“I feel I’ve been taken advantage of” — An Interview with Professor Geoffrey Khan

Prof. Khan shares his experiences and calls for more Assyrians to get involved in documenting Assyrian dialects.

Max J. Joseph
Jun 10 · 14 min read
Professor Geoffrey Khan. Photo: University of Cambridge.

After the publication of my last article highlighting the activities of Ninif Tooma (Nineb Lamassu), Professor Geoffrey Khan (GK), Mr Tooma’s former PhD supervisor at the University of Cambridge, reached out to me via email to clarify the situation from his perspective. We arranged to meet on Tuesday, 28th May, where I (MJJ) interviewed him about the matter of the Baaba and Boulus family donations, Mr Tooma’s time at Cambridge, and funding received by Mr Tooma from the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation (AUAF) from 2011–2016 which totalled to nearly $250,000. Mardean Isaac (MI), University of Cambridge alumnus, accompanied me.

As this interview confirms, the Baaba and Boulus family donations, totalling hundreds of books, transcripts and other items, were moved to Mr Tooma’s residence as early as 2015 and have remained there since. Beyond that, Prof. Khan says he felt “taken advantage of” by Mr Tooma, who continued to receive funding from both the AUAF and Cambridge University without producing work and while ignoring repeated attempts for contact. Prof. Khan expresses concern over the fact that Mr Tooma has continued to cite his affiliation with the University of Cambridge to pursue his own personal projects without any communication with Prof. Khan or anybody else in Prof. Khan’s team working on the documentation of the Assyrian language. While Prof. Khan says he is becoming increasingly disillusioned in his efforts to help the Assyrian community given these and other experiences, he encourages Assyrians to join him and his team in his Assyrian dialect documentation and transcription work.

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MJJ: Since you had reached out to me after the publication of my article, we both know the current situation regarding the donation made by the Baaba family to the University of Cambridge — i.e. that the entire collection is currently at Mr Tooma’s personal residence. Can you confirm if Mr Tooma took these materials to his home after he quit his PhD as you had said in your initial email to me, and secondly, were the materials taken off-site because of renovation work?

GK: Nineb de-registered from his PhD officially about a year ago. In reality, he stopped working on his PhD quite a long time earlier than that. When you have a donation of books, or somebody gives you books, or you buy books for a library, you can’t just buy books and put them in the basement. What’s the point in having them?

As far as I recall, Nineb had all kinds of ideas of either himself cataloguing them or perhaps finding a way to raise some money to get somebody else to catalogue them. Then we would have had them on the shelves and people could consult them. Otherwise, they would just remain in boxes. But that never happened. We had this workstation in the basement and he had the books surrounding him there. I was on sabbatical at the time, but I recall there was some issue about renovations, and the books had to be moved from the basement. At that point he took them back to his house. His de-registration came further down the road — when he realised he was not going to finish his PhD.

MJJ: When was the renovation work completed?

GK: I can’t remember exactly. I think it was sometime around my sabbatical, so 2015. I cannot remember when the books arrived?

MJJ: They were shipped around 2012/2013.

GK: It was probably around 2015. They’ve been in his house for a long time.

MJJ: Yes, that’s what the donating families didn’t know. So after Mr Tooma became aware that I was helping these families learn the fate of their donation, he finally reached out to them to reassure them by referring to MARA’s website, which “still has the Cambridge logo on it”. What was the nature of MARA’s relationship with Cambridge over the last decade and what is it today?

GK: I think the simple answer is: me. I was giving them moral support. There was no formal kind of contractual relationship. Sometimes there are these rather informal relationships between our University and external activities. I was giving MARA moral support. That was the relationship.

The idea of MARA was not mine, but rather it was the idea of a group of young Assyrians. I wanted to support this initiative, although it was not my particular interest. Nineb was involved in the early stages of the MARA initiative and I gave his involvement my support, as I supported the other young Assyrians, and as I supported Nineb’s personal initiative to bring the Youel Baba books to Cambridge. I was somewhat concerned, however, that these initiatives would distract Nineb from his studies and his work with me on the Assyrian language documentation project, which was my own initiative.

I personally have lost touch with MARA now. It was something I wanted to support because I felt it was a very worthwhile project and I wanted to support the efforts of young Assyrian scholars to preserve their culture. I should say, however, that my main priority is the documentation of the endangered Assyrian dialects, which is without doubt the most urgent task of cultural preservation and protection. I don’t know what the current state of MARA is now. I have the impression it became embroiled in a lot of internal Assyrian politics. As far as I know it is now largely disbanded and it hasn’t got any funding, is that correct?

MJJ: That’s correct.

GK: I am not sure who is involved with it. Tomas Isik was the man doing most of the work on it. He was paid to some of the digitisation. He was doing a superb job and MARA was an excellent initiative. It’s a great pity if it will not continue.

MJJ: Yes, it was just peculiar, from my perspective, that Mr Tooma reassured the families by still invoking MARA’s relationship with Cambridge, to say that “oh no, the cataloguing is still taking place.”

