(AINA) -- Each year and worldwide, Assyrians commemorate the death of Naum Faiq (February 5, 1930), an outstanding Assyrian national figure, intellectual, poet, journalist, and author. His lifelong efforts were marked by his commitment to the cross-denominational unity of the Assyrians belonging to different Churches of Syriac tradition (Syriac Orthodox, Church of the East, Chaldean Church, Syriac Catholic, and Protestant Churches). He challenged sectarianism and encouraged his community to depart from "tribal mentality."
Naum Faik Palakh was born in Diyarbakir (as an Orthodox) in February of 1868 and in a time of extreme difficulties with respect to social and political live in the Ottoman Empire. His father was Elias bar Yakob Palakh. In a school in Diyarbakir, led by Hanna Sirri Ceqqi, he learned different languages, among them Arabic, Old-Turkish (Osmanlica), Persian, Armenian and later also French and English.
In 1888, he became a teacher at the Assyrian school in Diyarbakir, but taught also temporarily in the Monastery of Deyrul-Zafaran near Mardin, in Urfa, in Adiyaman and in Homs (Syria). He was a founder the literary Society called Intibâh Cemiyeti (Renaissance Society) in 1908 and editor of the Eastern Star (Kawkab Madinho) Newspaper which was published from 1910 until 1912, supported by Besâr Hilmî. As a newspaper widely distributed in Ottoman Turkey, it became a research topic for Turkish scholars in recent years. As a gesture of recognition for an "important man of literature" and emphasis of the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious face of the city, the municipality of Diyarbakir in 2009 named the street where Faiq's house is located after his name.
Because of the increasing oppression and actions against the non-Muslim people after the Adana massacres of April 1909, which spread to the entire province, many Assyrians started to migrate from their homeland. The pressure increased in 1911 with the Committee of Union and Progress (Ittihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti) strengthening its power, and initiating a campaign to silence and intimidate the opposition in the country by implementing the new association law (dernek yasasi). In 1912, Naum Faiq too was forced to migrate to the United States where he started his magazine Beth Nahrin (Mesopoatamia) -- The Assyrian Paper in New Jersey, which he published till his death in 1930. Between 1921-1922 he became the chief editor of the journal Huyodo (Union), the official organ of the Assyro-Chaldean National Organization of America.
Naum Faiq died in New York on February 5, 1930. The anniversary of his death was commemorated since the 1940s in Qamishly and Aleppo, Syria. With the establishment of the Assyrian Democratic Organization, the first Assyrian political Party in 1957 in Syria, the February 5th was formally declared a national commemoration day.
This year's commemoration of the Assyrian Mesopotamian Cultural Association in Wiesbaden, Germany, on February 3rd, took place in a special format with a lecture and the reading of Naum Faik's poems, accompanied by selected pieces of music and songs. Speaker of the evening was Abboud Zeitoune, himself author of two books on modern Assyrian music. In his presentation, Zeitoune spoke also about his current research project focused on a new biography of Naum Faiq.
On this occasion I was able to conduct the following short interview with Abboud Zeitoune about his current work on this historical topic.
Abdulmesih BarAbraham (AB): As announced on your website, you are currently conducting research with the intention to write a new biography of Malfono Naum Faiq. One would assume that enough information should be available about a person whose death anniversary is commemorated each year. What are your motives to embark on such a work?
Abboud Zeitoune (AZ): Indeed, this is one of the most astonishing aspects in this context. As an activist in the national movement for at least 28 years, I have been attending Malfono Naum Faik's commemorations almost every year. There has been always talks around his great personality, though very little has been presented related to his extensive writings. Our memory of Malfono has been reduced to his biography and the reading of one or two of his poems -- most famous among them of course 'Awaken Son of Assur' (Etcir bar Othur).
The memory of Malfono Faiq was kept alive mainly by a collection of poems and short articles edited in 1936 by Murad Cheqqe. So far, no extensive research of Malfono's works has been conducted. With the scattered source material collected so far -- many works were lost or dispersed in private ownership worldwide -- a new evaluation of his life seems possible.
AB: Where did your research take you so far?
AZ: First and foremost, the collection effort of the Modern Assyrian Research Archive needs to be mentioned. This organization has managed to locate and digitize numerous disappeared works (books, magazines, etc.) within a short time. I would particularly like to thank my friend Tomas Beth-Abdalla who manages MARA. The large collection there inspired me to delve deeper into the works of Naum Faik and his time.
In fact, I came across Naum Faiq during my research for my two books on Assyrian music.
Thanks to him we have the very first record in classical Assyrian from 1929. Two of Naum Faiq's poems were vocalized by Elias Boyajy: Etcir bar Othur and B-motho Shbihbto d Beth-Nahrin (The Holy Nation Beth-Nahrin).
My last trip to the East Coast of the U.S. was very successful. There, I was able to visit Harvard University's Widener Library. In addition, I was happy to get hold of important personal materials of Naum Faik in New Jersey.
AB: You've also been in the United States recently, where you've lectured in several states on your two books on Assyrian music. How was the reception?
