Interview with Denho Ghattas Makdisi Elias (2007)

Interviewer: Joseph Zakay

His illustrious poetry is characterized by its deep sense. He is considered as the greatest Aramean poet of the present. Denho Ghattas Makdisi Elias was born in Midyat in 1911 and emigrated to São Paolo (Brazil) in 1980.

How do you feel and what facts, do you think, have given you the strength and health to reach this blessed age?

I have been ill and just got out from the hospital recently. My health has been excellent all my life, until I became ninety years of age. I attribute my good health to my mental and physical activities. I had the habit of walking one hour every day, and I still do this until this day, when I can.

You have written many poems, which were published in your books and in Dr. Assad's Aram Magazine. When did you start writing poems?

I started writing poems when I was still a student, and continued writing when I became a teacher, for two years, in the Syriac School in Damascus. I stopped for few years after that, until my colleagues and I started the Syriac Review, the Nshra Suyrianieh, as pronounced in the Arabic language. We started this review in Aleppo from 1943, when I resumed my writing, until 1947. The review was mainly in Arabic, but also a good part in Syriac.

Which poem, written by you, do you like yourself most of all?

All my poems are like my children, and I love them all. If I have to choose, I would choose Nebo D Houno (Fountain of Thought). I also like Wat Qaiomat.

What motivated/-s you to write these poems?

What motivated me to write poems is my love to the Aramaic-Syriac language. My hope, along with my other colleagues, was to revive and modernize our language.

You translated together with Faulus Gabriel the Love Story "Paul et Virginie" from French into syriac 50 years ago. How did you came across that book?

As I mentioned, we wanted to modernize our language, and extend it out from its religious context, which was dominant, into a broader, more modern, and contemporary context. Paul and Virginie was the start of a movement, which would be carried on and continued into the road of modernization.

In your book "tugone" there is a correspondence between you and malfono Naaman Qarabashi from the forties. What is your remembrance of Qarabashi? When did you see this great teacher for the first time and when for the last time?

I did not know Malfono Qarabashi, personally, very well. But I knew him from his works. He was a great poet and writer, and I consider him as the Syriac poet of the 20th century. I met with him several times in the 40’s and 50’s. And although I disagreed with him on some ideas and issues, I respected him deeply.

How did you undergo the bitter times that came upon us in the Sayfo of 1915? How many family members and/or friends died because of the Sayfo? Is there a particular incident or story related to the Sayfo which has struck you must?

I was four and a half years of age then. I was with my grandmother at home, while my father Touma was taking to safety, the protestant families whose men were killed by the Turkish government. This was just before the war. When the war broke out, my grandmother carried me on her shoulders, and fled Midyat to Ainwardo with hundreds of other people. My grandmother was very old, and became extremely agitated and mentally disturbed with all this. On the way to Ainwardo, and not realizing what she was doing, my grandmother left me on the road, and continued running. We never found her again. I was then carried by other people, who knew me, to Ainwardo. There they took me to my father who was very sad, and depressed, thinking I was dead. I remember all this, as if it is all happening today.

Who were in your youth the main leaders and intellectuals of our people, say, people whom you really looked up to. Are there any individuals whom you have, in a certain sense, seen as your idols?

The leaders and heroes I looked up to were Massoud, Galo Shabo, and my father Touma. They were the heroes in the defense of Ain Ward. As intellectuals, my idols are Hasyo Yuhanon Dolabani, and Mr Naum Faik, because they started the new national and cultural movement of our people.

Did you notice anything from the new Turkish policies of turkifying our people? For example, forbidding them national sentiments, education in their own language and pressing on them Turkish surnames.
There’s the well-known story of patriarch Elias Shakir who was put under pressure by Ataturk not to demand the rights and recognition of our people at the peace treaties. How do you remember this narrative and did you, in those early days when the item was current, spoke about this issue?

Since my early years in life, I felt the pressure and the prejudice of the Turks against our people and other minorities. They drove us out of our homeland, and took our land which we have been living in, for thousand of years, before them. They killed our men and our defenseless women after raping them, and continued their policy of hatred and pressure even after they signed several treaties which were supposed to stop their genocide, and normalize life for our remaining population. This continued policy of hatred and prejudice, made our people seek immigration to the European countries, and the USA, in search for liberty. I remember in 1919, a delegation representing our people, was sent to the UN to explain our situation and secure a homeland for us to live in peace. But even the civilized world was divided on this issue, and was reluctant to do anything, because of the treaties that were signed with Turkey.

