Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Month: January, 2016

Growing Politically Fat with Maya

Monastary in Mosul

Visiting monasteries of Mosul in the year 2000

We were in the hotel room, getting ready to go visit the Mayan ruins in Mexico when I saw on CNN that ISIS had blown up St. Elijah’s Monastery in northern Iraq. I watched the destruction of this Christian monastery that dates back to the fourth century.

I remembered my visit to Iraq in the year 2000, when I was lucky enough to visit the sites that have become the targets of extremists in recent years. I wondered if, despite all this, the civilization of my birth country will survive so that perhaps, one day, our children and others are able to see that land’s beauty, the way people came from all over the world to visit the Mayan ruins.

Before we left our hotel room, I saw a segment about the Syrian refugees. The ongoing destruction of Iraq and the refugee crisis will continue to replay daily, holding up mirrors for us to see what we have turned our world into. We call nonviolent acts “crimes” and prosecute people. We prosecute people who committed a crime twenty years ago, or who never committed a crime but who need to be locked up in order to maintain the “Justice System” and so that the prison institutions have a greater number of residents.

But what about those who created the real, honest-to-goodness destruction? They destroyed countries and millions of lives. Because of these destroyers’ political status, we give them a pass, and then we call ourselves a democracy, a democracy which the rest of the world should adopt. If we don’t become politically fit, we will continue to grow fat with maya, illusions, and the fatter we get, the harder it will be for us to get our world back into shape.


The Loss of Chivalry


An American man who worked as a warden at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain once told me how when he got to the airport in Bahrain, he learned that contrary to what he had grown up thinking, women in the Arab world do have rights, not as many rights as they need to have, but they do have rights.

He was standing in line at customs when a woman just zoomed in front of all the men in line. He called out on her inappropriateness with a “Hey, hey, back of the line!”

All of the sudden, he was surrounded by police and angry civilian men. He knew he’d done something wrong, but given the language barriers, he couldn’t figure out what it was. Seeing what’d happened, a British man intervened, explaining to the police that this American did not know the customs of this country, which was that women are allowed to cut in line whenever or however they pleased and no one could say a word about it.

“You don’t do that here with women,” said the British to the American.

For the remainder of his stay in Bahrain, the American man didn’t dare open his mouth when he begrudgingly watched women cut in line at supermarkets, even when he and other men would have one or two items and the women had ten.

This right may seem like no big deal, but it is a big deal given how far we’ve distanced ourselves from chivalry and respect toward women. Yesterday, a Muslim woman was kicked out of Donald Trump’s rally, with a crowd of men harassing her exit along the way. It was an inappropriate behavior for our great nation that’s supposed to set an example for the rest of the world. It’s also a behavior that puts our nation at risk. When these types of footage go viral, they attract the attention of those who already hate us and makes it easier for them to recruit more members.

As I often say, it’s not a woman’s dress that threatens our society, whether she dresses modestly or in a bikini, it’s the politics of leaders who place their best interest before that of their nation, as so happened at this rally.

The China Connection: Nestorian Stele Tells Ancient Tale

Nestorian Stele

This article was originally published by The Chaldean News (January 2016)

A direct connection between China and the Church of the East has been brought to Michigan by Dr. Michael David Hanna.

This past fall, Hanna traveled to China on business as a senior technical consultant for an auto-part manufacturer. While there, he came in close vicinity of a famous stone called the Nestorian Stele.

For years, Hanna has been active in researching his ancestors’ history, the Shikwana family, who were scribes. The process led him to make connections with many scholars in different institutions, some of whom happened to be in China.

“One of these scholars made me aware of our church history in China,” Hanna said. “I talked to my friend, Deacon Khairy Foumia, about this information and he said that the church is interested to have a copy of the stele.”

Foumia already knew about the stele as he’d read about it in an Arabic article written in 1993 by Fr. Yousif Habbi, who lived in Iraq. In that article, Fr. Habbi addressed the spread of Christianity in China and described the text engraved in the stele.

The stele’s inscription describes in Chinese “the Messiah” and His virgin birth, and it states the preservation of 27 scriptures, a reference to the New Testament. It includes the declaration of the Christian faith, called “the Luminous Religion,” and a summarization of the history of Christianity in China as well as the manner in which some of the kings of China received and treated the Christians.

The last major part is a lengthy poem honoring God and the emperors who supported His church. The concluding lines give the date, name the ruling patriarch of the “luminous communities of the East,” and name the artist who inscribed the text on the stele. The Syriac sections list more than 70 bishops, priests and monks.

“There are a number of books written about the stele,” said Foumia, “but none written in Arabic.”

The Nestorian Stele is a limestone block that’s about 9 feet tall and 3 feet wide, weighing two tons, with text in both Chinese and Syriac describing the existence of early Christian communities in several cities in northern China. According to the stele, Alopen, the first recorded Christian missionary, and 17 of his fellow Syriac missionaries came to China from the Roman Empire in 635, bringing sacred books and images.

“Alopen and the missionaries went through the Silk Road, establishing many stations on their way, including in Afghanistan and India,” said Hanna.

