Interview with Prof. Geoffrey Khan from University of Cambridge

Professor Geoffrey Khan is a Semitic Language Linguist, Researcher and Lecturer at the University of Cambridge. He studied for a B.A. degree in Semitic Languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Akkadian, Ethiopic) at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, which he completed in 1980. Thereafter he went on to graduate studies in the same institution and was awarded a Ph.D. degree in 1984 for a thesis entitled Extraposition and Pronominal Agreement in Semitic languages, which concerned form and function of various syntactic structures in Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian and Amharic (subsequently published as Studies in Semitic Syntax, 1988). In 1983 he moved to Cambridge, where he was employed as a researcher on the Cairo Genizah manuscripts in the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research group at Cambridge University Library.

In 1993, Professor Khan was appointed as Lecturer in Hebrew and Aramaic at the University of Cambridge. He has subsequently remained in Cambridge, being promoted to Reader in Semitic Philology (1999-2002) and Professor of Semitic Philology (2002-2012). In 2012 he was elected as Regius Professor of Hebrew, which is his current position. Some of his honors include election as Fellow of the British Academy (1998), election as Honorary Fellow of the Academy of the Hebrew Language (2011), election as Fellow of Academia Europea (2014), election as Honorary Member of the American Oriental Society (2015), election as Extraordinary Professor (Honorary) by the University of Stellenbosch (2016), the award of the Lidzbarski Gold Medal for Semitic philology by the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft (2004) and the award of honorary doctorates by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2017) and the University of Uppsala (2018).

Visit this website in the near future to view the Aramaic archives nena.ames.cam.ac.uk

Interview with Raya Nassif, Ancient Language Specialist

Raya Nassif lives in Babel governorate, specializing in ancient languages. She graduated from the University of Babylon. She is the creator of content related to antiquities and ancient Iraqi civilization. One of the topics that she talks about is the Epic of Gilgamesh that is presented in a video format amongst other ancient texts.

Watch Raya’s YouTube videos https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfG9tfnuWjrTYL8Rvgr2pKQ

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 Ali Bnayan – Archeologist, Assyriologist, and Sumerian Cuneiform Writer

This virtual interview was done in Arabic.

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

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

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

Interview with Chaldean (Neo-Babylonian) Author Khairy Foumia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with artist and author Paul Batou

Written by: Weam Namou

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

Paul Batou4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Front Cover (painting)

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

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

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

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

WN: Have you visited Iraq since you left? 

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

WN: What made you say that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Batou 15

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

http://www.paulbatou.com

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