Have you written any specific articles or a book about the Sayfo? If not, why?
Is there a specific message you’d like to give to our people in the Diaspora how they would deal with the question of deliberate mass killings on their grandparents some 90 years ago?

I did not write anything about Sayfo. Although I remember many specific events and details, my memory and vision of all of it was not broad and mature then. Many writers have written about this subject in depth and details.

Could you tell us something about your time in Adana? How many Arameans settled in Adana?
Did you ever had an active role in this aramaic orphanage-school in Adana and/or have you been actively working on a project together with Hasyo Dolabani?

There were, probably, more than a hundred families that settled in Adana. A few of these families, had immigrated there before Sayfo. Some of these early immigrants became wealthy, from Agriculture, and founded an orphanage and school for our people. These families were Shakero Chilico, Garabet Salhi, and Saado Makdisi Elias, my uncle. They continued to sustain the school and orphanage called Tau.Mim.Simkat, until charity help started to come from a US organization.
Mr John Wahan was appointed director of the school, and Hasyo Dolabani came from Mardin to teach the Syriac language. I was young then and learned the basics of the Syiac language from him. Malke Asaad was also one of the teachers, and later became my father in-law. Among my colleagues and friends in the school were Hasyo Athanasius Samuel, and Abrohom Sowmy, who later immigrated to Brazil with his family.

1934 you have written a poem on Tur Abdin. Have you ever seen Tur Abdin again? In what senses had things and, perhaps, people’s attitudes, been changed in comparison to what you can remember before you left Tur Abdin?

I left Tur Abdin when I was seven, and later in my long life I traveled to many countries all over the world, but I was reluctant to go to Turkey. The atrocities which Turkey committed against our people, left strong feeling in my heart and mind, and prevented me from traveling there.

Can you tell us how you have seen Assyrianism emerging and spreading as an ideology among our people? Who were the founding fathers of this idea? Since when, according to your opinion, did Aramaism start to develop and who laid the foundations for this idea?

The Assyrian movement started in Amid (Diyarbakir) and in Urmia, in Iran. The Aramean and Assyrian people, who started it, founded some organizations in the USA which were helping the movement financially. They believed that we are part of the old Assyrian empire, and if our people join the movement, it would make it more credible and can claim a homeland in the Middle East, somewhere. In my opinion, this is a wrong interpretation of history. The Assyrian empire, when collapsed, was completely mingled, and absorbed into the Aramean culture which dominated the Middle East thru it’s many kingdoms and empires, and which the Chaldean was the last. Even after the fall of the last empire, the Aramen culture and language continued for centuries afterward. The word Assyrian was a word attached to the eastern Aramean people in the recent few hundred years and these people are actually the Arameans of the East. So the Aramean culture has been around for centuries, and now we see resurgence in the diaspora, because the Aramean people can now speak, and think freely, away from oppression which they suffered in the last one hundred years. Your website [www.urhoy.info] is one of the examples of this freedom of expression, and the divulgation of our culture.

What were your reasons not to join the Assyrianists in spreading their new idea and what, do you think, were for Abrohom Sowmy, who just like you came from Midyat and lived in Sao Paolo, the main motivations to join the Assyrian movement?

I did not join the Assyrian movement, because it does not rely on solid historic and cultural basis, as I explained. Since the early ages of Christianity, we were known as Arameans, and our religious leaders confirm this throughout their writings, which we have in our libraries.
As for my friendship with Malfono Abrohom Sowmy, it started when we were students in Adana and it was a friendship with a man who was a true Syriac, and loved his people and their language. During my meetings with him we discussed language and culture, and not politics.

When you went to Brazil, did you initially think about it to settle there permanently or only temporarily and later return to your homeland?

I came to Brazil to settle here, because the Middle East was going thru a period of instability. Several of my children were already here and I wanted to join them.

What was the most beautiful and worst experience you ever had in your life?

The best and most joyful experience was my return to writing after stopping for a long period during my government service years. I feel accomplished and fulfilled with this return to the literary activity. The worst experience of my life was the witnessing of the atrocities committed against our people in Sayfo of 1915. These are shocking images that are still engraved deep into my memory.

If you could live your life again would you change anything?

I would dedicate all my life and work to literature and culture in general, and specifically to the Syriac-Aramaic literature, and culture.

Do you have a message to the Arameans in the Diaspora?

My message to the Aramean people is to never forget their original language and culture, and their love to Beth Nahrin. They should be proud to be Arameans.

 

arameiska

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