell books to learn both Classical and Modern Aramaic. And all the authors are teaching Aramaic as well. I teach private and small groups over the phone, the web, or in person. Fr. Michael has been teaching for over thirty years at Cuyamaca College, and he also teaches at the church, and online. And, Dr. Errico has recently started the Aramaic School of Light as well as lecturing, teaching online, and teaching in his home state of Georgia. Anyone can visit www.letinthelightpublishing.com to learn more.
Since you’ve had the courage, with the grace of God, to follow your own path, what advice would you give others who are trying to make a decision about their future?
What a great question. The best advice I can give is for each person to turn to their Higher Power, which I call God, for direction. One author I was reading recently, Mary Baker Eddy, pointed out that God was individual and incorporeal. To me that means we each have our own unique path and can trust the divine source to lead us on that path.
To the parents out there, I would encourage you to help your children find their path as well. I will never forget the advice of my grandmother. She said, Roy, “Follow your bliss!” Bliss is such a wholesome word. I have already had several careers, but the common factor in each was that I felt the divine hand guiding me in each one.
The book of Proverbs sums it up quite nicely when it says, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him and he shall direct thy paths.”
Message from Roy Gessford: If anyone has further questions on anything we’ve gone over today, they are welcome to reach out to me directly. I can’t promise I can answer every question, but I’ll do my best. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org and my phone is (619) 586-3523.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Luti Erbeznik began his music career as a 15-year old by playing drums and singing in a band. A few years later, he was the lead singer and drummer in Angled Projectile, a regionally acclaimed rock band. He taught himself to play acoustic guitar and began writing songs. In college, Luti left the band and focused on his college education, eventually earning a Fulbright Scholarship for graduate studies in the United States. After earning a Ph.D. in molecular biology, Luti spent a decade in postdoctoral research and teaching at liberal arts colleges. All the while, he kept playing guitar, mostly for himself, and mostly for solace … an aspiring immigrant trying to live the American Dream.
Luti bridges cultures with music. His mixed ethnicity (Slovene/Macedonian/Greek), his childhood immersion in folk music from the many ethnic groups coexisting in the former Yugoslavia, combined with exposure to melodic rock (Wishbone Ash, Styx, Queen) and classical music, helped forge his eclectic songwriting style.
Watch Luti’s half-hour interview, read his interview, and visit his website to enjoy more of his music http://www.lutimusic.com/
When and how did you begin your music career?
I began my music career when I was about 15 years old. My buddies and I began picking up songs of our favorite rock bands, and practicing them on the instruments we had. I was raised by a single mom, and we were quite poor. At the time, she could not afford to buy me a drum kit (I was the drummer in the band), so I was borrowing drum kits from other older boys who had their own. We would perform at school venues for our peers, and we were very well received. I was the lead vocalist as well. Within a year or so, my mom took a loan and bought me a drum kit, so I was able to practice and perform on my own drums.
As time went on, we started writing our own original music, which was also very well received by the audience at our performances.
How has your background, where and how you were raised, affect your music?
In our country which used to be called Yugoslavia we were exposed to all sorts of music! Ours was a multi-ethnic society with more than 20 different nationalities living together, and so we enjoyed a variety of music from different heritage lines. The republic in which we lived ( Serbia) had its own rock and pop bands, which drew the inspiration for their opus mostly from the Western counterparts. That is to say, under our leader Josip Broz Tito, we were an independent multi-ethnic nation, not oppressed by the Soviet Union (like our neighboring countries Romania, Hungary, etc), and, as such we had open access to Western (American and Western European movies, music and other cultural aspects). So, our music was largely influenced by the music of the American and British rock and pop scene.
How did your career in music develop?
As our musicianship developed further, our songwriting became more sophisticated, and our songs became more complex. Ours was a five-piece band: a lead guitarist, a rhythm guitarist, a bass player, a keyboardist and me on the drums. Everyone but the keyboard player (who at the time was a 12-year old prodigious sister of our lead guitarist) sang, and, as I mentioned before, I was the lead vocalist. At one point, we went to a studio, and had three of our songs professionally recorded. Unfortunately, the people on the radio were not too keen on playing our music. Our songs required close listening, and were not simple three-chord ditties which one could hear on radio stations at the time. We were not too discouraged, though, and we kept playing for the fun of it. Those were some of the very best times of my youth.
What’s your daytime job, or the job that supports you, and how did you get involved in it?
While in my rock band, I, of course, continued my education, which involved completion of the undergraduate degree in Biology and a Master’s Degree in Taxonomy (a special discipline within biology). Simultaneously, I was doing research at my university in
the Microbiology lab starting as a sophomore. After coauthoring several articles in peer-reviewed science journals and having presented research results at multiple national and international conferences, and having earned a high GPA in my coursework, I received Fulbright Scholarship in 1987 to pursue graduate studies in the USA. So, I came here and earned my PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago. After three productive postdoctoral stints and several adjunct teaching engagements, I landed a permanent teaching career in higher education. For the past 15 years I have been teaching as a full time faculty member Microbiology and Human Anatomy and Physiology at Oakland Community College in Waterford, MI. That’s my day job.
How would you describe the music that you normally create?
Musically, I would say it is a bit of a blend of rock, pop and folk, with some influence from the music of the Balkan Peninsula where I grew up. Lyrically, I am interested in delving into the social issues and bringing the elements of human condition that corrupt the possibilities of understanding, harmony, acceptance and mutualism in a society. Some of the themes evident in my songs include greed, racism, police brutality, abuse of women, homelessness and destruction of the environment. I am not shy to sing about these and, by doing so, implicitly ask my audience to think about these issues and contemplate how each of them can make this world a better place.
