Interview with Dr. Susan Adelman, author of “After Saturday Comes Sunday”

A pediatric surgeon, Susan Adelman has also been an editor, a president of many medical organizations, a painter, sculptor, jeweler, and now an author. After extensive travel – including many trips to the Middle East and India – she wrote the biography of a dear friend of hers and her law professor husband. This is Ram Jethmalani, a legendary lawyer, member of the Indian parliament, former law minister, writer, mediator of the Kashmir dispute and law teacher. Adelman’s husband called him the greatest lawyer in the English language in the world.

Her second book evolved out of her friendship with a Chaldean grandmother who she met while performing a series of operations on her nephew from Iraq. This became a book about Aramaic, those who still speak it today – Chaldeans, Assyrians and Kurdish Jews – and the impending doom of the Christians in the Middle East because of ISIS and related groups. At present, Adelman is working on a book about the deep connections between Jews, Israelis and India – linguistic, cultural, and historic – and their linkage through Zoroastrianism.

Watch the interview with Dr. Adelman and read the following Q&A:

Q: What is the book After Saturday, Comes Sunday about, and what inspired you to write it?

A: The book tells the story of the Aramaic language and the last living people to still speak it, the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, and the Kurdish Jews. It then turns to the challenges the Christians have had, and still have, in the Middle East and what we need to do to help them if they ever are going to maintain Aramaic as a living language.

Q: What did you discover throughout the process of writing this book, particularly in regards to the relationship between the Jews and Chaldeans?

A: I already knew a great deal about the closeness between the Jews and Chaldeans in the old country, because I learned much from the Karim and Norma Hakim family over the last forty years, but of course my research added much more to the picture.

Q: You wrote on page 45, “The greatest Jewish community of the ancient world was in Babylonia.” Tell us about that history, and how, little by little, it became extinct in Iraq.

A: The Jews first were brought to Assyria by the Assyrians in 722 BCE and next by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.  In each of these two exiles, thousands of Jews were deported to Assyria (probably Nineveh Province), then Babylon.  After the great temple was destroyed in Jerusalem in 70 CE, Jews escaped in all directions, many of them to join their countrymen in Iraq.  For hundreds of years, 90% of all Jews in the world lived in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, under Muslim rule.  This was a highly organized community, a center of learning, and the place where all the most important Jewish literature was compiled.  Baghdad was one third Jewish up to the Second World War.  That war, and the persecutions that took place in Iraq after the formation of the State of Israel, caused the Jews to flee to Israel.

Q: What are the differences between the Aramaic spoken by the Jewish people and that spoken by Chaldeans and Assyrians?

A: Aramaic is an ancient language, perhaps dating back to 1000 BCE, and over time it has undergone many changes, evolved, spread to many countries and communities, developed new dialects and in some places undergone changes that created a new language.  Several different scripts even evolved.  Different communities – Jewish, Christian and Muslim, Samarians, Mandaeans – developed their own variations, some of which are mutually intelligible and some not.  In some towns the Christians and Jews could understand each other and converse.  In other towns, even towns that were not large, the differences were so great between, say Syriac and Jewish Aramaic, that they could not understand each other.  The grammar stays the same in all of them, and they share this grammar with Hebrew and, to some extent, with Arabic.  I speak Hebrew and some Arabic, and this enables me to understand some Chaldean, but I suspect I am largely relying on the Arabic that is mixed into it.

 Q: After Saturday, Comes Sunday was your second book, and it’s very well researched. So is your first book Rebel: A Biography of Ram Jethmalani. What challenges did you face writing your books, given that your career was previously dedicated to the medical field?

A: The first book drew heavily on the many trips we have made to India and the over 40- year close friendship we have had with Ram Jethmalani.  I had heard many of his stories in real time, and what I had to do was research the details, the background and the legal cases.  The next book drew on the over 40-year friendship I have had with Norma Hakim and her family, and it also drew on my many trips to Israel plus my previous knowledge of Jewish history.  What I had to do, again, was to research all our respective histories, the differences between the different communities, the important people, and the major events.

Q: What message do you want your readers to take from your book?

A: In the last chapter I go through the needs of the Chaldean community if they want to settle again in their historic villages in Iraq, speak their language and keep their culture alive.  To do that, they need help from a superpower, and that power must be us.  They have done a great deal of work in putting together their issues and needs; now we need to follow their lead.

Q: Based on your research and observation, your intimate relationship with the Chaldean community, and your interest in world affairs, what future do you see for the Christians in the Middle East?

A: While I know that some of my Chaldean friends say that all that needs to be done is to turn out the lights, I am more hopeful.  I even am hopeful as I watch what has happened to the poor Maronites in Lebanon.  I even maintain hope when I see how the Kurds have been betrayed, and how they see themselves as competing with the Chaldeans for the same land. I think it will take a massive effort to reestablish a Chaldean community back in Iraq, and I think the diaspora will have to step up in an effective way.  Remember though, the Jews did it. In the end it may be hard to attract a lot of people to villages, but if there are places to go to, some may retire there, young people may visit, even stay, educational centers may be built, and tourism may develop.

Q: What future do you see for the Aramaic language?

A: The language lives on in the Jewish Babylonian Talmud, many Jewish prayers and in the Jewish religious schools all over the world.  I am pleased to see that the Chaldean churches are getting interested in teaching Chaldean and that there are websites and courses in Aramaic available now.  If Chaldeans and Assyrians continue to push this education, they plus the Jews can keep their respective versions of Aramaic alive.  Remember, Hebrew almost died as a spoken language until the State of Israel was recreated. Then the language was revived, words added from Arabic, English, French, German and Russian, and the grammar modernized.  If the Chaldeans could keep their community intact, they can do the same thing.

