Sunday, April 17, 2011

Making the Musical Malek Rama: Assyrian community cooperation to promote Assyrian art


Eden Naby

In preparation for the next Mesopotamian Night musical event, the Assyrian Aid Society of America commissioned the Assyrian musician Mr. Edwin Elieh to create a musical based on a fairy tale poem by the late Rabi Hannibal Alkhas.

This commission has been made possible by the generous support of the Assyrian Culture Fund, financed by Eden Naby (Frye). Our goal is to premiere this work at the next Mesopotamian Night event in Winter, 2012.

In the article below, Dr. Eden Naby tells us the back story behind the creation of “The Musical Malek Rama” and something about the persons involved.




In May 2010 when I heard about a group of people in Ohio who pooled their funds to commission a musical piece, it struck me that this was another way to support Assyrian culture in the absence of institutions that are able to fund contemporary Assyrian arts. Therefore I decided that one way I could honor the lives of my parents (my mother would have loved this idea) was to commission music by an Assyrian composer based on an Assyrian poem.

Since Hannibal Alkhas was still alive at the time, and I had just met with him at his home in Turlock to discuss his paintings, I thought one of his poems might be set to music and performed at Mesopotamian Night. This way I get to honor my parents, put into wider circulation an Assyrian poem, and provide an opportunity for an Assyrian composer to create art music.

I had no thought that this idea would engender a musical.

I would have been happy to have simply a song. But always innovative impresario Tony Khoshaba has taken my initial idea a few steps further.

I am looking forward to hearing this charming legend by Hannibal Alkhas take a new life in the hands of Edwin Elieh and soar to pleasure an audience.

My hope is that others among Assyrians will see commissioning as a way to foster our culture while honoring their family. The idea is simple, and I hope, infectious.


Malek Rama the Poem


Very much in the style of Hannibal Alkhas’ paintings from his modernist period, this long poem tells a story – a fairy tale – with all the elements of magical stories with which we have become familiar from the epic of Gilgamesh to the story of Cinderella and on to the Harry Potter book and film series. There are good people, evil people, the intervention of magical personages and the triumph of good. Into the story enter strong family values tainted by jealousy and lies, moral instincts that are rewarded, and natural elements that anthropomorphize to help the innocent.

In true fairy tale and epic fashion, the poet introduces formulaic repetitions, and the simplicity of the equation of good with beauty and its opposite with evil. The description of places and characters merges the pre-Christian and Christian phases of Assyrian history without however, identifying any of the characters as Assyrian except by association as with Gilgamesh. The poem is part of a collection of the works of Hannibal Alkhas produced by Marcel E. Josephson in San Jose, CA.

 
Project Biographies:

Hannibal Alkhas (1930-2010):


Poet: Hannibal Alkhas (1930-2010), Assyrian painter and poet, was born in Kermanshah, Iran into a learned family that produced two cultural pillars of modern Assyrians, his father, writer and publisher Addai, and his uncle Jean (John), a famed Assyrian poet of the 20th century. Addai and his bride met and married away from their original homes in Urmiah due to the genocide against Assyrians in west Azarbaijan and Ottoman Turkey between 1914 and 1918.

Rabi (master, teacher) Hannibal spent his early years in Kermanshah, Ahwaz and Tehran. In 1951, he left for the United States in pursuit of higher education. After first studying philosophy, he earned his BA and MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1959 he returned to Iran and began teaching at the Tehran School of Fine Arts. During that time he established Gilgamesh Gallery, the first modern art gallery in Iran, where aspiring young artists received recognition. In 1963, he returned to the US and taught at Monticello College and served as chairman of the art department. He returned to Iran in 1969 and settled into teaching at Tehran University for eleven years. Returning once more to the US in 1980, Hannibal spent twelve years teaching the arts at the Assyrian Civic Club of Turlock, private colleges and the UC Berkeley and UCLA.

This multi-talented Assyrian, steeped in his Assyrian and Persian cultural heritage, has been honored frequently in Iran and by the diaspora Assyrian community with exhibits and publications of his poetry. His CD, Urmie, (with Helen Vincent) pays tribute to his family’s roots in the now mostly lost Assyrian village communities of Urmiah and Salamas.

A collection of his poems appeared in 2008 under the direction of Marcel E. Josephson as Selected Works of Poetry in Assyrian Aramaic and in English translation. “MalekRama,” a fanciful legend based on Assyrian rural relationships and customs, is one of the poems included in this collection.

Alkhas’ painting, “Crucifixion,” has gained fame as modern representation of the suffering of the innocent, in which he included his own Assyrian people. His” Ziggurat” series is featured on this website.

A multi volume exposition of his artistic ideas appeared in Persian under the title بی پرده با آفتاب (Without cover in the sun) Tehran: Majal publishing, 1385-1386/2006-2007 (with a brief introduction by Jalal Al-Ahmad [1923-1969] revered Iranian intellectual figure who commented on one of Alkhas’ paintings.


Composer Edwin Elieh:


Edwin Elieh is an Assyrian musician from Urmiah, Iran. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Azad University (Tehran) and currently is studying film scoring at UCLA. His composition style ranges from Classical orchestra to instrumental Rock and Pop music. Edwin writes in different genres of music and combines them to create a unique sound. He has been teaching music and guitar for over twelve years as well as singing and performing in numerous events. His arrangement and orchestration of Walter Aziz’s songs, among other things, was instrumental in the success of the 2010 Mesopotamian Night event.


