The Ben Yehudas of Aramaic
The one-time lingua franca of the Fertile Crescent is spoken by only 400,000 people around the world today. But efforts are being made, especially in one village in the Galilee, to ensure that Aramaic does not go quietly into the night.
Two Aramaic-language television stations in Sweden are locked in a war for viewership among speakers of the ancient Middle Eastern tongue. Devotees of Suroyo TV and Suryoyo Sat (both are variations of the Aramaic word "Syriac," the Aramaic language) wage heated online debates over which station is superior. The majority preferSuroyo, the older station, and claim Suryoyo Sat copied much of its content and broadcasts too many reruns.
Some of the stations' most avid viewers live in Israel, primarily in Haifa and the Galilee. Shady Khallul of the Upper Galilee village of Jish says, "What does it matter which channel is better? The important thing is that they exist. These channels prove that our Aramaic language lives and breathes."
Aramaic is a Semitic language related to Hebrew that was once spoken across the Fertile Crescent. Over the centuries its influence has dwindled, and today it is largely limited to a kind of coded and liturgical language used by Middle Eastern Christians. The language is also used by those who study Talmud, which is written in Aramaic.
The language was widely believed to have become extinct many years ago, but a number of dialects remain in use today in large Aramaic-speaking communities in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran, and among smaller populations in Lebanon, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Israel. Aramaic "diasporas" also exist in the United States and Sweden, whose members not only speak the language but are at the forefront of preserving it.
Aramaic speakers are often referred to as Aramaeans, but also as ethnic Assyrians or Syriacs depending on geography and preference. All told, over 400,000 people are believed to speak the language worldwide.
Shady Khallul and his brother Amir have been working for years to revive the holy language of Aramaean Christians in Israel and to bring it back into everyday use. Their model, Shady says, is none other than Eliezer Ben Yehuda, father of the contemporary Hebrew language renaissance.
"If you, the Jews, were able to revive Hebrew and turn it into a modern language, why can't we?" he asks. "Last year we received permission from the Education Ministry to teach Aramaic in first and second grades at the school in Jish, and we had to draft a curriculum from scratch. Amir wrote the textbooks and I traveled around the world to buy dictionaries and grammar books so that we could translate and adapt them for use in Israel. I brought most of the teaching material from Sweden, and the dictionaries from France. Most Aramaic books today are printed in Lebanon, but we have no way of bringing them in from there."
Unlike biblical Aramaic, written in Hebrew letters, the modern dialect - the Western variant of which is called Syriac - is written in another ancient script, which resembles a melding of the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets. Like Hebrew, the language comprises 22 characters and is written right to left. Each of Aramaic's two principle dialects - Western and Eastern - has its own alphabet. Both, however, share a classical written alphabet, Estrangela, reserved for prayers and religious texts.
The challenge before the Aramaeans in Israel, who use the Western dialect, is twofold: On the one hand they must teach their children to speak the language and persuade them to use it in their everyday lives, with family, friends and at school, and on the other hand teach them to read and write in the two alphabets (the Western and the Estrangela).
Jish was once the site of Gush Halav, a Jewish village in the Second Temple period known for its fertile land and high-quality olive groves. The site still houses the remains of an ancient synagogue, as well as a Jewish cemetery which according to tradition holds the tombs of the rabbinic sages Shamaya and Avtalion. Modern Jish - population 3,000 - sits on a mountaintop affording a breathtaking view of the Upper Galilee. Thirty-five percent of its inhabitants are Muslim and 10 percent are Greek Orthodox Christians; over half are Maronite Christians, uprooted by the Israeli military from neighboring Bir'am in the 1948 War of Independence and not allowed to return (Kibbutz Bar'am now sits on some of the remains of the village).
The Maronites took root in the Fertile Crescent around 350 C.E. After the Arab conquest, they established an autonomous enclave on Mount Lebanon, which fought for 0its existence for 1,400 years and still struggles to keep its Aramaic heritage, language and culture alive.