On the stone monument is engraved the history of the Assyrian Church of the East in China between 635 C.E., the year this branch of Christianity arrived there, and 781 C.E., the year the stele was erected. According to author Yoshio Saeki, the missionaries arrived at a time in Chinese history that is “generally characterized by liberal-minded emperors who welcomed this variety of practical thinking.”

“The kings of China liked the missionaries and their message, but after a couple of hundred years, somehow Buddhism was favored and Christianity was stopped,” said Hanna. “There are a lot of books that talk about how Christians were forced to convert to Islam. It’s the same history that is happening to us in Iraq today.”

The stele is thought to have been buried in 845, during a campaign of anti-Buddhist persecution that also affected the Nestorians, and was not rediscovered until 1625.

“The Chinese language and culture was completely different than that of the missionaries,” said Hanna. “For example, the Chinese liked the cross, but the cross in Chinese character is the number 10. So there were some cultural mix-ups.”

Hanna said the Mesopotamians in China lasted more than 300 years as they intermarried and went back and forth to Mesopotamia to bring more people and help spread the word of Jesus and their knowledge of science and medicine.

“When they were persecuted, some of them went back to Mesopotamia,” he said. “That’s why some of our people have Asian features. They might have those genes.”

Hanna also noted that the time the missionaries went to China was around the same time that Rabban Hormizd Monastery was built in Alqosh, about 640 A.D.

“It was probably the hype of Christianity,” said Hanna, “because during that time, Mesopotamia was under the rule of the Persian Empire.”
The stele is housed in the Forest of Stele Museum in Xian. Since Hanna was far from that city, a colleague with family there told him he could help get a rubbing copy of it. This man went to the museum a number of times and consulted with the directors, and finally got a nice copy on rice paper.

“Ninety-nine percent of our people do not know about this stele that came from Mesopotamia to China,” said Hanna. “That’s why I felt very happy about bringing it here and making it known.”

When he brought the copy of the stele to America, the Chaldean bishop and priests marveled at it. It was gifted to the bishop’s library and currently the Chaldean Cultural Center is discussing ways to replicate it and include it in their museum.

“This stele is a treasure for our church in China,” said Foumia. “But it’s also a truly wonderful thing to have a very old and antique item in our museum.”

Iraq, Part of Our Heritage – Contrary to Popular Belief


Ziggurat, a rectangular stepped tower, sometimes surmounted by a temple. Ziggurats are first attested in the late 3rd millennium BC and probably inspired the biblical story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1–9).

(This article was originally published in 2006. Since then, little has changed.)   

The words China and Egypt, Athens and Rome, bring to most people’s mind a mysterious history and a respected culture. Rarely will the word Mesopotamia, ancient Iraq, do the same. You’ll probably receive confused or weird expressions from children, even most adults, at the mention of Mesopotamia. In regards to Iraq, images of violence, terrorists, Islamic fundamentalists and war pop up all over. And that’s where the images usually end.

As for Iraq’s attributes, they are buried alive beneath lack of recognition. For whatever reason, history school books and TV programs fail to discuss the importance of ancient Iraq, even though it’s the mother of our current lifestyle and therefore, should not only be discussed but emphasized.

I stopped writing here, walked away from my computer and asked my niece, who was studying for a college course at the kitchen table, to call a couple of her friends, tell them she was doing a survey for her aunt and could they answer one question: “What is Mesopotamia?”

The people surveyed were in their mid-twenties to late thirties, and are either currently in college or have a college degree.

1st response is a first generation American, the daughter of Chaldean (Christian Iraqi) immigrants: “What the f_ _ _ is this for? I don’t know. I’m not good in geography. Are you kidding me right now? I can’t explain it like this. You caught me off guard. I don’t know. I have to think about it. You can’t do this. I wasn’t able to brain storm so go get your information from someplace else.”

Click. My niece laughed, knowing her friend overreacted having been put on the spot. She dialed the next number, this time putting a little twist in the question. “If an alien comes down from out of space and asks you what is Mesopotamia, what would you say?”

2nd response is also by the daughter of Chaldean immigrants: “Oh, my God! Well…. Long ago – long ago – okay, it’s an area of land in the Middle East. It’s our culture, where our people are from. Didn’t your aunt write a book on this? It’s a big spot and a war broke out there and everyone was separated to different areas.”

3rd response is by a Greek-American man: “I don’t know. Never heard of it. It’s a region. In Biblical times. That’s all I know.”

4th response is by an American woman: “It’s a country – an area – providence – an area in the Middle East. In an Arabic land. Where there’s King Tut and Egypt.”

5th response is by an Iranian woman: “It was an Eastern civilization that has something to do with the Ottoman Empire or Egypt.”

6th response is by a Jewish woman: “It’s a country or city.”

7th response is by an Irish-American woman: “Cancer.”
She must have mistaken the word for mesothelioma, I’m assuming?

The results of the survey did not surprise me. I knew from prior experience that people knew little if anything about the history of Iraq even though America has had political and media contact with that region for over two decades. I remembered how, after the Gulf War, many people called Iraq Iran and after I corrected them, they explained, “Oh, I always get these two countries mixed up.”

