"Integrity And Dedication"
Assyrian Star - Fall 2002, Vol. LIV, No. 3
Sitting at a table wielding his pen, for two weeks, Issa Benyamin introduced Assyrian alphabet, language, and the art of calligraphy to a wider audience than professors at universities do in a lifetime of teaching. He worked tirelessly, with his wife Clara, his daughter Ramica (Mrs. Benny Taimoorazy) or his son, Ramsin, at his side. We may well ask what would be the effect of it if all Assyrians of talent spent two weeks out of each year promoting their heritage. If they could duplicate Issa Benyamin's efforts, they would reach thousands of people, answer ten thousand questions, and write the names of children and adults, men and women, Americans and foreigners in our alphabet as a keepsake. The energy of this man, born in 1924, is amazing. And he did all this on The Mall of the capital of the United States, sitting in an open tent, enduring temperatures that, on several days, hit 107 degrees Fahrenheit.
The same tent held three other persons from the calligraphic traditions along the Silk Road (Chinese, Uighur and Ottoman). In a complex that included paper makers from Japan and Italy, Issa Benyamin attracted much attention at the 30th Smithsonian Folklife Festival, dedicated in 2002 to the Silk Road. From a distance, people could catch sight of his calligraphic work hanging on the reed walls. Some wandered over out of curiosity about a writing system that departed from the Chinese and Arabic alphabets seen elsewhere. Some came because they thought this might be Hebrew. Some came because they saw a large attentive crowd in a corner. Others, the hundred or so Assyrians living in the Washington area, came because their hearts leaped at the sight of something Assyrian.
What kind of life experiences prepares a man to exhibit such levels of integrity and dedication? How can a person born to a family just able to survive the biggest attempt to exterminate Assyrians in the modern era still persist to study and learn an art form for a language that is considered endangered? To take courage for our own lives, we need to examine the life of a child born in Tabriz, into a family that had barely survived the Ottoman invasion of Iranian Azerbaijan and the subsequent massacre of Assyrians.
Mirza Benyamin Kaldani (18791966) and his wife Esther had seven children. The family originates from Salamas, specifically the village of Khosrovabad. Mirza Benyamin got his primary education in Urmia then continued at the Lazarist Mission in Khosrovabad where he studied theology, Latin, French, Persian, and both modern Assyrian and classical Syriac. Like other Assyrians of relatively prosperous lives, they relied on trade in imported goods (fabric in his case, thus "tajirbashi") for their livelihood. Thus the elder Benyamin was widely traveled in the region from Russia, to Iraq to India. In 1913 he served as the Russian consular assistant in Urmia. He maintained close ties with Agha Petros dBaz. After_ the Genocide, having found refuge in Tabriz, the family eventually moved to Urmia, then the largest Assyrian concentration in Iran, but kept their ties to the Salamas area. Mirza Benyamin wrote thirteen books, a few of which were published.
Mirza Benyamin's career spanned a period of great turbulence for the Assyrians of Iran and elsewhere. During World War II when the Demokrat political movement in Iran promised to sever parts of nonPersian Iran from Tehran, Urmia became a hotbed of leftist activity as well as a place where Assyrians tried to revive some semblance of the cultural communal life that had flourished prior to WWI. Mirza Benyamin served on the Assyrian Cultural Committee for a time as one of the two men who had deep knowledge of the development of the vernacular Assyrian. During the Demokrat movement, prominent Assyrians were targeted for assassination. After the defeat of the movement, many others were killed, and seventy villages pillaged and robbed. Conditions for Assyrians did not improve in Urmia and many young people with promise found good reasons to leave for Tehran.
Issa Benyamin studied Assyrian with his father at first, then at seventeen years of age, with Mar Havel Zaya, the Catholic (Chaldean) Archbishop of Urmia and Salamas (ca. 18921950). Mar Zaya also had come from Khosrovabad to Urmia.
Rabi Issa's first job was as a math teacher, and later he worked in the field of Environmental Conservation and served as director of Human Resources at the Iranian EPA. His wife, the former Clara Manassarians, the daughter of an Armenian father and an Assyrian mother, received her BA in English Literature at Tehran University and taught English for nearly twenty years in Tehran high schools. Her village of origin is Gulpashan where her maternal grandfather, Khan Odishoo, was the `arbab' (owner). The Issa Benyamin family eventually moved to the US in the late 1980s and has been together in Illinois since 1990.
Accomplishments & Dedication To Calligraphy
By the end of World War II, the Assyrians in Iran had experienced an exhausting and brutal history that lasted from the murder and pillage of WWI to the murder and pillage of Assyrian villages in World War II. The revival of cultural activity had to wait until some social and economic security could be achieved. In 1948, Issa Benyamin published Surgada Umtanaya (national calendar) which broke the thirtyfive year cycle of cultural inactivity among the Assyrians of Iran. Having helped found the "Cultural Organization for the Assyrian Youth of Tehran," one of the most active Assyrian groups in Iran, and the one that managed to recreate an Assyrian press, Rabi Issa involved himself in 'its eventual publishing of numerous books. One of these books (1950) was the biography of Louise Ourshan (19071948) the founder and principal of the most famous high school in Tehran (Anooshiravan Dadgar). Shortly thereafter (March 16, 1951), he began publication of the AssyrianPersian weekly (Datid, barana) Bright Future. In addition to developing the art of calligraphy, he also has created more than 52 Assyrian fonts which could be used in various word processing and publication programs.
Always fascinated with bringing style, beauty and substance to the writing of our language, Rabi Issa saw to print, in 1962, the first booklet ever to appear on the principles of Assyrian writing. He continued his community activities after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 by serving from 1981 to 1983 as the Assyrian language editor of the weekly newspaper Ishtar.
From 1975 to the present, he has devoted most of his time to creating more than three hundred tableaus of Assyrian calligraphy. These are being prepared for publication in three volumes. Rabi Issa has chosen to use ink /acrylics which he applies with a reed to heavy art paper stock of different colors or more often, onto deerskin leather of differing hues.
Many of these are available through CalligRam (http://www.calligram.com, Telephone: 309.664.1747 or Fax: 309.661.8132) See also the items of interest section of this issue of the Assyrian Star for his books and other items available at the same source.
His most recent creation lends grace to this issue of the Assyrian Star: "Khuyada" is conceived as an artwork that symbolizes the united efforts of Assyrians of integrity and dedication as they pull together toward the Star that guides us onward to a bright future. On our back cover may be seen the setting in which Rabbi Issa volunteered his efforts for two weeks in June/July.
Rabi Issa's calligraphy has been recognized in print, through awards and at exhibits in Tehran, Chicago, San Jose, and most recently at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The Assyrian community is fortunate to have a man who is able to take our alphabet and turn it into an internationally appreciated art form.