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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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/

Chaldeans and the Theosophical Society

There are times when we stumble upon places that feel like home. These places may have an ancient aura that speaks to us and remind us who we are and what our purpose is on this earth. They inspire to expand and create. Most of these places are right around the corner from where we live, though we might not have ever noticed they exist.

The Theosophical Society is such a place for me. Over a year ago, my niece Sandy invited me to speak at TS about Mesopotamian priestesses and goddesses. Sandy Naimou is a board member of TS. She teaches yoga full-time, primarily at GM, holds a B.A. in psychology, a M.A. in women’s and gender studies, and is currently a TSD board member. She stumbled upon TS when her older son’s Waldorf School was going to close.

“He’d been there for three years,” she said, “and I jumped on board with other parents to save the school.”

She ended up learning from the parents about Rudolph Steiner and his spiritual philosophy of anthroposophy. Sandy went to the library and checked out books about Steiner which talked about theosophy.

“It was mentally challenging reading but I had to know more,” she said.

One day, she had a conversation with a man at the farmer’s market about TS and was surprised when he said, “It’s only a quarter mile from here, around the corner.”

She couldn’t believe that it was so close to her home. Eventually her son’s school did close, but it introduced her to a world she wouldn’t have otherwise known existed.

“The books at the Theosophical Society address so many of my questions,” she said. “As a Chaldean, I found an ethnic tie to the past. I learned that Chaldeans are a part of this history of ancient wisdom. There are Chaldean Oracles and Chaldean magicians and Nestorians, words I’d never heard of before because they were kept hidden.”

 

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When I spoke at TS about the priestesses and goddesses of Ancient Mesopotamia, I realized how important it was for these deities to be further researched and brought together in a book. I started to work on this subject immediately, using resources from the TS library, such as The Chaldean Account of Genesis. I learned a great deal about my heritage, the history of my birthplace, and I published my 13th book, Mesopotamian Goddesses: Unveiling Your Feminine Power, which was released January 6, 2019. Through the process, I felt the blessings of Russian noblewoman Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.

The Theosophical Society was founded in late 1875 in New York City by Madame Blavatsky, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, William Quan Judge, and others. Olcott was its first president and continued until his death in 1907. In 1879, Madame Blavatsky and Col. Olcott moved to India, where they eventually set up international headquarters at Adyar on the Bay of Bengal.

The first Russian woman to be naturalized as an American citizen, Madame Blavatsky was widely traveled and she published Isis Unveiled, a book outlining her Theosophical world-view. She described Theosophy as “the synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy,” proclaiming that it was reviving an “ancient wisdom” which underlay all the world’s religions.

TS-Helena Blavatsky

The Detroit Lodge was formed on August 14, 1897, was very active and its meetings took place in various places until the late 1970s when it moved to 27745 Woodward Ave in Berkley which has been its location ever since.

“The Theosophical Society is not a religion but a way of life,” said Mary Jo Kokochak, current president of TS who has been a member for over 44 years. “It encourages individual research, is non-dogmatic, but also provides essential principles on which to build an intelligent philosophy of life. It is practical and emphasizes service, living a ‘harmless’ life, and compassion for all beings.”

Mary Jo formerly worked for the department of social services in Detroit and for vocational rehabilitation services in Pontiac. During those years, she lived in Southfield and traveled every day to the inner city. The discrepancy between how people lived in the inner city and in Pontiac was so different than the comfort she lived in Southfield, it bothered her and caused her to question the situation of life. She wondered, “Why do some people experience poverty, hardships and suffering and why I’m fortunate to have a happy life? Why are some people born healthy, others with physical handicaps?”

One day, browsing the aisles of the May Flower Bookstore in Ferndale, she came across a book called Egyptian Book of the Dead.

“It like fell on top of me,” she said. “Another day another book at the bookstore fell on top of me.”

She began reading these books at a time when she was going through traumatic experiences.  Within two years, the doctors discovered a tumor in her breast; then she got a divorce; followed by a car accident where she had a near death experience and saw white light; and she lost all possessions when her home burned down.

“I ran out barefoot in my bathrobe,” she said. “That’s when I finally got the message and started seriously searching for the meaning of life.”

She joined the Theosophical Society where she immediately felt at home.

“I realized that each individual comes to this world specific to their life as well as general purpose in all of life,” she said.

She later moved to TS’s headquarters in Wheaton, Illinois and got a Master’s degree in library science. She worked as a librarian for seven years, got married, and moved to Ojai, California where she worked at Krotona Institute of Theosophy as a librarian. Eventually she returned to Michigan.

