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Interview with Iraqi Australian writer Hajer Al-awsi

November 28, 2020

A bundle of joy and contradictions, Hajer is an Iraqi-Australian writer that is trying to figure it all out. From screenplays to short stories to essays, she explores themes of womanhood, dysfunctional families and every now and then she’ll tell you how she feels about that trending topic on twitter. She has a Medium blog where she shares her many opinions about the world.

Hajer has exhibited ‘Loss and Freedom’, an audio installation featuring Zainab and her parents accounts of the night Zainab runs away from home. Most recently, Hajer’s first folklore piece, ‘The Tigrisian Women’ set in an imagined ancient matriarchal Mesopotamian society featured in a Sydney Writers Festival project being rescheduled to 2021 but currently available online now: https://www.finishingschoolcollective.com/hajer-and-faith.

WN: Tell us about your writing journey – when did you start writing and then decide to pursue it as a career?  

HA: I started writing at the typical coming of age period—17 – as a way of dealing with the many existential crises I was having. As soon as I left school I volunteered at the local arts center where I met other young people my age.

WN: What are the themes in your writing and why have you chosen these themes?

HA: Naturally, I find myself writing a lot about womanhood as a Muslim Arab woman but also a lot about dysfunctional families. I try and find the humor in the migrant experience along with all the struggles. In particular, I tend to focus on the experience of the second generation immigrant. It’s an experience that hasn’t been explored a lot with a Middle Eastern perspective but is so important. Being raised either predominantly or entirely outside of your parents’ homelands means you and your parents have entirely different cultural understandings, perspectives which often times means very different values. I find that space really interesting and comforting to explore in my writing.

WN: What has been your experience as an Iraqi-Australian writer?

HA: Initially, I shied away from writing specifically Iraqi characters or from an Iraqi perspective and instead chose to write from Levantine perspectives especially Palestinian and Lebanese. I was raised in part by Palestinians and in Australia the predominant Arab population is Lebanese so these neighboring cultures felt familiar but also distant enough to explore. As I grew into myself and dealt with my internalized discomforts of Iraqi culture I’ve become more and more fascinated and driven to write about my specific identity. There is immense richness of culture in Iraq and stories from the diaspora especially are quite scarce. So I finally came to my senses and realized that there was this whole gap in the literary world that I could take advantage. It’s exciting but also important.

WN: You founded a Facebook group called Iraqi Diaspora Creatives. What is the idea behind forming this group and how has been the response?

HA: Yes, it was born of my frustration with finding diasporas Iraqi voices in the arts both globally and in Australia. I was looking for someone to mentor me through a play that relied a lot on understanding Iraqi diaspora culture and found it immensely difficult to find anyone overseas and in Australia. I knew that there were people out there and was determined to find them. I had thought about forming some kind of network for a while and so finally did it and called it the Iraqi Diaspora Creatives Network. I was lucky to have another online Iraqi focused page, ‘Shakomakodotnet’ to cross promote the network on their page and had a rush of a few hundred people follow the instagram page and join the Facebook group. It’s going much better than I anticipated and I’m really happy about that.

WN: You recently helped organize a letter to the creators of the series Baghdad Central. What was letter about and the purpose behind this campaign?

HA: Yes. I noticed very quickly while watching it that the Iraqi dialect sounded very forced or just wrong altogether. While the actors were Arab, admittedly a step in the right direction, there was only two actual Iraqis in the whole cast. I began to research the show and who was behind it and it quickly emerged that it was not written by Iraqis, but by middle aged white men, though it framed itself as being from an Iraqi perspective. The production company, Euston Films is alarmingly entirely made up of white people which inevitably means the profits of a supposed Iraqi story is going to non-Iraqis. This made me feel really uncomfortable. I opened up the conversation to the members of the Iraqi Diaspora Creatives Network and an overwhelming amount of them felt the same way. We were all felling fed up of being dismissed by the system and felt an urgency to speak out.

WN: Can you share the most rewarding aspects of being a writer?

HA: When someone feels moved or seen by something I’ve written. It’s always so heartwarming and motivates me to keep putting work out there.

WN: What advice would you give writers who are starting out?

HA: Write as much as possible and consume as many stories as possible in as any and all mediums. Allow yourself to respond emotionally to what you are consuming. Then sit back later and make an assessment of what you liked and didn’t like about the story, the techniques used or you wish they used. This way you exercise the muscle of analysis that is so precious to the process of writing and any kind of storytelling.

This interview was hosted by Chaldean Cultural Center, in collaboration with University of Michigan [Detroit Chapter], and Unique Voices in Films. http://www.ChaldeanCulturalCenter.org http://www.uniquevoicesinfilms.org

Interview with author and entrepreneur Jacob Bacall

November 28, 2020

This is an interview I did with Jacob Bacall, who epitomizes the successful Chaldean American. Chaldeans are Neo-Babylonians, an indigenous Aramaic-speaking people whose lineage dates back to ancient Mesopotamia. Jacob immigrated to Michigan in 1977 and quickly established himself as a successful businessman. He has written several books about Chaldean Americans including the following:

About the book Chaldeans in Detroit: Chaldeans (pronounced Kal-de’an) are a distinct ethnic group from present-day Iraq with roots stretching back to Abraham, the biblical patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam who was from the “Ur of the Chaldees.” Chaldeans are Catholic, with their own patriarch, and they speak a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. Chaldeans began immigrating to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, when Iraq was known as Mesopotamia (the Greek word meaning “land between two rivers,” the Tigris and the Euphrates). Lured by Henry Ford’s promise of $5 per day, many Chaldeans went to work in Detroit’s automotive factories. They soon followed their entrepreneurial instincts to open their own businesses, typically grocery markets and corner stores. Religious persecution has caused tens of thousands of Chaldeans to relocate to Michigan. Today, the Greater Detroit area has the largest concentration of Chaldeans outside of Iraq: 180,000 people (it’s estimated that since 2014, Detroit actually has the largest concentration of Chaldeans).

Jacob’s second book is called The Chaldean Iraqi American Association of Michigan, more commonly known as CIAAM. This was not simply an association of just a group of early immigrants who escaped prosecution or were merely looking for better life for their family and loved ones. They were indeed good-hearted individuals who strived to build a solid foundation for a well-rounded community in this new land for the immigrants, the United States of America. The CIAAM exemplifies the success of immigrants that have migrated to Detroit from Iraq, providing a place for social gatherings, community discussions, family celebrations, and education to those yearning to learn more about the Chaldeans of Mesopotamia, their successful migration to America, and the contributions they are making in Michigan. Today, CIAAM has more than 900 active families as members, strengthening the recreational, social, and business bonds among the large “family” of Michigan Chaldeans.

This interview was hosted by the Chaldean Cultural Center, in collaboration with the University of Michigan [Detroit Chapter] and Unique Voices in Films.

Interview with Dr. Yaacov Maoz, a Jewish Native Speaker of Aramaic

November 28, 2020

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/

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