Q: Are you currently writing a book, and if so, what is it about?

A: Yes, drawing from my experience writing about India and about the Middle East, I am writing about what draws so many Israelis, and Jews in general, to India.  What are the deep and historic connections between us?  Do they go through Iran? Yes.  How are our Jewish, Hindi and Buddhist religions connected through the historic religion of Iran, Zoroastrianism?

Interview with Samira Cholagh, Author and Chef

Samira Cholagh’s childhood was spent in Baghdad, Iraq, learning to cook from the women of her family, growing her fascination and love of the culinary arts with each passing day. Drawn to cooking as young as age 10, she has been giving the gift of her extraordinary food to her family for years. She has also shared these talents with her community, and has begun building upon the establishment of a culinary empire – as an author, TV and radio cooking host and beloved member of her community – built on traditional, delicious recipes and foods crafted with an open heart.

Far removed from her time experimenting with her mother’s cooking utensils as a child, Samira’s degree in engineering – more specifically in soil testing – may sound like a far cry from the typical background of a chef, but the basics of both jobs mirror each other more than you’d think. Recipes require an attention to detail – much like engineering – and after penning three cookbooks, her talents and culinary abilities are more than proven. “Accuracy in following recipes from cookbooks can make a huge difference in cooking and baking,” says Samira. “When following a recipe – spending all that money to buy the ingredients, the time that is spent in the kitchen – you want to end up having a delicious dish.”

Interview with Roy Gessford, author of “Preserving the Chaldean Aramaic Language”

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.netInside Tennis, and the Pulitzer Prize winning international newspaper The Christian Science Monitor.

Q&A

  • 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 letinthelightpublishing@gmail.com and my phone is (619) 586-3523.

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 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.

Bridging Cultures with Music

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/

Luti4

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.

Paul Manoian Photography

The Royal Starr Arts Institute

As an author and filmmaker, I’ve been quite productive because I dedicate a lot of attention and work hours into my field. I also connect with communities who support my type of work, in order to learn more and network. For filmmaking, this is particularly important as, unlike with writing, making films requires a team – oftentimes a huge one. Just take a look at the credits at the end of any movie.

Sometimes, the work dynamics are not apparent right away. For instance, today I’m working on my feature film with Dr. Stan Williams, a veteran award-winning filmmaker who taught screenwriting and directing at the Motion Picture Institute of Michigan which I attended over a decade ago. You never know how the people you meet will team up with you in the future.

That’s why communities like the Royal Starr Arts Institute are vital to a career in film. They offer you the opportunity to associate with like-minded, like-spirited people where you can share your talents, learn about the talents of others, and possibly find a team for your current or next project. Last month, I interviewed Luke Castle, the president of Royal Starr Arts Institute, which has a free mixer every month and a film festival every year in September.

Be sure to check out the half-hour TV-interview in the youtube video. Please note: the mixer which takes place every 2nd Tuesday of the month will be online through Discord due to COVID-19.  Reserve Your Free Tickets Here!

What’s the story behind the Royal Starr Arts Institute? Why and how was it started?

The Royal Starr mission was to celebrate the art of film through the curation and exhibition of works from all over the world, the United States and right here in Michigan. Eighteen months before the first 2016 Royal Starr Film Festival a group of gentlemen met to talk about starting a Film Festival in their community in Royal Oak, MI. After a few months of meeting,they had a name. Royal Starr. “Royal” to pay homage to the community that they made home. “Starr” to honor Orson Starr’s Family, the first manufacturer in Royal Oak. The Starrs made cowbells and bricks, helping create jobs and an economy back in 1840’s. Along with finding a name, the group of gentlemen found their very first Partnership with Paul Glantz and the luxury theaters of Emagine.

What’s your personal background in film and how does that help the Institute?      

I studied film at Full Sail University, but I wanted to stay here in Michigan to help other filmmakers; I believe in Michigan talent. I was a member of the Detroit Windsor International Film Festival before this and wanted to explore my passion for modern creative arts. Thus, Royal Starr was created.

What role does the Institute play in the filmmaking community? 

We are rebuilding the fragmented Michigan filmmaker community after the withdrawal of the Michigan film incentives with consistency, communication, partnerships.

In 2018 we started the Michigan Filmmaker Community Mixer. Knowing consistency would be key to building the trust of the already fragmented community. With the belief that community thrives on face to face interaction to encourage better communication between the fragments of the community, we would hold a open and free event every second Tuesday of the month.

How has your organization made a difference in Michigan’s filmmaking community? Do you have any examples to share?

We understood we had to be more than just a networking event. We had to create viable and real opportunities. From the beginning we offered tables at the event for members to highlight themselves, for casting roles, filling crew positions, and sharing their projects. Driven by our second belief, we are here to create a viable film economy. So we made sure that whoever had a table and were recruiting for a project had to be offering some sort of monetary compensation for the roles or crew positions they were offering.

You have a yearly festival. What are the dates for 2020 and what are some of the things filmmakers should know about the festival? 

The 2020 Royal Starr Film festival will be held from September 11th- 20th at Emagine Theatres in Royal Oak, featuring films from Michigan and all around the world. We love to celebrate with our guests afterward.

What advice would you give filmmakers just starting out? Or those trying to hone their craft? 

Every project you work on is a learning experience and grows your skill set.

Where do you see the institute five years from now? 

I see Royal Starr expanding and offering more learning initiatives, especially during our Film and Digital Media Expo (FANME). In past years, we offered editing, acting, writing, and lighting workshops with leaders in the film industry.thumbnail_logo