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Old School Printer Exploits his Passion for Languages to the Last Letter

Posted: Friday, August 12, 2011 at 04:48 PM CT

Chahan boasts his printing utensils.
Photo: Mohamad Azakir - July 27, 2011.

BOUCHRIEH, Lebanon — There is a place where the walls are lined with letters. Slim wooden drawers open to reveal metal members of various alphabets – Arabic, English, Armenian and even Syriac. The drawers aren’t labeled, and dictionaries, grammar books and manuscripts are piled on tables and shelves in a seemingly disordered manner.

One man sees order in this apparent chaos. It takes Abdel-Karim Chahan nearly a minute to find the minuscule metal parts that form a word on his 200-year-old hand printing press. He plucks them from various compartments, uses tweezers and rope to hold them together, and rolls a metal cylinder over the inky letters to create a one-off print.

Chahan’s dexterity and memory is extraordinary, but even more so given that he is 85. He is Lebanon’s only Syriac printer, but he’s more than that. His tan printer’s smock also contains a linguist, author, teacher and polyglot.

When Chahan asks his young assistant to get the old press rolling, he does so in Aramaic. The assistant is a refugee from a part of Iraq where modern Aramaic is still spoken. Chahan easily switches between Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic and English.

Languages, and Syriac in particular, are Chahan’s passion. But they began as a necessity. Born in Allepo’s Syriac quarter to a family from Edessa, he spoke Armenian with his mother, Turkish with his father, and Syriac in church. School was in French, and government activities were carried out in Arabic, so “from the age of 7 you needed to speak five languages,” he says.

If need whetted Chahan’s linguistic appetite, he was an enthusiastic learner. “When I was a young boy, at school, I made a dictionary during class time. in French and Arabic … The teacher came and destroyed it.”

“I guess when someone puts up barriers, I need to (cross them).” And so he did. Chahan studied Syriac at a seminary in Mosul, Iraq. He picked up Kurdish while working with an uncle in Iraq, and Hebrew from Jewish co-workers in Lebanon, where he moved in 1957. He’s also studied Arabic and English, and reads Latin and Persian.

Abandoning the family goldsmithing business, Chahan started his first printing business here in 1957, having learned the trade in Aleppo. He came to work in Lebanon because he says that “(in Syria) it was very hard to print because of government control. I wanted more freedom.”

But Chahan didn’t just want to be any printer, he wanted to print in the language he had grown up with and that he says Jesus spoke, Syriac. This posed a few problems. “There were Syriac characters,” he says. “But they weren’t as I wanted.” So he reformatted the pieces that were part of printing in the pre-computer days, and “I made new ones, I made them prettier and easier.”

Over the years, Chahan has become something of a Syriac expert. He has authored two books on the language, and teaches classes at the Friends of Syriac Language Association in Bouchrieh. His Arabic to Syriac dictionary, which he nimbly flips through with a whetted thumb, is full of annotation. He receives inquiries from around the world from scholars and individuals looking for help with translation or grammar.

Chahan’s says his Bouchrieh operation is the only press in the country that prepares Syriac manuscripts. These days most of the work is done by computer, using a font that he helped to create. There were once others Syriac printers, but Chahan says “one at a time they closed. Here we (continue to) try until now. And until now we have work.”

Chahan’s business partner, Yolla Thomas, comes from a family of printers. Her parents died when she was young, and since then Chahan has considered her a daughter. Their company, Thomas Press, has been going for almost three decades now. Chahan’s two adult sons were not interested in the printing business “because there is no money.”

Thomas Press prints in “any language,” and much of their Syriac work is religious in nature.

But it’s not just liturgy that Chahan and Thomas print. They have printed Syriac versions of Charles Dicken’s “Oliver Twist” and Paulo Coelo’s “The Alchemist,” and in 10 days they’ll ink the presses with a Syriac translation of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”

There still is a thriving, albeit small, Syriac-speaking community living in Bouchrieh. “You know, they say this (language) is dead,” says Chahan.

“This is our idea, to make this language a living language.”

“We are speaking (Syriac),” Chahan says. “We are reading (it). So we need (to print it).”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 27, 2011, on page 3.

(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)

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