What is your creative process like?
Usually, I come up with a melody first. To me, a song is not a song unless it has a melody that is catchy and pleasant to the listening ear. Then, I decide what the song ought to be about. Next, I write any thoughts, lines, ideas, images that may come to my head – uncensored by my internal editor. Then, I begin to figure out how these writings — that are seemingly random, but all connected in some way—can be converted into the lines of the song. It helps if the lines rhyme, so I use a rhyming dictionary and also a thesaurus.
Which famous musicians do you admire and why?
There are too many to count. I’ve always loved music by ABBA as their songs are so beautiful and memorable. Of course, there are the timeless Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel and hundreds of others such as the late Paco de Lucia, and a living legend of the Macedonian rock scene, an amazing guitarist Vlatko Stefanovski. Every one of them is a hard worker, passionate about their music, immensely creative and dedicated. I am also a huge fan of Jethro Tull and their leader Ian Anderson, and also of the British band Wishbone Ash. Both of those bands have had remarkably strong influence on my music writing.
What has been the biggest struggle you experienced in your music career?
I guess just finding enough time to pursue music, when at the same time I want to give the best of myself to my students and my family.
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
Just keep doing what you’re doing.
What advice would you give someone starting out as a musician or struggling as an established one?
Enjoy every moment of music and try to find enough time for songwriting, as songwriting takes time.
What’s next for you?
I currently play in three different bands — The Whistleblowers, Eastward Bound and The Byrds Tribute Band. I also perform in a duo form with my friends Bobby Pennock and Dan Hazlett. Once Covid-19 pandemic is fully brought to control, I will resume performing with those people as it gives me immense joy and happiness. I will also continue to give my students the best education I can to help prepare the for their further endeavors in health care.
Over the years, Sharon Lee Samyn attended various speaking engagements where I talked about writing, healing, and transformation. She would approach me after the talk and share her desire to publish her first children’s book. Last year, she attended The Path of Consciousness, our yearly spiritual and writing retreat, and shortly after that, she set out to publish her first book, Thinker’s Dream: Dream to Find Your Path for Life. As I guided her through the process, I admired her tenacity, her confidence in herself, her belief that she can and will reach her goal. Her ability to dream into reality her own path and in the process inspire others to do the same.
I interviewed Sharon after her book was published. You can watch the video and read about her experience in this blogpost.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I dreamed of being an artist, clothing designer, seamstress, teacher, had so many different jobs that eventually led into a self-taught career as an interior designer with hands-on skills to create products for clients. Actually making window treatments, recovering furniture and more to personalize a unique look for each client.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Well, actually I wanted to write about my life about 15 years ago with the help of my husband for I thought he could help me to edit with his skill of writing in college. I really never thought that I could put all the right words together. I was always encouraging others to write.
How long did it take you to write your book?
The writing took about a bit over a year and a half. My husband fell into a deep depression and I was trying to find ways to get him inspired to help me write this book. I began looking at all the paintings that I had painted for causes that were donated while ill with side effects from scoliosis surgery about 8 years prior. A story started coming to me with a positive message while looking deep into my art. Then the mission started and I knew that I had to write this book.
What is your book about and why did you choose this topic?
This book is about what I have done to control my fears and keep me focusing on ways to keep positive in difficult times. Also how I always motivated myself to keep the child in me alive throughout my entire life. I was always a dreamer and was curious asking questions to learn new things. I challenge myself to create new projects all the time to prevent depression. The message was clear I knew the time was now to write to show a way to inspire children and adults more than ever with the world as it is now. This book is about learning to love and care for all life including yourself. Caring for our water, air, trees, and so much more. To explore, learn, grow in life with having fun along the way to meet and connect with all to share kindness together for the hope of a better world.
What was your biggest challenge in writing this book?
Finding a way to self publish to keep the cost low enough so many could afford to read and get this important message out.
What advice would you give the first-time author?
Find out about different writing groups to join, meeting other writers to learn what they have done. Go and research information at the libraries, online, and bookstores. Read a lot of books about writing. Visit bookstores to check out about the kind of book topic you want to write. Set a list of goals to keep motivated to write. Ask questions when you need advise. Set time to journal each day. Remember to have fun along the way by networking with people, sharing ideas to help others. But most of all never give up for when you complete any goal in life it will give you the greatest gift of all and that is the joy of accomplishment. Try going to writer retreats, get involved in storytelling, find a toastmaster group.
What do you do for a living and how do you find the time to write?
Being self-employed since 1992 and semi-retired, I have been doing a bit of teaching in areas of upholstering, sewing. I create natural holistic products, networking to promote my current book, painting, research work also trying to reach out to help others find their light.
What does your family think of your writing?
At first, my husband showed a bit of interest and he helped me a lot to blend the right words together but he did not think it would get out there. I did a lot of work editing it on Shutterfly that was how I first published this book. I found that it was too costly. He lost interest but he did not know how determined I was to find a way to self publish on Amazon and IngramSpark to get the cost down to reach the children. My greatest gift was when I had seen my husband come back to a positive outlook right at the time my book was finally published on Amazon. That was a great day for me. The rest of my family have enjoyed seeing my 1st book out there and are excited for me to create my next book!
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book?
That I really have a voice and my writings have helped me to inspire others to keep moving forward to the positive light of love and how they can learn to care for their self as I have. I am so excited about how this creation came about and that I really opened up to challenge myself to open up to the world!
Are you working on a second book, and if so, what will that one be about?
I am working on another series of art to get another book started. I am seeing signs that are coming to me but the message is not yet there. Spring is on its way and that will bring a lot of inspiration when nature starts a new cycle I am excited!