Interview with Tina Ramirez, Founder and President of Hardwired Global

Tina Ramirez is the Founder and President of Hardwired Global, a non-profit organization that specializes in human rights education and training to promote peace and pluralism worldwide. Tina brings to Hardwired more than 20 years of experience as an educator, policy advisor, and expert on international human rights and religious freedom. She has worked in more than 30 countries and travels regularly to the Middle East and Africa. She has spoken before the United Nations and the African Union and testified before the U.S. Congress.

Tina’s educational programs, which have been published in several journals, have provided significant evidence of successful methods to help children overcome hate and intolerance, build resiliency against extremist thinking, reduce violent responses toward minority groups, and improve treatment of women and girls. She is the author of Iraq: Hope in the Midst of Darkness (2017), a contributing author/editor of Human Rights in the United States: A Dictionary and Documents (2010 and 2017), and author/editor of Human Rights: Great Events From History (2019). Previously, she served as a foreign policy advisor for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Congress, where she founded the bi-partisan International Religious Freedom Caucus. She is the former Director of Government Relations and International Programs at Becket Law. She holds a certificate from the International Institute for Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, a MA in Education from Vanguard University, and a MA in International Human Rights from the University of Essex, UK. Tina now lives in the suburbs of Richmond, VA with her daughter, Abigail. In 2020, Tina was a candidate for the U.S. Congress (VA-07).

For more information about Hardwired, visit: https://hardwiredglobal.org/​ Educational material, including books: https://hardwiredglobal.org/curriculum/

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 members of the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project

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/

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 Ali Bnayan – Archeologist, Assyriologist, and Sumerian Cuneiform Writer

This virtual interview was done in Arabic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with 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 artist and author Paul Batou

Written by: Weam Namou

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

Paul Batou4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Front Cover (painting)

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

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

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

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

WN: Have you visited Iraq since you left? 

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

WN: What made you say that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.paulbatou.com

Keeping up with the Chaldeans

Keeping Up with the Chaldeans is a podcast and vlog created and hosted by Junior Binno and Anthony Toma that highlights entrepreneurs within the Chaldean community. KUWTC was created to help strengthen the Chaldean community by showcasing the diversity of businesses, bringing recognition to those in our community who are unknown and driving support to one another. Each episode highlights a member of the community who shares their story, knowledge and expertise while showcasing their business ventures.

So you ask, who are the Chaldeans? They are an indigenous people from ancient Mesopotamia, otherwise known as the cradle of civilization and modern-day Iraq.  The history of Mesopotamia is measured in millennia rather than centuries. The first cities developed in the south around 3500 B.C. For the next 3,000 years, kingdoms rose and fell, empires expanded and contracted, outsiders conquered and were repelled. During this time, three dominant civilizations held center stage: the Sumerians (3500 – 2600 B.C.), the Babylonians/Chaldeans (1792-539 B.C.) and the Assyrians (1115-612 B.C.).

ziggurat

The city of Babylon inherited the culture of Sumer and under Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) became the seat of a strong central government and a great cultural and religious center as well. In 612 B.C., Babylon was dominated by the Chaldeans (Neo-Babylonian Empire). The Chaldean king Nebuchadnezzar II rebuilt Babylon into the greatest city in the world. His most noted contribution is believed to be the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Mesopotamia is home of Enheduanna, the first recorded writer in history, the goddess Inanna and Ishtar.

Ishtar Gate
Original Ishtar Gate

Mesopotamians are known for a number of achievements, including inventing the wheel, the first to use writing, to establish a calendar which included 12 lunar months, observe and describe complex patterns in the motions of the heavens (astronomy), and to develop an irrigation system for agricultural purposes.

cuneiform

Chaldeans are among the many ethnic groups that have been immigrating to the United States since the early 1900s. They are Eastern Rite Catholics, Aramaic speaking, and originating primarily from Iraq. They have come to America for the same reasons as other immigrant groups – in search of better economic opportunities , as well as for religious and political freedoms. Over the years, due to wars and violence, their numbers in Iraq has dwindled and today, the largest concentration of Chaldeans live in Michigan.

By watching “Keeping up with the Chaldeans” viewers will get an inside, candid look into each entrepreneur and their journey to success, learn valuable information, gain knowledge about starting their own business and advice on overcoming obstacles others have faced.

Since its inception in May of 2019, KUWTC has shot nearly 100 episodes highlighting various industries from restaurant entrepreneurs, attorneys, musicians and performers, medical, skincare, nutrition, fashion and clothing, photography, auto sales, insurance, mortgage and more.

You can find Keeping Up with the Chaldeans on Youtube, Itunes, Spotify, Facebook and Instagram. Kuwtchaldeans.com

Keeping up with the Chaldeans3

Two Sisters Co-Author their First Book

As first generation Assyrian Americans, Josephine and Mary had one goal. They wanted to share their vision of Iraq with the world through the stories that molded their minds throughout their upbringing so people get a chance to see that Iraq is more than a place riddled with war, destruction, poverty, and terrorists.

The sisters were born and raised in the North Park area of Chicago, Illinois, for most of their lives until they moved to San Diego, California. They shared their lives with each other until they got married and now live on opposite sides of the country. This didn’t stop them from creating Before There Were Borders.