GK: I’ll be frank with you. For twenty-five years, I’ve been trying to support the Assyrian community, from the depth of my heart, and the person I’ve supported the most over many years stopped doing the studies and work he was paid to do, now refuses to communicate with me, but continues to take advantage of his historical connection with me for his own personal agenda. It’s very disheartening, since I wanted very much to help the Assyrian community to document and preserve their own oral heritage.

MJJ: In your email to me, you wrote you “suffered bitter disappointment” with Mr Tooma, and that he “disappeared and did not respond to emails. He was paid to work on his PhD and do research assistance work but he did neither.” Unless I am wrong, I assume the funding you are referring to came from the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation (AUAF), from 2011–2016, and for a sum of nearly $250,000. Can you explain what he was being funded to do and what he failed to produce?

GK: He was funded by the AUAF and by our Faculty to do his MPhil (Masters) and PhD and do research assistance work for me on the Cambridge Assyrian language documentation project, mainly things like transcriptions of recordings. He did that pretty well when he was doing his MPhil and the first year of his PhD. During that period he successfully completed his MPhil and made an important contribution to the documentation project, mainly through is transcription of recordings of the Urmi dialect, which helped me very much compile my grammar of text corpus of that dialect (published in 2016). Then in his second year of his PhD he essentially stopped working and I found it difficult to communicate with him. He was, nevertheless, still receiving funding from the AUAF and our Faculty fund to work on his PhD and do research assistance work.

I wasn’t sure what his state of health was. I had great sympathy for him — I thought he was in some sort of depression or something — but when I looked at his Facebook page, I kept seeing him at events around the world giving talks and promoting his poetry. So that’s why I feel I’ve been taken advantage of.

You have to look at it from my point of view: my deep wish was to support the Assyrian community and I had the hope that Nineb and I would work as a team. If it would have all worked out, we would have been a fantastic team. Nineb clearly had great ability in language documentation. We would have made great progress in the massive task of documenting and preserving the Assyrian language heritage. My concern is that Nineb’s behaviour may deter the AUAF and other Assyrian funding bodies from supporting the documentation project. In reality I am fortunate in having now found some other Assyrians who are working very reliably with me but I need funding to continue to employ them. I very much hope that the Assyrians recognise the importance of the project for the Assyrian community and the importance of the concept of building safe haven for the endangered dialects.

MJJ: You also wrote “he travelled around telling everybody that he is working for the University of Cambridge without having any contact with me.” Can you explain what this is in reference to and what exactly he was claiming?

GK: Well, I probably got this second hand — people said they saw him at some event, the British Museum Ashurbanipal event this year for example — that he was there saying he was working with the University of Cambridge.

MJJ: Yes, he was introduced as “Nineb Lamassu, University of Cambridge.”

GK: I had been for several months trying to get any kind of response out of an email from him. He simply had no communication with me. He tended to use his association with me for his own advantage, which is deeply distressing for me. And not only from a personal point of view, but also because it is very harmful for the Assyrian community. They’re not really seeing what I’ve been trying to do for them. Because I can see that the documentation of these spoken dialects is the top priority — everything else can wait.

MJJ: You mentioned that there was a possibility that “he had raised money for his own activities on the grounds that he is working for the University of Cambridge.” Can you elaborate on what these activities may have been that were being associated with Cambridge?

GK: Again, it’s just something I hear indirectly. Several times I’ve tried to wipe the slate clean and offer him the opportunity to continue to work with me if he wants to continue. A couple of times he would say yes, he would do it — and then he would disappear. The last time this happened was very recently. After he got his job in Iraq in March, he decided he wanted to try and continue to work with me; I said I would do my best to get him a bit of funding from a Faculty research fund, then he disappeared and didn’t do any work and did not respond to my emails. And I don’t know, I don’t have any direct evidence. I’ve just been told by people he’s going around raising money on the back of his former association with the University of Cambridge. Perhaps you know more.

MI: He has been receiving, and seeking, opportunities and money in an unaccountable way with the ambient background understanding that he’s at Cambridge.

GK: Which is wrong, because he’s not. I mean OK, even if he’s de-registered, and he had ongoing relations with me, and he had fulfilled his duties, and he was still working with me, and he was on board, and we’re on the same page and the same team, that would be fine.

Even his iSureth app was completely developed without any consultation with me — he obviously got money for the app from somewhere. I applaud the general concept, but I don’t believe the design is necessarily the optimal design and it was done completely without any kind of consultation with me. More worrying is that I don’t know what will happen to the data that he is gathering. It is only in his hands. If he was working together with me, our team in Cambridge would ensure that it will be securely archived and integrated with the rest of the data we are gathering. He said at one point that he’d add our Cambridge address for the data to be sent to, but that never happened. It’s totally disconnected from any of our activity here. I don’t know why he did it — why does he refuse to work on our documentation project in Cambridge for two years when he was receiving a salary to do the work, but instead disappear and raise money to develop a documentation project by himself without me knowing anything about it? The point is that, he did make important contributions to our work here, but he’s very sadly disconnected himself from Cambridge.

MJJ: As per your greatest concern in your email to me, you said that “he gathers recorded data from [people in Iraq] and keeps it without any communication with me.” Does he continue to undertake this work at your request?

