Today in History: Patriot Naum Faiq Palakh ܢܥܘܡ ܦܐܝܩ

Today is the commemoration of the death 93 years ago of Syriac teacher, philologist, journalist and activist Naum Faiq Palakh. He pioneered modern Syriac nationalism.

Naum “Faiq” Palakh was born in Omid (Diyarbakir) in 1868 in the Ottoman Empire. As a member of the Syriac Orthodox Church he was educated at the local Syriac school established by the Brotherhood of Ancient Syrians. He learned Classical West Syriac, Ottoman-Turkish, and Arabic. During his formative years he educated himself and became proficient in the Syriac language. As a subdeacon, he wrote the letters of the archbishop and church councils.

From 1888 he starts to teach Syriac language, history, catechism, and liturgy. He was an important member of the Syriac Church in Omid and a member of the leadership of the Syriac schools where he taught and spoke at gatherings. He motivated Syriacs to open schools and social organizations. His teaching career and love for the Syriac language brought him to many places in the Middle East where he visited churches, monasteries and libraries in Mardin, Homs, Beirut, and Jerusalem. Naum Faiq was much found in these libraries and an avid reader of old Syriac documents and books. His diligence earned him the epithet “Faiq”.

Naum Faiq Palakh is counted among the founding fathers of the modern notion of Syriac nationhood. His idea of Syriac nationhood transcended locality, sectarianism and Syriac church denomination. Instead, he based his notion of Syriac nationhood on the ancient imperial linguistic and cultural riches of Beth Nahrin (Mesopotamia) and the ancestral peoples that dwelled the fruitful lands of Beth Nahrin – the Arameans, Assyrians and Chaldeans.

Journalist, writer, poet and patriot Naum Faiq lived, taught, wrote, and travelled in what would turn out to be the latter days of the Ottoman Empire. Great Brittan, France, Russia and emerging power the United States were knocking on the door and each wanted their share of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. It was the time of the Great Game in which the greater imperial powers divided and ruled by supporting proxies, raising tribal leaders to kings, and appropriating land under protectorate or mandate. It was in this turbulent period up to the Sayfo Genocide of 1915 and World War I, that Naum Faiq and his contemporaries awoke to the Syriac nation.

Through nineteenth century archaeological expeditions and findings in the Middle East, the world learned about the Syriacs’ ancestors, i.e., the Assyrian, Aramean, and Chaldean peoples, and how they had dwelled, dominated and ruled the ancient lands of Mesopotamia and the broader Middle East. For Naum Faiq it was clear that it was these ancestral peoples that had given the Syriac people their language, culture, and architecture and historical standing. In his writings, Naum Faiq uses the Aramean, Assyrian and Chaldean designations indifferently, and irrespective of Syriac Church denomination, to identify his Syriac people and to designate their place and role in past and future.

He had a very clear political and ideological opinion on this matter. In all his writings, Chaldean, Assyrian and Aramean are part of one unified Syriac nation. To his Syriac contemporaries and to future generations, he transmitted this message through his writings, books, poems and songs. He called for patriotism, national awareness and awakening from the dormant subordinate state in which the Syriac people were thrown. He did this with great zeal and unwearyingly devoted all his time to his nation, culture, and language.

In the year 1912, the Ottoman government introduced stricter rules on political and social life and started to crackdown and suppress patriotic movements. That made Naum Faiq leave Omid (Diyarbakir) and his beloved homeland in September 1912 for Beirut. From there he travelled to the United States where he arrived in New York on December 5, 1912. His name and writings had preceded him to New York.

Contemporaries and followers in patriotic thought and spirit

Ranked amongst the first patriotic Syriac intellectuals to passionately call for a national awakening and ardently calling for the establishment of the Syriac nation in the twentieth century, he was in the company of contemporary likeminded friends, academics, teachers and intellectuals: Ashur Yusuf (1858-1915) of Kharput and co-journalist and writer Sanharib Bali (1878-1971) of Omid, who also emigrated to the United States.