Josephine1

The creation of Before There Were Borders started when Josephine wanted to write a book, a goal she wanted to mark off her bucket list. She wanted to write a story about her culture so people could understand that Assyrians are more than just a chapter in history books. She wanted to show that the Assyrian community is still alive in today’s modern world. Then she decided to reach out to her sister, Mary, and ask for her feedback. Once Mary came on board with the project, the story came alive. Mary’s creativity helped make the story and characters blossom and reach its true potential.

Josephine3

Josephine and Mary overcame lots of challenges over the course of three months, in addition to living across the country from one another. But this didn’t stop them from completing their mission. Josephine and Mary’s writing routine consisted of waking up early and being on the phone several hours as they formulated scenes and character development while fulfilling their marital and maternal duties. This went on back and forth until the story was edited and finally complete.

In December 2018 Before There Were Borders was published. The novel is a coming-of-age story about an Assyrian-American female named Sara Georges, who shares her experiences growing up as a young girl in Iraq and how she dealt with its culture, patriarchy, and limitations. She tells her story to her American-born granddaughter, who is unaware of the harsh truths of her grandmother’s homeland.

Quite ambitious, the sisters were able to accomplish their goal despite their busy schedules. Josephine studied English at the University of San Diego and specialized in medieval literature along with philosophy and history. She is fluent in several dialects of Aramaic. She can also read and write classical and modern Aramaic. After college, she moved to Detroit, Michigan, where she lives with her husband, Victor, and two young boys. Josephine has a decade of experience in the building industry and project management. She is currently pursuing her Master’s in Public Administration at Central Michigan University. Her passions include volunteering in the community, training for races, spending time with her family, reading books, writing, and cooking.

Mary has been married to Zaid for almost a decade and together they have a daughter and son. She currently resides in a well-manicured suburb of San Diego. Mary lives a life that consists of constantly improving herself spiritually, intellectually, and physically.  She hopes she can reach one person and make a positive change in his/her life, which would be enough for her. She’s first and foremost a humanitarian and believes change starts at home and with those within her reach. She tries to contribute to making a big difference in little ways. Mary’s passions include reading books and watching movies, listening to all kinds of music, cooking, decorating homes, and hosting big family gatherings. She is artistically talented with an unforgettable sense of humor.

Since Mary lives in California, I interviewed Josephine on my show about her journey.  Here are some insights she had about the writing life.

What inspired you to start writing?

I was inspired to write since I was a little girl. I used to read all the time and was fascinated in getting lost in a story. It was always a goal of mine to write a book ever since I was young. This also attributed to my English major at the University of San Diego.

How long have you been writing?

I’ve been writing since I was a little girl, but have been “professionally” writing for over thirteen years.

When did you start writing?

Believe it or not, I started writing Yelp reviews when I was twenty years old. Then, I was asked to write movie reviews for new releases. I finally shifted to getting creative with different types of writing from screenplays, poems, list stories, and full-on research papers.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I have always wanted to be a writer. It’s a definitely a “calling” since I was 8.

What advice would you give a new writer, someone just starting out?

First, you have to read. Reading gives a writer mental exercise.

I suggest finding your voice through journaling. Start out with a small goal like writing one word on the first day. I promise that you will end up writing more. I recommend getting yourself somewhere comfortable with limited distractions and the writing will come. Try to sit in the same place at the same time and before you know it, you will be writing effortlessly.

Once you find your voice, you can practice executing your voice by writing reviews or writing letters to your friends and loved ones. Then, get creative with whatever writing style that calls you.

How do you come up with the titles to your books?

I came up with my title while I was exercising. Running and exercising stimulates me.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

I considered myself a writer when I became a Yelp “Elite” member and got “Review of the Day” (LOL true story).

Describe your writing space.

My favorite current writing space is in my kitchen with the shades open. On my kitchen table. On the table is a cup of tea.  And the shades open so I can watch the sun rise whilst listening to acoustical classical music.

What time of the day do you usually write?

I usually write first thing in the morning before I look at my phone or talk to anybody.

Describe a typical writing day.

A typical writing day starts around 4 AM before I get influenced by anything. I wake up, force myself out of bed, and go downstairs to my kitchen.

I drink some water, make some tea, and put my laptop on the kitchen table with my journal. I review my affirmations of the day, start some initial journaling expressing gratitude, and review my schedule in my planner.

Then, I open my laptop and start writing once I hit play on my music playlist. It’s called “Focus on Work”, which consists of: Alan Shavarsh Bardezbanian, Bach, Beethoven, Café del Mar, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Mozart, Lindsey Sterling, Rossini, Thievery, Vivaldi, and so many others. Music is essential for my creativity.

What is the most difficult part about writing for you?

The difficult part of writing is continuing where you left off when life throws a curveball at you.

What is your work schedule like when you are writing?

My work schedule is flexible since I am currently raising my boys and helping my husband with his businesses. But, since my boys, husband and household are my job, I have to focus on writing early in the morning before anybody wakes up and needs me.

What does success mean to you? What is the definition of success?

To me, success means doing what you love whilst positively impacting the lives of those around you. The definition of success is working on a goal you are passionate about and getting it done. Success is simple. We complicate it.

To learn more, visit https://beforetherewereborders.com/