AZ: I've been to the U.S. twice before. My trip in 2017 took me to the Assyrian communities in California (San Jose, Los Angeles) and Arizona (Phoenix). I gave three lectures on our modern music at Assyrian associations.
My last tour to the East Coast was in autumn of 2018 where I made stops at the Assyrian American Association of Massachusetts (Grafton), Harvard University, and New Jersey. Invited by Mishael & Lillie Naby Assyrian Lecture Fund and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, I gave a lecture at the Harvard University on the "Influence of Neighboring Cultures and Languages on Modern Assyrian Music."
At the invitation of his Eminence Mor Dionysius John Kawak, Archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church for the Eastern United States, I gave another lecture at Mor Aphrem Center in Paramus, which is the Episcopal seat of the bishop in New Jersey. On the whole, I am satisfied with my lectures on my music books; the acceptance by the readers gives me courage to start new projects.
AB: What are the most important new discoveries regarding life of the great nationalist Naum Faiq?
AZ: The literary legacy of Naum Faiq has been forgotten and almost disappeared over the years. A first task will be to identify and locate his edited magazines, books, poems and articles in order to archive them (at least digitally) at a single repository. Meanwhile, we have been able to collect a large part of those. Today we have about 180 issues of his Bethnahrin Magazine, and all issues of Kawkab Madenho and Huyodo at our disposal.
The most precious discovery for me personally was receiving personal writings and manuscripts from the private property of Malfono Naum Faiq. This material was handed over to the Church in West New York after his death - later moved to Paramus in 1967. It contains some books and previously unknown manuscripts with the signature of Malfono Naum Faiq.
Working with the writings of Malfono Naum Faiq requires you to master multiple languages in order to comprehend his writings published in Garshuni-Turkish (Old Turkish), Garshuni-Arabic and Assyrian. I also came across writings by or about Naum Faiq written in the Armenian language.The "deciphering" of this wealth of material in different languages requires a support network of experts that I was able to establish. I am currently collaborating with several people from various continents for my research.
Naum Faiq published his writings at a critical time period in the history of our people. He witnessed the massacres of 1895 of the Assyrians and Armenians in his hometown Diyarbakir and wrote a long poem about the events in Bethnahrin. Few years after his escape to the U.S. the genocide (Seyfo) against his people in the homeland took place. He was a witness to the post-war events and negotiations like the Paris Peace Conference. His point of view on these events can be rediscovered in articles published in the Bethnahrin and Huyodo magazines.
Related: The Assyrian Genocide
Through my work, I would also like to highlight the work of many important personalities of his time. Among them are Joel Werda, Sanherib Bally or Charles Dartley; they too don't deserve to be forgotten.
AB: To my knowledge, there is a special collection dedicated to Naum Faiq's publications at Harvard University. Are there any new documents that have not been published yet?
AZ: Unfortunately, little of Naum Faiq's original writings has been published so far. I could occasionally find articles from Bethnahrin Magazine in some books. There was no focused and comprehensive research on this topic yet.
At Harvard University's Widener Library, there is a special section dedicated to Assyrians. There, I found numerous original editions of Bethnahrin. A "Naum Faik Assyrian Book Fund" was established at the Columbia University in New York back in 2000. To my knowledge, there is little material from Naum Faiq there.
AB: Were you also able to get in touch with any descendants of Malfono Naum Faiq?
AZ: It was difficult to get in touch with descendants of Naum Faiq. After various attempts (especially via Facebook) I was able to establish contact with his great-granddaughter who lives in Florida. She was helpful to me in creating a family tree of Naum Faik starting from his immigration to the U.S. I hope to get hold of more material as we go. His family seems to be less aware of his celebrity role as a leading national figure. Like many descendants of the first migrant generation, this family too is largely Americanized.
AB: When I was stayed or few months in Princeton in 1986 for business, I was able to visit the tomb of Malfono Naum Faiq in New Jersey. I was saddened to find his tomb without care and the tombstone broken. To me, this reflected somehow the state of our nation. Is there any effort by the Assyrian community in the U.S. to restore his tomb?
AZ: I too visited his tomb in October 2018 and could not notice any change to the pictures I've seen before. I am not aware of any restoration initiative. I remember a discussion from the 1990s about reburying and transferring his tomb to Syria. Evidently, this did not happen.
AB: When and in what language will your new book be published?
AZ: My focus for the audience of my books is the readership in the diaspora. For me, the English language provides an essential bridge between the old and new generations. With my language skills in Arabic and Assyrian, I try to serve as a bridge builder and pass on the lost believed literature and history of our forefathers to the generations born in the diaspora.
For my Naum Faiq project, I plan two books. A German and an English version. Based on the material currenly available and not fully studied yet, I would say that the publication could be in approx. two years from now. I intend to include a lot of original source material in these books. In fact, the currently available material would justify the publication of several books on the topic. Tomas Beth-Abdalla is currently working on the publication of a collection of articles from Bethnahrin Magazine.
AB: Abboud, thank you for this interview and the insight into your project. All the best for your work!
AZ: I would like to thank you Abdulmesih for your attention and time - and AINA for publishing this exchange.