It seems that, when the British occupied Mesopotamia in the early twentieth century and carved it up like a pie, dividing the region into different countries and assigning them new names, they took its power away. After that, people did not connect the dots, that ancient Iraq is the cradle of civilization. Writing, the first school, law, literature, map of the world, and the idea of dividing time and space into a multiple of 60’s started in this historic land. Iraq is the birthplace of Prophet Abraham, supposedly the site of the Garden of Eden, and where many biblical stories occurred.

It’s ironic that the region where science, astronomy, and numerous inventions, like the wheel, were a prominent way of life, today it is perceived as, and in many cases it is, a barbaric land. One wonders how much of this regression was a result of this land’s own bloody history and how much of it was as a result of Western influence.

The Truth About the Veil

The Veil

Last week, I did a radio interview with Stu Bryer of WICH in Norwich, Connecticut. We talked about several subjects, including the Syrian refugees and the veil. While I believe that veils that completely disguise people are problematic for safety purposes and unnecessary in a Western country where people choose to live, I also feel that we should explore the issue of veiling in a more historical and personal context.

During my trip to Baghdad in 2000, I visited my parents’ Christian village in Mosul and asked my cousins to find me an abayya in the souk. He found one I liked, disputed with the merchant over a few dinars, wanted to walk out, and at my plea, agreed on a price. I left with an abbaya that today still has some of the spices I’d carried in my luggage in a journey that lasted from Baghdad to Detroit three days.

What’s an abbaya? It’s a veil that reminds me of my mother and the neighborhood women who’d sometimes wear it when they went to the market. Since Saddam encouraged women to wear western clothing and he was against Islamic fundamentalists, the burka wasn’t allowed in Iraq. Usually older women wore the abbaya. They did so for religious purposes, as Islam requires women to dress modestly in order to keep the focus of beauty on spiritual and not superficial attributes. Wearing the veil was also a way to avoid harassment. But mostly, they wore it because it was part of a culture that predates Islam by many centuries.

In the Near East, Assyrian kings first introduced both the seclusion of women in royal harem and the veil. Prostitutes and slaves, however, were told not to veil, and were slashed if they disobeyed this law. This practice also appeared in classical Greece, in the Byzantine Christian world, in Persia and in India among upper caste women. It’s suggested that afterwards it spread among the Arabs.

Muslims in their first century were relaxed about female dress. As Islam reached other lands, regional practices, including the covering of women, were adopted. Yet it was only in the second Islamic century that the veil became common, first used among the powerful and rich as a status symbol. Muhammad’s wives originally dressed in veil in order for people to distinguish them from other women.

Throughout Islamic history only a part of the urban classes were veiled and secluded. Rural and nomadic women, the majority of the population, were not. The veil did not appear as a common rule to be followed until around the tenth century. In the Middle Ages numerous laws were developed which most often placed women at a greater disadvantage than in earlier times.

For 2,000 years, Catholic women have veiled themselves before entering a church or any time they are in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament (e.g., during sick calls). It was written into the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1262, that women must cover their heads – “especially when they approach the holy table”

For many centuries (until around 1175) Anglo-Saxon and then Anglo-Norman women, with the exception of young unmarried girls, wore veils that entirely covered their hair, and often their necks up to their chins. It was in the Tudor period (1485), when hoods became increasingly popular, that veils of this type became less common.

Sometimes a sheer was draped over and pinned to the bonnet or hat of a woman in mourning. They would also have been used as a simple method of hiding the identity of a woman who was travelling to meet a lover, or doing anything she didn’t want other people to find out about. Veils were also sometimes worn to protect the complexion from sun and wind damage (when un-tanned skin was fashionable), or to keep dust out of a woman’s face. Conversely, veils are often part of the stereotypical image of the courtesan and harem woman where the mysterious veil hints at sensuality and the unknown.

Among the Tuareg of West Africa, women do not traditionally wear the veil, while men do. It’s believed that the veil wards off evil spirits, but most probably relates to protection against the harsh desert sands as well. This veil is worn from 25 years of age and is never removed, even in front of family members.

What about the origin of a bride’s veil? Some say that the veil was introduced in ancient Rome to keep away the evil spirits. It’s also said that it was a symbol of purity, chastity, and modesty. Other say that the origin of the bridal veil was due to the circumstances of an arranged marriage. In days past, men bargained with an eligible young lady’s father for their hand in marriage. After the ceremony, the veil was lifted to reveal the bride’s features. This was to keep a groom from backing out of the deal if he didn’t like what he saw.

With my mother, the veil was used for convenience, when she didn’t want to change from her nightgown in order to go to the bakery and buy bread. Or when my cousin wanted to meet her lover without anyone noticing her. Or it was worn by those who found it attractive or simply liked having it flutter around their ankles.

When I was a little girl, I used my mother’s veil to play house. I couldn’t wait to grow up and have my own veil, not knowing then that one day wearing fabric in such a manner, or not wearing it, could cost women their lives.