In America, Naum Faiq made friends with Syriac academics and authors like Dr. Philipp Hitte from Lebanon, historian, writer and founder of the Museum of Beirut, Philipp Ditrazi, Chaldean Jesuit priest Louis Cheikho al-Yasuci from Mardin, Chaldean Catholic priest Alphonse Mingana, orginally from Zakho, and other teachers of Semitic languages in Manchester, Great Britain.

Archbishop Hanna Dolabani (1885-1969) of Mardin and Syriac teachers in his following like Abrohom Hakverdi of Urhoy, Hanna Harun, Paul and Jan Jiragos of Adiyaman, and Malke Assad read Faiq’s books, magazines and articles and followed in his patriotic spirit. In the orphanage school called “Taw Mim Simkath” in Adana, Faiq’s songs, poems and opinions were taught and sung and planted the seed of Syriac national thought. Later authors like Abdelmasih Qarabashi (1903-1983), Faulus Gabriel, Gabriel Assad, Abrohom Gabriel Saume, Danho Ghattas Maqdesi Elyas, Yuhanon Salman, and Yuhanon Qashisho were influenced by the poems and writing that Naum Faiq had done and left behind.

Malfono and journalist Naum Faiq passed away in the United States on February 5, 1930. Some of his latest words were about his homeland Beth Nahrin: I was born in you, And I want to die in you as well, Oh, my beloved homeland Beth Nahrin. I want my body to be buried in your earth. His death is commemorated annually by many Syriac associations, assemblies, and schools all over the world.

Workings of Naum Faiq

In 1908 he founded in Omid the Syriac magazine called “Cirutho” or “Awakening”. He then started to write and publish his newspaper called “Kawkab Madenho” or “Star of the East”, where he informed about the situation of the Syriacs. In 1916 in the United States, Faiq published the magazine “Beth Nahrin” in Syriac, Arabic and Ottoman-Turkish. The magazine was circulated biweekly and Naum Faiq would publish it until his death in 1930.

Faiq was also the lead writer of the magazine “Huyodo” or “Unity” (May 1921 – March 1922). This magazine was founded by the Assyrian-Chaldean Union of America. From 1978 onwards, the Union of the Assyrian Associations in Sweden started to publish this magazine anew under supervision of Yuhanon Qashisho.

He collected poems and song lyrics in the book “Cunoye ciruthonoye” or “Zumore Umthonoye u Mothonoye”. It was printed in Paterson, New Jersey. Whole generations of students in Syriac schools in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel, sung these songs for many years. His songs were publicly performed, from the 1950s on, by composers and singers like Gabriel Assad, Paul Michael, Yusuf Shamoun, Evelyn Dawud, and Suad Yusuf. Elias Boyaci was the first one to sing and record the poems of Naum Faiq in 1929.

Other works of Naum Faiq;

  • Translations of the poems of Persian poet Omar al-Khayyam from Persian to Syriac.
  • Several dictionaries and lexicons of Syriac, Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Armenian.
  • Dictionary of Greek words used in the Syriac language and a Syriac dictionary for academics and researchers.
  • Handwritten text documents and sermons in Syriac.
  • Handwritten Beth Gazo or “House of Treasures” – the Syriac church hymns and melodies.
  • Book for beginning readers of the Syriac language.
  • Book about the history and geography of Beth Nahrin.
  • Poems about the Syriac immigrants in the United States.
  • Writing on the origin of words in Arabic.
  • Sayings and examples in Arabic that were common in Omid.
  • History of the schools in Nusaybin and Urhoy in Syriac.
  • A book of his collected poems in three languages Syriac, Arabic and Turkish.
  • Translation of the book of Ahikar and other books, texts and documents;
  • In Urhoy and Omid, Malfono Naum Faiq copied the famous history book of Mor Michael the Great with his handwriting. Until then, the book was unique and there was only one exemplar of it in Urhoy.