Aramaic Christian literature largely developed between the third and eighth centuries C.E. Learned Aramaeans translated Greek texts to Aramaic and then to Arabic, making Aramaic into a kind of "pipeline" for transferring Hellenistic ideas and science to the Arab world. Nonetheless, the degeneration of Aramaic was inevitable with the invasion of the Mamluks, a military ruling caste originating in Egypt. Gradually Arabic not only superseded the everyday language, but also the sacred tongue of the church.
In 1517 the Maronites, still mostly located in Lebanon, forged an alliance with the Druze in a bid to shake off Mamluk rule. It was a prosperous, successful period for both communities, as they regained their independence and retained their cultural autonomy.
It was the Aramaeans who created the mold for an expanded Lebanon as a state for all its citizens regardless of creed, a feat they would later regret as a historic mistake, as it converted them into minorities in their own state.
The Maronite Christians in Jish enjoy a vibrant community life and maintain close ties with Maronites living elsewhere in Israel - mostly in Nazareth, Acre and Haifa. These include 2,000 former South Lebanon Army soldiers who sought refuge here after Israel's pullout from southern Lebanon in 2000.
"When we first expressed the desire to teach Aramaic to members of our community, the people of the village were very enthusiastic," Khallul says. "Classes were immediately started at the church in Jish, on Fridays for kids and Tuesdays for adults. This year, after the Education Ministry approved the plan, people got even more excited. Schoolchildren were given the choice of studying Aramaic, and of 100 students in first and second grade, 64 chose Aramaic class instead of art and drawing."
He adds that the school principal, who is Muslim, actively supports the project as well. "Even her son chose to take the course, along with the son of an old Muslim family in the village," Khallul notes. "The kids just wanted to be in class with their friends, and their parents were happy they would be learning about the culture and tradition of their neighbors in the village."
The word "tradition" is repeated in this context by almost every Jish resident: To them, the Aramaic language is vital to ensuring their continued existence as a people, just as it is for Jews and Arabs.
Students taking the course learn not only basic phrases like "Safra taba, eichna itikun?" ("Good morning, how are you?"), and "Halamna dil sgi shapira; it li sadvich im shokolada" ("I am very well; I have a sandwich with chocolate"), but also the Maronite liturgical tradition and the meaning of Aramaic prayers. On major holidays like Christmas and Easter, young pupils bring their language skills to church, having already mastered the prayers and hymns almost as well as their elders.
"We don't identify ourselves as an Aramaean nation in contrast to other nations. We seek self-determination alongside the Jews and the other minorities in this country," Khallul says. "The State of Israel is very precious to us - I am very proud of my military combat service as a captain in the Paratroopers Brigade, and no small number of Israeli Maronite Aramaeans enlist in the Israel Defense Forces of their own free will, in light of their support for the state. Our Aramaic language is almost a twin sister to Hebrew, and we feel a tremendous, profound feeling of belonging to this place, and all the traditions it holds."
The various Maronite streams in Lebanon were in constant contact with the Zionist movement in Palestine from the 1930s onward. During the 1939 Arab Revolt, Maronites provided food to the besieged Jews of Safed by donkey, and smuggled Holocaust survivors through the border crossing at Bir'am when the British closed Palestine to Jews fleeing Europe. David Ben-Gurion even worked to establish a Maronite Christian state in Lebanon with Jewish Agency money, as part of his vision of ushering in a new age in the Middle East.
Jish recently opened the Center for Maronite Accommodation in Gush Halav, where residents offer Israelis and foreign visitors walking tours in the area and visits to the ancient churches and synagogues, as well as accommodation in local homes. The goal is not to open a chain of bed-and-breakfasts where visitors go off to their own rooms, but to invite families to a social and cultural meeting place where they can become more familiar with the shared heritage of the region's peoples.
"All the people in the village joined up in operating the center," Khallul says. "Everyone leaves happy after the encounter, both hosts and visitors, who learn very quickly how to say in Aramaic, 'Nahzor b'shlama, eloha nevarech lachun.' In other words, 'See you later, God bless you.'"