Friday, August 30, 2013

On Language and Heritage: Interview with Dr. Shawqi Kassis

As Al-Bustan is planning for this fall's concert series, I learned that the featured guest in December will be a long-time Philadelphia area resident, Dr. Shawqi Kassis, a scientist and author.  Dr. Kassis will be reading experts from his recently published book "Haifa is Not Cordoba."

To my surprise, I realized that at a young age I had met Dr. Kassis through my parents.  Born in Haifa, he grew up in the village of Rama, which is not too far from where my father was born in Acre.  He came to the US at the age of 32 after receiving his Ph.D. in Microbiology from Tel-Aviv University in 1979.  He worked as Visiting Fellow and Visiting Associate in the Neurology Institute at the National Institute of Health from 1980 to 1987.  This was followed by employment at Glaxo SmithKline for the remainder of his technical career where he worked as a Senior Investigator/Lab Chief in Discovery Research and Research & Development.  During this period Dr. Kassis published over 45 biomedical articles in refereed journals in the fields of biochemistry, cell biology and pharmacology.  He has presented over 35 abstracts in international and national scientific meetings and has four US and European patents in the field of microbiology.

Dr. Shawqi Kassis  at a book signing in Virginia in 2011.
After a productive career, Dr. Kassis dedicated himself upon retirement to his passion, the Arabic language, both through teaching and writing.  In 2003, he founded and taught at the Arabic and Hebrew language programs at Drexel University, where I am studying Accounting and pursing a minor in Arabic.  Currently, Dr. Kassis is a writer working on several literary projects, the first of which is the historical fiction book he published last year, loosely based on his life growing up in Palestine-Israel.  I had the privilege of conducting a phone interview with Dr. Kassis, and I am happy to share with you his responses.

How was the transition from working as a scientist to dedicating yourself full time to writing?

Arabic, Arab history, and the situation in Palestine post-1948, have all been on my mind since I was a child.  When I decided to go into the biomedicine I could not pursue my personal interests in writing and Arab literature because I was working all the time in my professional field; so it remained on the back burner for me.  After a car accident few years ago it became difficult for me to commute to my office and work, so I decided to retire and pursue my passion.  The transition was not easy at first due to various reasons; however my love for my heritage and language with its various colors gave me the strength, of which the first fruit was this book about my experience as an Arab living under Zionism.  The idea for this book was sparked in 2003, in response to a request, a desire, from my high school Arabic language teacher to write about my thoughts and experiences.

What Arab literary figures inspired you over the years?

Specifically for this book, none in particular.  However, I adore and am very much fond of several literary figures, some of which I mention in my book, including Mahmoud Darwish, with whom I lived for one year in Haifa in the same room in 1965; Al-Mutanabbi, the greatest Arabian poet of all times; Samih Al-Qasim, who is a fellow villager from Rama, my neighbor and a renowned poet whom I quote many in several verses in the book; and Imru' al-Qais, the first Arabian poet.  Also, other figures like Abdel Rahman Munif, a novelist, as well as Anis Mansour, Abu el-Alaa Elmaarry, Nizar Qabbani, Ahmad Shawqi and Naguib Mahfouz.

What role has the Arabic language played in your life in America? 

Arabic played an indirect role in my profession, in that for any Latin expression, ever since I was undergraduate and graduate student, I would strive to find the equivalent Arabic word so I can comprehend its precise meaning.  In fact when I was a high school teacher (in Rama during the sixties for two years after completing my BS degree), I requested from all the students in chemistry to write the Arabic terms in addition to the Latin terms.

However, outside my profession, Arabic played a major role because I gave many lectures in universities, human relation commission committees, townships, counties, and in police departments about Arab culture and history of Islam.  I gave these talks to American audiences in English.  In preparation, I had to translate many Arabic passages from the Quran and other sources. 

What do you hope to pass on to younger generations in America through your work?

Well, I would summarize it in one phrase attributed to Jesus Christ: 
ماذا يستفيد الإنسان لو ربح العالم كله وخسر نفسه؟  
'What good would it be for man if he won the world and lost himself?' I don't know if that's the exact translation in the Bible or not but that is my translation.  I have never read Christian or Jewish scriptures in English; I only read them in Arabic and Aramaic.  I reference this phrase by Jesus because the message I would like to pass to the new generation is: Don't run after materialistic gains and lose respect of yourself.  Act according to high moral standards, respect your heritage and your language, and don't be fooled by materialistic gains.

What do you hope to leave as a legacy in America and in Palestine?

To Palestinian and American youth, I urge you to get to know your roots and your language - without your language you are nothing. That is the most important thing. No nation on earth, from the beginning of human history until today, produced anything of any significance or value, without thinking about it, formulating it, and transmitting to the world in its mother tongue.  If you ignore your mother tongue, you lose so much.  

My children, for example, they all mastered fusha, the Arabic classical language.  I can sit and discuss with them topics about historical Arab figures, literary or political topics, and chat in Arabic and argue with them about verses of poetry and what not.

* * *
In this brief conversation with Dr. Kassis, I am all the more intrigued to challenge myself and read his book in Arabic.  Dr. Kassis' stories resonated with me, especially as I prepare to travel later this week to visit my father's family in Acre.  It also has motivated me to continue mastering the Arabic language.  His values in fact mirror those of Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, specifically one of its core values, the importance of language.  Language and heritage are an integral part of one's identity.  I am looking forward to Dr. Kassis' reading with musical accompaniment by Al-Bustan's Resident Takht Ensemble on December 8, 2013.  Hope to see you at the Trinity Center for Urban Life!

Zeanah Rumman-Obeid - Drexel student, intern at Al-Bustan

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