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Aramaic in Danger of Disappearing

Posted: Tuesday, March 25, 2003 at 08:38 AM CT


Assyrian Holocaust

Aramaic, their language, was banned under Saddam Hussein, but now it is taught in 35 schools in the northern autonomous zone.  That may not last long.  The danger is that if the United States attacks Iraq and manages to get rid of Saddam, the Kurds will take advantage of the chaos and declare their independence.

Half of the 6,000 world languages may disappear in the next 50 years. The causes are many and have to do with globalization and the increasing power of a dozen major languages, which are diminishing the usefulness of languages spoken by small numbers of people.

One of these languages that is in danger of disappearing is Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. Who is to blame for turning Jesus' language into an endangered species?  George Bush and Saddam Hussein and the possibility of a war between the two countries.

MILLIONS OF ASSYRIANS

The Assyrians speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples 2,000 years ago.  They are a Christian community of one million living in the no-fly zone in Northern Iraq, where the Kurds were allowed to build an autonomous region free of Hussein's control. The Assyrians are a minority within a minority. Although numbers are unreliable, other Assyrians live in Syria, Turkey and Iran under governments that are insensitive to their needs. About 4 million Assyrians are scattered in the United States, Europe and Australia.

Aramaic, their language, was banned under Saddam Hussein, but now it is taught in 35 schools in the northern autonomous zone. That may not last long.

  • If the United States attacks Iraq and manages to get rid of Hussein, the Kurds will take advantage of the chaos and declare their independence.
  • Once Hussein is out of the picture, Turkey might seize control of Northern Iraq, attracted by the oil field of the region, particularly the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. During the recent election, in fact, nationalist Turkish politicians and senior generals campaigned along these lines.The absence of a common enemy for Assyrians and Kurds will spell trouble for the smaller of the two minorities. A radical change of the status quo would endanger their ethnic and linguistic aspirations.
  • The other dangerous scenario for the Assyrians is that once Saddam is out of the picture, Turkey might seize control of northern Iraq, attracted by the oil field of the region, particularly the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.  During the recent election, Turkish politicians and senior generals campaigned along these lines.

In essence, the absence of a common enemy for Assyrians and Kurds will spell trouble for the smaller of the two minorities.  A radical change of the status quo would endanger their ethnic and linguistic aspirations.

Although the current situation is not ideal, a certain stability has been achieved between Kurds and Assyrians. Both have benefited from the no-fly zone. Assyrians have representatives in the Kurdish Parliament.

Under Hussein, both Kurds and Assyrians have suffered. Before Hussein, the Assyrians had been persecuted by Persian armies and the Ottoman Turks. The 1915 Turkish genocide was directed at Armenians as well as Assyrians.

Assyrians fear that the Kurds will take Hussein's place as persecutor. Despite the recent relative cooperation between Assyrians and Kurds, tensions have arisen. Many Assyrians were forced off their land in the '70s and '80s. Now that the Kurds control that land -- which, of course, is loaded with oil -- ownership has become a point of contention.

Assyrians also have been repeatedly attacked by Kurdish Islamic groups, including Jund al-Islam (Soldiers of Islam), suspected of having ties to al-Qaida. Kurdish authorities have banned the groups, but the Assyrians claim that the Kurds have been slow to bring the attackers to justice. The Kurds also have attempted to classify Assyrians as “Kurdish Christians,” which the Assyrians consider an attack on their ethnicity, recalling Hussein's attempt to “Arabize” the north by forcing Assyrians and Kurds to call themselves Arabs.

POLITICAL POWER

The future of languages is inextricably linked to the political power of a people. Some languages have been kept alive because of religion, as is the case with Hebrew. Aramaic, Jesus' language, has remained alive because people continued to use it in their daily lives. The fact that 2 billion people follow Jesus' teachings has had little impact in keeping Aramaic alive. That may not be a concern to Hussein. Is it a concern to Bush?


Domenico Maceri, is a columnist to Hispanic Vista, and teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, California.

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