The Honorees – Mishael and Lillie Naby:



Mishael Simon Naby (1898 –1980), poet and pastor, was born in Golpashan, a rich village outside Urmiah. Mishael was the younger son of Shimun, son of Enviya of the Qirmizi clan. His mother, Sarah, had married the widower Shimun with whom she bore three children Enviya, Mishael and a daughter, Almas. While Enviya immigrated to Chicago before World War I, Mishael and Almas remained with the family. Both attended village schools run by Assyrians as part of the American missionary school system established since the 1840s. After primary school, Mishael enrolled at the Urmiah College for Boys, a boarding school, from which he was one of four Assyrian men to graduate in June 1918, a month before Assyrians fled Urmiah as the Ottoman Army spilled into the town.

Mishael became a prisoner of war as the Assyrian army retreated south. Together with two other Assyrians he escaped the prison camp near Khoy and made his way to Tabriz where he was nursed to health at the American mission. He then left for Hamadan where he was employed as a teacher in the Assyrian refugee schools. He continued teaching in Tabriz while waiting with thousands of others to return to Urmiah.

During this period he became a communist sympathizer and his early poetry reflected particularly his growing atheistic tendency. One of the traumas of his early life was the murder of his father, an old man in 1914, who was marched with other Assyrian men to the Christian cemetery and bludgeoned to death. The other was the carrying away of his young sister Almas to an Ottoman military encampment located outside Khoy.

Mishael might have remained a mathematics teacher had he not inherited several revenue producing vineyards from extended family members who had either not survived the genocide or had emigrated from Iran. At the same time, he was recruited as a student by his mentor, a former teacher at Urmiah College, Rabi Pera Amrikhas (1872-1945), to study theology even after the short-lived seminary run under missionary auspices was forced closed in 1934 by the Iranian government. Thereafter he rejected atheistic communism, and turned from teaching to ministry. He supplemented the meager salary this provided with income from the raisin producing vineyards.

In 1941 he married Lillie (Dooman) Yohannan (1906-1991), and spent winters in the city of Urmiah and summers in the village of Golpashan. He and Lillie had two children – Eden Naby (Frye) and Dante Naby.

Literary Life

Mishael always wrote his poems and essays in his first language, the modern eastern Aramaic vernacular of the Assyrians that was developed as a written language during the mid-19th century by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. By the time that Mishael entered the educational system, classical Syriac was no longer taught in the modern schools. Much influenced by American writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson whose works he read in English at school and after, nonetheless he could not write in English beyond correspondence.

In his twenties, he began to compose verse under the pen name “Yadgar” (Remembrance). Aside from occasional poems and songs, his major work consists of quatrains based on his experiences of World War I and its aftermath. He drafted and rewrote this biographical poetry which often returned to the refrain, “Ya yada kul, aha dakhiy?” (Oh Knower of all, why this?).

By the time these poems were published in 1970 at Ator Publishing in Tehran, he had already changed their tone from skeptical disillusionment with the protective power of faith in God to symbolic verses only alluding to the suffering he had endured as a Turkish prisoner of war. He found peace in “Grace” a female figure whom he associated with the Holy Spirit. The collection, titled Qdila da-šmaya (Key to heaven), consists of a series of works composed between 1920 and 1960.

During the early 1960s, he decided that his poetry should appear in English translation and engaged his children in this task over a period of two years. The verse translation was published as Psalms and Song of a Persian (New York, 1964).

His last published volume appeared in the form of a dialogue in which theological questions were asked and answered. Composed in Persian, his third language after Assyrian and Turkish, نقشه های خداوند (God’s plans) was also published at Ator Publishing in Tehran (1351[1972]) through the efforts of his wife’s cousin, Charles Sayad.

One of Mishael’s earliest works, an essay co-authored with his Turkish Muslim cousin, Beglerbegi, and published in Urmiah during the 1940s, is now rarely found.

An endowment at Harvard University commemorates his life and that of his wife.


Lillie Yohannan Naby (1906-1991), a teacher in Urmiah, was born in Degala, a village within 10 km of Urmiah. Her mother Avigil (Abigail) married Aurahim Yokhannan (of Ada) who was a widower with one daughter. He brought the daughter with him on his second trip to the United States and placed her in a Presbyterian orphanage in Tennessee.

Like her mother, grandmother, aunt and female relatives, Lillie received her education in the village school but graduated from Fiske Seminary. She fled as a young girl with her aunt, uncle and mother south to Hamadan in 1918. A previous attempt to flee north to Russia in 1915 failed due to the outbreak of cholera among the Assyrians massed at the Arax River border. At the time of her graduation from Fiske Seminary in 1925, the school was operating in Tabriz as a refugee school with a much reduced body of students. Like the three other young women in her class, Lillie too became a teacher, a profession she continued after the American schools were forced closed in Urmiah in 1934. She learned Persian in order to qualify to teach at the government high school for girls called Shahdokht.

For nearly twenty years Lillie taught English and home economics. She was an industrious and inventive woman whose home in Urmiah offered hospitality to visiting Americans among whom were many missionaries as well as academics like Carlton Coon an his family. She was also the organist at the Assyrian Presbyterian Church in Urmiah and was admired for her singing.

After moving to Philadelphia with her family in 1953, Lillie worked at odd jobs to maintain family income but did not teach again. When her husband died, she moved to, Modesto, California where she was able to renew childhood friendships with Assyrian women such as Marta Joseph, and be near her relatives. She took part in the Assyrian community and even acted in community plays. During the last two years of her life, she went to live in Massachusetts with her daughter. She is buried in Philadelphia, with her husband and other Assyrians, under a headstone that reads “Asleep, awaiting the Resurrection.”

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