Tobia Giwargis, The Teacher

8/24/2013 1:14:53 PM
Tobia Giwargis, The Assyrian Teacher

When he’s teaching or just speaking, he has a way of walking one through the labyrinth of his eighty year old mind. His Assyrian, it isn’t everyday talk—rather it’s vivid, colorful and figurative with cherry picked words. He has a lot to say, so much to talk about, yet never, not once does this man stumble. Never do his stories tangle up into a ball of words and confusion. It doesn’t matter how many different topics are covered in one conversation, he gets back to his main points. On top of that he listens. He answers questions. Indeed this man is the epitome of a teacher. He is eloquent. He is concise.

Throughout most of his life, Tobia Giwargis (ܛܘܒܝܐ ܓܝܘܪܓܝܣ) has been a teacher; primarily of Assyrian grammar. He can teach it fluently in four languages: Assyrian, Arabic, Farsi, and English. He teaches in person, on satellite television, and even over the phone.

“The moment I wake up,” he said humorously, “I start taking phone calls up until the time I sleep. People call me from all over the world about all sorts of things. Just this morning, a young man called me from Chicago asking ‘How do you say turkey in Assyrian?’…When I leave the house, I go to teach; when I have guests, they come to be taught…During my free time I am either writing, translating, or editing manuscripts…You know a few years ago, I taught a group of Americans? By 3 months they were writing me letters in Assyrian.”

Tobia was born in 1932, in Baghdad, Iraq to Orahim and Khana Giwargis. His father was a carpenter working for the occupying British, while his mother stayed home raising three children. In 1954, Tobia studied Assyrian grammar under the instruction of Reverend Theodorus Bet-Odisho of the Assyrian Church of the East (ܥܕܬܐ ܕܡܕܢܚܐ ܕܐܬܘܪܝܐ). One year later, he completed his lessons and started teaching members and clergy of the church.

“My grammar classes finished, but my study of the language continued. To this day I am learning,” said Tobia followed by a brief pause. He then asked, “Do you know the artist Michelangelo?”—I nodded my head—“This Michelangelo once wrote ancora imparo upon one of his works. I like that phrase. It’s Latin for I am still learning. If this genius was still learning, then who am I to say I have finished?” I must mention that it delights me to hear Tobia quote people in Assyrian—he does it quite often.

In 1962, he fled Iraq to go live in Tehran, Iran. “Iraq wasn’t safe for me anymore,” he said with an air of discomfort. When I asked him why, he shook his head. He didn’t want to give any details on the matter.

In Iran, Tobia worked as a typesetter supervisor, in a print shop run by the Assyrian Youth Cultural Society of Tehran (ܣܝܥܬܐ ܣܦܪܝܬܐ ܕܥܠܝܡ̈ܐ ܕܐܬܼܘܪ̈ܝܐ ܕܬܗܪܢ). They printed Assyrian books using a Gutenberg styled printer. “We had five guys working there. For each page of a book, the typesetter had to set in movable type in the bed of the press, one at a time. After my editing and approval, the boys would ink the press and print as many pages.”

In 1967, he translated his first book from English to Assyrian. A book by William Wigram titled Our Smallest Ally (ܒܪ ܩܝܡܐ ܡܢ ܟܠܝܗܝ ܒܘܫ ܙܥܘܪܐ). In 1970, he published a book of proverbs translated into Assyrian from various languages titled Pearls of Wisdom (ܡܪܓܢܝܬܐ ܕܚܟܡܬܐ). During that same year, he also finished helping Dr. Pera Sarmas (ܦܐܪܐ ܣܪܡܣ), the expert on Assyrian literature and Tobia’s biggest influence.

“Sarmas knew our history as far back as 5000 years and he knew it all by heart,” he said, “He was a living encyclopedia. The information was all in his brain." The man went blind just before writing his second volume titled History of Assyrian Literature (ܬܫܥܝܬܐ ܕܣܦܪܝܘܬܐ ܐܬܘܪܝܬܐ), so he sent for Tobia. “Like a scribe, I wrote his entire second and third volume as he recited them to me in his home,” said Tobia, “Seven hundred and fifty pages. It took me two years to finish.

Tobia managed to accomplish quite a bit in Iran. Aside from teaching at home, at Shoushan School, and the Assyrian Association in Tehran, he was also the editor of Atour (ܐܬܘܪ) and Shvela (ܫܒܼܝܠܐ) magazines. “I was happy there,” he said, “My job was good. People were friendly.” Iran was also where Tobia met his wife Ashurina. They married and had two girls together.

In the 80’s Tobia invented a pocket calendar, a circular calendar that could tell you the day of the week of any day in any year for 136 years. He has it all drawn out on paper, he explained to me how it worked. It’s a nice little tool that looks like it belongs on the back of every calendar. “I never got around to patenting it.”

