A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Saving Aramaic: A Smithsonian Article for our Continuing Aramaic Topic

Minority languages in the Middle East have been a frequent theme on this blog, and Aramaic probably has more posts to its credit so far than any language other than Tamazight, the Amazigh language, which is enjoying a renaissance in the Maghreb. Aramaic is not, and since most Aramaic speakers today are Christians (though there are Jews, Mandaeans, and a few Muslims even), it is facing the erosion Christianity in the Middle East is facing across the board; since the two countries with the bulk of Aramaic speakers are Syria and Iraq, the decline is accelerating.

I have posted before on a lot of Aramaic issues and have discussed its two major surviving varieties: spoken Eastern Neo-Aramaic, mostly in Iraq with pockets in Turkey and Iran, and spoken Western Neo-Aramaic, in three villages in Syria (one of them Muslim!).

There is, however, a diaspora as well. And this article, "How to Save a Dying Language,"  by Ariel Sabar, (who notes that his on father was an Aramaic-speaking Jew from Iraqi Kurdistan), in the February issue of Smithsonian magazine, focuses on Geoffrey Khan, a scholar from Cambridge University. He has made it his mission to study and preserve the many dialects of spoken Aramaic before they disappear. Since Chicago is one of the centers of the American Assyrian Christian community, Khan in this article is using a speaking engagement at Northwestern to visit and record elderly Aramaic speakers. Khan, who started as a student of the Cairo Geniza but was fascinated to discover living speakers of Aramaic, which he knew as a classical tongue, is his main focus. You should read the whole article. But beyond Chicago, Khan apparently has some great stories:
The work has its exhilarating days, though, and few moved Khan more than his 2008 trip to the former Soviet republic of Georgia. He was in the capital of Tbilisi in search of Aramaic speakers from Salamas, a city in northwestern Iran. One wave of Assyrians fled Salamas after a Kurdish chieftain murdered a Church of the East patriarch there in 1918; another, after an earthquake a dozen years later
In Tbilisi, people told Khan that all but three of the dialect’s “pure” speakers had died. At the first house, the man’s daughter apologized: Her father had recently suffered a stroke and was mute. At the second, an older woman lived with a quartet of energetic Rottweilers. “I took out my microphone and they just started howling and barking,” Khan recalled. “It was impossible.”
Finally, a local Assyrian escorted Khan one night into an imposing Soviet-era apartment block. At the top of a dark flight of stairs was a one-room apartment. A frail woman in her mid-90s answered the door.
Khan looked at her brittle physique and wondered how much she could handle. He told himself he would stay for just a few minutes. But when he got up to leave, the woman stretched a bony hand across the table and clasped his wrist.
Biqir, Biqir,” she pleaded, in a small voice. (“Ask, ask.”)
“She literally grabbed onto me,” he said. “It was as if this was her last breath and she wanted to tell me everything.”
For two hours she hung on his wrist as his recorder filled with the sounds of a language in twilight.

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