Erbil welcomed us with rain and Aramaic. Both took me by surprise; as for the rain, Iraq in March proved to be much more stereotypically English than Middle Eastern in its weather. The latter, that is Aramaic, was also omnipresent. Our small team had just arrived in the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq – the historical heartlands of Aramaic-speaking Jews and Christians. The team from the University of Cambridge comprised three Aramaic linguists (myself being one of them) and an ethnomusicologist. During the two weeks which we were going to spend in that country, we would witness the language being used in classrooms, in conversations around dinner table, in shops and church services. For me, this was the first encounter with Aramaic as a vibrant, energetic language – a language which serves the communities in the various aspects of their life. A language alive and kicking. And that amazed me.
Prior to my arrival, it was hard for me to imagine Aramaic as a dynamic language, because I had been aware of its endangered state and of the turbulent history of its communities. Today, the languages known collectively as ‘Modern Aramaic’ are used by religious and ethnic minorities from the Middle East: Christians, Jews and Mandaeans. Historically, these communities have lived in Northern Iraq (and a few places in the south of the country), South-Eastern Turkey and North-Western Iran, as well as pockets in Syria. Today, however, the majority of the speakers’ communities live outside this historical Aramaic heartland.
Religious persecution, economic hardships and the undermining of the traditional agricultural lifestyle all played their part in driving the communities away. Persecutions of the Christians were frequent during history, but reached an unprecedented scale in the Assyrian genocide during and immediately after the First World War. The genocide caused the deaths of the estimated 150,000-300,000 people. The Jewish community in Iraq experienced intense persecution especially after the foundation of the State of Israel. In such situation, the majority of the Iraqi Jewish population left for Israel where they live until today.Despite these hardships, many Christian communities remained in the Aramaic heartlands (Turkey, Iraq and Iran), often living as village farming communities. But this too is changing. Traditional, pre-industrial farming is no longer a viable livelihood option and cities offer a more stable and economically improved future. Because of this, people have been moving from villages to big cities, some emigrating overseas.
These migration processes have naturally been bitter-sweet. On the one hand, they brought stability and safety, on the other, they caused at least a partial loss of identity and tore communities apart. They also changed the linguistic landscape of Aramaic. In big cities, speakers of different Aramaic dialects come together, resulting in the fusion of dialects. Often, the more prestigious ones are taken over, leading to the loss of many other ones. In the diaspora, Aramaic is frequently exchanged for the more prestigious national languages: the various European languages, English in the US and Australia, Modern Hebrew in Israel.
Precisely this language situation was the reason that on that rainy March evening, we landed in Erbil – the region where Aramaic is still alive and kicking. Our four-member team led by my professor was to carry out documentation of a number of selected Christian Northern Iraqi Modern Aramaic dialects. Our hope was that in this way, the linguistic record of these dialects would be preserved in case they do not survive. We wanted this heritage to be preserved not only for scholars, but also for the speaker communities and for their descendants. We would also cooperate with local students, encouraging them to collect information about their own dialects.
And so amidst the rain, we set off on our journey. This journey would take us into Christian villages of Northern Iraq, scattered around the rolling hills and rocky mountains of the region, beautiful and diverse as beautiful and diverse were the dialects heard in them. We would pass by tucked-away little settlements with surprisingly new-looking houses. Even though the communities living there had been there for centuries, their homes were destroyed by the Saddam Hussein regime a few decades ago, and so had to be rebuild.
On this journey, we would also get a glimpse into some of the complexities of life which these communities navigate today. The Iraqi Assyrian Christians are a minority of a minority in their country, and even so are internally diverse. They are governed by Kurds, who themselves are a minority in Iraq. Still, the leadership of these Christians is divided along political lines, and the community as a whole is split across different church denominations.
This journey would also be filled with strong black tea flowing in abundance in an expression of hospitality as generous and sweet as the baklawa that we were being offered. Hours spent in conversation and listening to stories; moments shared in laughter that transcends cultural boundaries.
This journey would also take the shape of long hours of driving on bumpy country roads. During those hours, we would entertain ourselves by waving at kids in cars passing by. We would also try to learn new Aramaic phrases, only to realize that there were often five ways to express one thing, because each dialects does it its own way. Hadi, daha, atta, edyu, diya. ‘Now.’
Indeed, there was no single ‘now,’ though there was only one present moment. ‘Now’ was a complex state in which people were attempting to reconcile themselves with their past, come to terms with the changing present and move to a more stable future.
At the same time, we realized that one day, there will be no more ‘now’. During our trip, we would be accompanied by the knowledge that many of the Aramaic village dialects which we had heard are being abandoned to the silence of the hills – the hills left behind by their communities in search of a brighter future. Only the rain would remain to murmur on the bare fields.