In 1986, he left Iran moving to Germany. After 18 months, Tobia and his family moved to the United States, settling in California. There, he became the editor of Los Angeles’ Ator (ܐܬܘܪ), San Jose’s Assyrian Star (ܟܘܟܒܐ ܐܬܘܪܝܐ), Berkeley’s Ninveh (ܢܝܢܘܐ), and Ceres’ Bet-Nahrain (ܒܝܬ ܢܗܪܝܢ) magazine. He also contributed articles to Canada’s Ninveh (ܢܝܢܘܐ) magazine and The Assyrian Observer (ܕܝܘܩܐ ܐܬܘܪܝܐ) in London. He has edited eight books, and has translated the by-laws of several Assyrian organizations from English to Assyrian; every now and then he’ll be invited to give a lecture; and once a week for over 6 years now, Tobia has been teaching Assyrian on Bet-Nahrain (ܒܝܬ ܢܗܪܝܢ) satellite television.

Last April, I called the station to obtain recordings of Tobia’s television classes. An edgy man answered. “We can’t keep them, no,” he said, “If we did, we’d have to keep hundreds of them. We can’t. He’ll be on Saturday at two if you want to watch. ”What he said to me was no different than we don’t keep gold. Strange as it may seem, the man was certain that it would be too difficult to archive the recordings.

By 2007, Tobia completed 2 volumes that teach Assyrian grammar. Their title translates to Advanced Assyrian Instructor (ܡܠܦܢܐ ܐܬܘܪܝܐ ܡܩܕܡܐ). Together, the 2 books are roughly a centimeter thick. “I developed a science, tactic, a system for Assyrian grammar. You see these 2 volumes,” Tobia said holding them up and waiving their soft covers in one hand, “They are all you need in order to learn Assyrian,” he paused to think, “Provided that you have a good teacher since a book…it’s only as good as its teacher.”

I must note that Tobia doesn’t take all the credit for the efficiency of his books, much of the credit he gives to the Assyrian language itself. “It’s complete. It’s compact. Our nouns, verbs, adjectives—they all change to agree with gender.” He went on to tell me about how he would hold debates with his Arab, British, and Persian peers in Iraq and Iran. “We debated over whose language is more practical. I’d call them or they’d call me. We would set up a time and place to meet and we would debate—and let me tell you…I never lost…not a single debate!”

Tobia also published 2 preschool level Assyrian workbooks in 2010. Their title translates to Assyrian Reader for Children (ܩܪܝܢܐ ܐܬܘܪܝܐ ܩܐ ܫܒܼܪ̈ܐ). “Psychology!” he called it as I flipped through the pages. The simple books bound by plastic clamps contain the typical writing, matching, coloring, and connect-the dot lessons. “I wish I could make a lesson book for every grade level…there’s not much time though.”

Recently, he is very pleased with his translation from Arabic to Assyrian, Yosip David’s (ܝܘܤܦ ܕܘܝܕ) Assyrian Encyclopedia, History of the Assyrian Church of the East from 33-2011 A.D. (ܚܘܕܪܐܕܡܘܕܥܢܘܬܐ ܐܬܘܪ̈ܝܐ ܬܫܥܝܬܐ ܕܥܕܬܐ ܕܡܕܢܚܐ ܕܐܬܘܪܝܐ ܡܢ 33-2011ܠܡܪܢ). I learned that for the project, Tobia had to come up with an Assyrian term for encyclopedia (ܚܘܕܪܐܕܡܘܕܥܢܘܬܐ).

Today, Tobia spends most of his time trying to finish up what he calls the last of his works, an English-Assyrian dictionary. He has translated every word in the English dictionary by hand on paper. Now he’s working to digitize it for printing. It has been his lifelong goal; a project that he started in California. It is the tedious of most tedious tasks and breathtaking when seen in person.

The Assyrian ring of Rabi Tobia Giwargis

Tobia quietly sat on the edge of his couch looking at his dictionary, with both feet on the ground, and his hands woven together between his knees. He nodded his head with determination.

He always has a clean shave with a neatly trimmed mustache. He wears a dress shirt and slacks everyday—occasionally with a tie; even if he is just around the house that day, he’ll just walk around in slippers. His favorite color is light blue, which represents tranquility in the Assyrian flag’s 4 point star. His favorite food is beans. “I’ve always liked beans,” he laughed, “It’s almost embarrassing to say, but they are my favorite food.” He doesn’t listen to music much, but does like the 3 famous Assyrian singers Sargon (ܣܪܓܘܢ), Ashur (ܐܫܘܪ), and Evin (ܐܝܒܢ). He enjoys reading poems written by 11th century’s polymath, Omar Khayyám as well as William Daniel (ܘܠܝܡ ܕܢܝܐܝܠ), the Assyrian poet famous for his epic trilogy Qateeni Gabbara (ܩܛܝܢܐ ܓܢَܒܪܐ). Tobia has a cat that he himself wrote a poem about titled Pishe My Small Cat (ܦܫܐ،ܩܛܘܢܬܝ ܙܥܘܪܬܐ). He highly regards the 20th century Assyrian nationalist, Freydun Atturaya (ܦ̮ܪܝܕܢ ܐܬܘܪܝܐ) and the late Assyrian poet and activist, Ninos Aho (ܢܝܢܘܣ ܐܚܐ). Tobia is a man who makes statements like “For my community, I am never too busy” or “I don’t want your money, your devotion is enough.” He works tirelessly for his nation and faith. He is a husband, a father, and above all, Tobia Giwargis is a teacher.