GK: The main thing is this iSureth app. He saw me in Iraq and he saw what we were trying to do there; he decided to try and get his app further developed to add some more facilities to it. My concern is the people in the community: the younger students, the ones we’re trying to train and persuade and get involved with us in this documentation project. My concern is they’re going to get diverted by this interaction with Nineb. That they’ll start doing recordings and giving data to Nineb, and none of it can be archived by us. I don’t understand — he’s got his poetry project and that’s one thing, but when you’re dealing with language documentation, I don’t know why he feels he has to go by himself. That’s what I don’t get. In a way, this is undermining what we’re doing here.

MJJ: Crucially, he’s doing that while operating under the umbrella in Cambridge — to a lot of peoples’ eyes, you are working together.

GK: A couple of years ago, when I saw you, Mardean, in Chicago, an elderly man came up to me in the AUAF and said “are you one of the assistants of Professor Lamassu?” In reality I had made the trip to Chicago to give a report to the AUAF and to request them to continue funding Nineb. Nineb was supposed to be with me, but he did not come, he did not answer emails when I asked him to join me. That is just one example of the support I gave Nineb and how he has used me to build his reputation in the Assyrian community.

MI: I think that anecdote reflects what he has been doing perfectly.

GK: That aspect I don’t fully understand. He can have his own agenda with his poetry, but why does he feel like he can go off on a different, independent agenda with language documentation? I don’t understand. I’d hope by meeting you today, some kind of message can get out to the Assyrian community about the importance of what we’re doing here in Cambridge.

MJJ: My last question is exactly about that, but I have two left. Mr Tooma has had a relationship with Cambridge for nearly a decade; is keeping donations made to the university at his personal home for a number of years without consent or communication; and has taken nearly $250,000 in funding from the community — for work done and not done, it’s unclear. Considering a personal aspect, do you feel that you have partly enabled Mr Tooma’s behaviour over these years through his continued association with Cambridge despite holding no PhD from the university and producing little to no work for it?

GK: He should get acknowledgment for the contributions he made during the first half of his studies here: he did do work, he did do transcriptions — in particular of the Urmi dialect. He also made good recordings of other dialects, such as Bedyel and Baz and made progress with transcriptions. But in terms of “enabling”, I admit if I was a harder person, I would have cut him off a long time ago. But I wanted to help him as a human being. I saw that he had had a very traumatic early life, and like many Assyrians, he was a refugee. I wanted to be constantly understanding, forgiving and supportive. I was constantly giving him an olive branch and a helping hand. In that sense, it enabled him to take advantage of me.

I don’t know where this is all going. I’m somewhat disillusioned with how to support the Assyrian community but I’m still trying to find people who can work with me. Luckily over the last few years I have found some more reliable Assyrians who are working with me funded by my research funds. They are doing excellent transcription and translation work. But I’d be very happy if either of you know any other Assyrians who would like to join me in the work I’m doing. I’m not involved in the internal community politics, but I feel I see what’s needed. I see what a trauma it is to lose a culture. In a sense, Nineb had a trauma — his family trauma — but the whole Assyrian community is suffering a trauma because of loss. I’m trying to champion the community by finding a way to provide a safe haven for what I feel is the core of Assyrian heritage, the spoken Assyrian language in all its dialects, to safeguard against its loss.

It’s also very important for humanity. I’m not doing this because I’m Assyrian, I’m doing this because I’m a human being. As a human being I see that the Assyrian community is an important part of our world and humanity and that is why I am offering my heart and support to your community.

MJJ: And that leads perfectly to the last question. Assyrians have a very large and highly skilled diaspora. What can our community do to help you fulfil any current and future work?

GK: If more people can get involved and work with me on this project of documentation. I’ve got a large number of recordings. As I said, I’ve got a team of people transcribing some of these. The more Assyrian native speakers who can help with writing up some of these recordings, the better. We’re creating a corpus of texts which are narratives of people either telling folk stories or memories of the community, memories of village life, memories of the past, memories of things lost.

So I am looking for Assyrians of any age who wish to help with me in this task of transcription. I do have some funds to pay for this work. At the moment, I’m employing two or three people to help with this and paying for transcription work. That’s one way. It does require funding. I do happen to have funds at the moment, but for the future, small amounts of funding are always welcome to employ such a team. Some years ago; I had the aspiration of creating a permanent position in Modern Assyrian Studies here at the University of Cambridge. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think that might get too complicated and perhaps too political.

Probably the most practical way is if there are people out there to help with the transcription; they would be paid for their work. And if there are small donors who can chip in a bit of money — which would basically be employing members of the Assyrian community — with small, low levels of funding. We have a database we are creating online which will be making all of this data available to all of the community. The idea is that the community will be involved in this crowd-sourcing and preserve all of this data, and we will have it all displayed on this database, so communities all around the world can access it. You can find recordings and transcriptions of the dialect of your ancestors’ village, say Ankawa, Gawilan, Mawana or whatever. That’s the ambition. We are getting there gradually. But we do need the Assyrian community to get involved. So if you do know anybody, let me know.