ANKAWA, Iraq—It is commonly known as the language of Jesus and is the root of both Arabic and Hebrew. But what's less widely known is that Aramaic is still spoken, and is in fact thriving in some parts of Iraq.
"We're very proud of our language," says Sister Jermine Daoud, a nun originally from Baghdad who grew up speaking the language and who now lives in Shaqlawa, in northern Iraq, one of the few places in the world where Aramaic is still spoken on the street. "After the war so many [Aramaic speakers] left. But I'm not worried about the language disappearing."
For years, extinction looked like a real possibility for Aramaic, especially after the Anfal campaign that lasted from 1986 to 1989, in which Saddam Hussein's government is believed to have destroyed more than 4,000 Kurdish, Christian and other minority villages in Northern Iraq, where Aramaic was widely spoken, in an attempt to "Arabize" the country's minorities.
This push was halted with the imposition of the no-fly zone in Iraq in 1991, and the subsequent establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government in 1992, as Aramaic was increasingly taught in Christian churches. Then, in 2003, following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Syriac—the classical written version of Neo Aramaic—along with Kurdish, Arabic and English classes became part of the curriculum of many schools.
Today, with the increased stability in the country's Kurdish region, and the subsequent move north by Christians fleeing inter-communal violence elsewhere in the country, the ancient language is making a comeback in the area. Of the estimated 30,000 people world-wide who speak a dialect of Neo-Aramaic, most live in Iraqi Kurdistan.
While the classical language is being taught in classrooms in Iraqi Kurdistan, the modern language is being broadcast from satellite stations. Two of the most popular stations that feature Aramaic are Ishtar, a privately funded station based in Ankawa, and Ashur, funded by the Assyrian Democratic Movement party.
Ishtar, which started in 2005, has a world-wide audience, broadcasting on five different satellite networks. "This was the first professional [media] experience for our people in Iraq and abroad," says Ishtar founder George Mansour, who set up the station in response to demand from the local community. "We worked to make Ishtar a bridge connecting [Aramaic-speaking] Christians from Iraq to those outside Iraq."There is debate among both speakers and academics as to whether to call the language Aramaic or Syriac
, or whether they're two separate languages or dialects. In general, people tend to refer to the spoken language as Aramaic and the written as Syriac. Regardless of its name, all seem to be in agreement about its cultural significance and the need to preserve it through education.
These days it is seeing an increased interest from students and parents. "We're planning on opening more classes," says Galawish Touma, a Syriac teacher in Shaqlawa, where students learn the language at state schools up to the age of 14. "As long as the [Syriac] church is here, the language will stay. If we stay, the language will stay."Iraq's Kurds, who now run a state-within-a-state, managing their army, judiciary and oil wealth, have been eager to present themselves to the West as protectors of minorities, including Christians.
According to the ministry of religious affairs in Erbil, the provincial capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, there are 140 Christian villages in the province. At least 70 of their churches have been renovated by Sarkis Aghajan Mamendo, who helps in the production and funding of Ishtar. An Iraqi-Assyrian politician who previously served as minister of finance and economy, he is considered controversial by some because of his close ties to Kurdish politics. Mr. Mamendo now lives in Ankawa, a suburb of Erbil, whose population has doubled to 20,000 since 2003 because of a large influx of refugees from the south.
At two schools in Ankawa, all teaching is in Syriac. There, Shwan Kakona teaches his third-grade students what he says is "the modern version of what Jesus spoke." In the class, the children learn grammar and read Assyrian fables.But the language is caught in struggle between preserving it in its classical form and encouraging a modern version suitable for day-to-day use.
"Writing is taught strictly in classical Aramaic, which is barely understood by modern speakers of Neo-Aramaic," says Daniel Kaufman, an adjunct professor of linguistics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "When younger people want to write in Aramaic they use an improvised orthography in the Arabic script. This can then be considered a case of a classical language having a suffocating influence on its modern descendant."Meanwhile, despite the apparent academic renaissance of the language, there is still the problem of finding Assyrian-speakers qualified to teach academic subjects at higher levels. Nizar Hanna, director of Assyrian education in the KRG, says that "the lack of academic specialists in the field creates a clear limit on the instruction."
Mr. Hanna has long been campaigning for a Syriac department at the ministry of higher education in Kurdistan, to organize and regulate the language, and introduce quality control in teaching. So far, he says, his requests have failed—the ministry has said there aren't enough specialized staff to make it viable.
Advocates argue that the need to keep the language alive in Kurdistan is even greater because it is dying out elsewhere. "I can see it right in front of my eyes vanishing in [the] diaspora," says Ghaith Hadaya, who grew up in Karada, a once largely Christian district of Baghdad and now works as an Arabic translator at the United Nations in New York, says: "My aunt and her husband came to the States in the late 70's. Their kids were taught the neo-Aramaic; after going to school they were more focusing on learning English. For young people, learning Aramaic isn't a priority."Mr. Mansour, founder of the Ishtar satellite TV station, is also well aware of the vulnerability of Aramaic, even with its historical ties to the region. "I think the fact that it is an ancient language means that it demands a lot of linguistic attention to bring [it] to the modern-day level," he says. "Its roots are in Iraq, and I hope it can remain here."