Today the International TS has members in almost 70 countries around the world. Their three objectives are to form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color; to encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science,; and to investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.

Since my first time speaking at the TS, I’ve had many wonderful opportunities to give talks and do workshops about my areas of expertise in writing, shamanism and mysticism. I’m looking forward to my next talk there on International Women’s Day, March 8th at 7pm, where I’ll be discussing Mesopotamian Goddesses, the Untold Stories.

To learn more, visit www.tsdetroit.org

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A Night in Nineveh

Nineveh was an ancient city on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in Mesopotamia, which is modern-day Iraq. It is one of the oldest and greatest cities in antiquity. The area was settled as early as 6000 BC and by 3000 BC had become an important religious center for worship of the goddess Ishtar.

“Nineveh was the superpower of her day,” my pastor once said during a church sermon. “It required three days to circle metropolitan Nineveh. And the Ninevites lived large. They enjoyed the best chariots, the finest food, and the most exotic entertainment. It had an extensive business and commercial system like none in the world. In addition, it had ruled the world for 200 years and was the strongest military power. Sounds familiar?”

Yes, very much so.

Nineveh is where Jonah was swallowed for three days and three nights by a whale. It’s where he was called to preach, to help its people repent and change their ways. Despite its great power, this ancient city was attacked and reduced to rubble by a number of groups as Nahum had prophesied. Nahum was a minor prophet whose prophecy is recorded in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. By 612, the city was left lost and buried until its rediscovery by archaeologists in the mid-19th century.

What happened in recent times to that region is truly tragic. After the advancement of ISIS in 2014, most of Nineveh was emptied of the Assyrian Chaldean Syriac people for the first time in thousands of years. 12,970 homes, 363 churches and 140 public properties were destroyed. The people who fled ended up living on the streets and in tents in the city of Ankawa, Kurdistan. Every effort was made by ISIS to destroy one of the oldest and most influential cultures in world history, bulldozing cemeteries, desecrating ancient churches and burning irreplaceable books. Without a country, minority groups were, and still are, bombarded from every angle with Arab, Kurdish, Iranian, Syrian, and western influences.

In response to this catastrophe, a young group of Americans of Mesopotamian heritage quickly formed a nonprofit organization called Shlama, which means “peace.” Peace is what they ultimately wanted to give back to their community so that they can thrive and prosper in their native lands. Today, most families who remained in Iraq have moved back to their villages. Shlama continues to be fully committed to supporting them in rebuilding their lives.

The organization’s board members are very creative. They provide a spreadsheet that states the name of the donor, the amount they donated, and a link to a short YouTube video that portrays how and for whom the money was used, with photos of the receipts.  In each video, the recipient(s) express their situation, thank the donor by name and address how the money has touched them. This not only shows where the money went, but it also creates a relationship between the donor and the recipient.

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Currently Shlama is organizing a mission’s trip to Iraq in March and before that, they’re having a fundraising event on March 1st called A Night in Nineveh where I’m honored to be the guest speaker. I’ll be sharing stories about the women of Ancient Mesopotamia, the history of education and schools in that region and healthcare and doctoring, and I’ll be talking about the marriage customs of the olden days. At this event, there will be lively music, great food, and a number of fun stations where you get to experience the colorful and rich traditions of ancient Mesopotamia.

The name Mesopotamia was changed to Iraq by the British in the early twentieth century when they occupied the region. Up until the 2003 US-led invasion, the general public was not aware that this area is the cradle of civilization. Writing, the first school, law, literature, a map of the world, and the idea of dividing time and space into a multiple of 60’s started in this historic land. Man’s most important invention, the wheel, was devised in Mesopotamia, as was plumbing, the plow and the sailboat. Iraq is the birthplace of Prophet Abraham, supposedly the site of the Garden of Eden, and where many biblical stories occurred. The first writer in recorded history was Enheduanna, a woman from ancient Iraq. She lived, composed, and taught roughly 2,000 years before Aristotle and 1,700 years prior to Sappho. Before the “golden age” of Greece.

It’s unfortunate that the region where science, astronomy, and numerous inventions were a prominent way of life has become the exact opposite of what it once was. But it’s inspiring that the youth connected to its ancestors have not forgotten their heritage and are highlighting it in celebratory and humanitarian ways.

For more info about the event, visit https://www.shlama.org/events

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