Losing Jesus' Language
The Assyrians, Iraq's main Christian population, struggle to keep their heritage and their ancient language.
2005 Christianity Today
The Assyrians are the major Christian group in Iraq, where they participated, with some hindrances, in last week's election. A native Assyrian herself, cultural historian Dr. Eden Naby has a great concern for the survival of her community, which has suffered from persecution throughout the 20th century. She has published extensively on the Assyrians, as well as the Afghans, Turkmens, Uighurs and Kurds, and has conducted NEH seminars for teachers at Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst on religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East. She is currently editing a book about the Assyrian diaspora worldwide and preparing a monograph on Assyrians in the Middle East.
CT Online Assistant Editor Rob Moll spoke and e-mailed with Dr. Naby about the Assyrians and their struggle to maintain their heritage.
ROB MOLL: Assyrians have been in Iraq for a long time. Could you tell us about their history in the region?
EDEN NABY: Iraq is a recent term. Assyrians were in the region long before the British, the Ottomans, the Arabs, and the Kurds. For Assyrians, the term Mesopotamia makes better sense since that Greek wordmeaning "land between the rivers"expresses where they have lived historically, between the Tigris and the Euphrates. The combination of an increasingly minority ethnicity and language plus the problem of being Christian under Muslim rule has driven Assyrians into the hinterlands of Iraqthe natural refuge areas of the marginalized (either deserts or mountains). The Assyrians went into the mountains, although significant numbers remained on the Nineveh plains where churches date to the 4th and 5th centuries or earlier.
When Iraq was cobbled together through conquest and negotiations with the successors to the Ottomans, many Assyrians ended up in Iraq. Others lived in Turkey, Iran and Syria. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Assyrians left Iran in such numbers that only about 15 percent of the post-World War II community remains.
What forces caused Assyrians to emigrate?
Persecution of Assyrians during the past several centuries has centered around their Christianity, not their ethnicity. It is only in the 19th and 20th centuries that ethnicity has come to play a role in the Middle East as a source of friction.
Records from the 19th century are plentiful and clear: Islamic governments treated all "people of the Book" as tolerated second-class citizens. The Assyrians were subjected to poll taxes levied against non-Muslims and the oppressive feudal system prevalent in the Middle East, which combined to keep the Assyrians poor and starving.
But more immediately, they were the victims of Kurdish tribes often appointed as "tax farmers" for the Ottoman rulers in the areas where Assyrians lived. Kurds therefore became accustomed to abusing Assyrians both as a different, non-Kurdish speaking minority, and as Christians with no recourse to authority. Most egregious was the regular abduction of Assyrian girls and women.
The opportunity to emigrate came with the advance of Tsarist Russia southward and the entry of Western diplomats and missionaries. The first big emigration was to Russia, which is still a thriving and educated community that has retained its Aramaic languages since 1828.
The second emigration was to America, the Christian-friendly land that was able and willing to take a hardworking laborer or a good student. In the late 19th century, men began coming to work in cities with industrial jobs.
But persecution increased, as did opportunities to emigrate. The years 1895-6 were particularly severe as were 1905, 1909, 1912, 1914 and finally 1915, the Year of the Sword. By 1918, nearly all Assyrians were refugees somewhere. Until 1924, when the U.S. immigration law became more restrictive, Assyrians poured into the U.S.
During times of persecution, even with the backing of British and American diplomats and missionaries, there was little the Assyrians could do to defend themselves except make appeals, have the missionaries buy back their sisters and daughters, and study hard to improve themselves. Medicine and technical fields became their strength. As doctors, they passed the well-developed art of healing from ancient practice, plus Greek knowledge, to the rest of the Middle East.
There is a strong emphasis on education in the Assyrian community in America.
In minority communities, especially from the Middle East where under Islam there is little economic opportunity, education is the key. Medicine is a long-standing tradition among Assyrians.
Medicine is transportable across cultures. Most of the intellectuals who came over and were trained in the ministry, education, or something else ended up doing factory jobs.
Assyrians are concentrated in certain areas of the U.S. Why?
Mostly because of factory jobs. Also missionaries helped to send some boys to school. Ohio Wesleyan, Springfield International College in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Colombia University, were a few schools Assyrians attended. At Colombia, Professor Abraham Yohannan came to help translate the New Testament into Syriacnot the ancient language, but they Assyrian vernacular in Iraq.
The pre-WWI immigrants came to work. Only after 1912 did permanent residence in the U.S. dawn on the community as it saw waves of persecution build against them. After WWI, our community was either killed or scattered. Two-thirds of our people were killed or died of disease.
How has the Assyrian community stayed connected, both within America, and with Assyrians in the Middle East?
The basic connection is family. People in our community, as in most Middle Eastern communities, remain closely connected to extended family. When people immigrate from Iraq or Syria, part of the family stays behind. This is a plus and minus because when you have your great uncle still living in Baghdad you're very careful about what you say about Saddam Hussein or anyone who could turn around and harm your people.
The second connection is through religious organizations or cultural institutions. But it's not easy holding on to a second and third generation because of the language issue.
How important is keeping the language to maintaining the culture?
It is possible to be an Assyrian and not know the language. Certainly there are people who are Jews, Armenians, Native Americans, who don't know the language of their community. We have people who feel strongly that they are Assyrian, but the basis for their being Assyrian has diminished considerably because of the loss of language.
The Passion of the Christ was in Aramaic. Could Assyrians watch without the subtitles?
Many people could understand much of it. If I didn't want to see the subtitles and just listen, I had to close my eyes, which I didn't want to do. I understood about 50 percent, and I'm not as well acquainted with our written language as some.
Is there a larger interest in Aramaic because of the movie, and has it affected your community?
I'd like to say that Mel Gibson had an effect on the community, but I don't think it's Mel Gibson at all. In terms of the visibility of Aramaic, it certainly created a lot of visibility outside of our community.
We simply do not have facilities to propagate our written language. We had greater literacy in our community in 1920 than we do today. The reason is that before 1920 the West had an enormous interest in our language. There is a story about the 50th celebration of the American presence in northwest Iran, which was in 1884. They had invited some Persian dignitaries and a missionary was sitting next to one of the Persian officials. The official noticed a lot of women sitting together with books in their hands, and the official turned the missionary and said, "what are those women doing with those books. Women in your community can read?" and they asked for all the women who could read to stand up. 600 women stood.
I don't think we have 600 women in Iran today who could read our language. We have a population of 15,000. There has been no opportunity for our people to study our language.
Can you maintain it in America?
We have social institutions and church institutions that teach and propagate the language. One of the problems we have is that some churches insist that the vernacular should not be written [for services], and that the only language should be Syriac, which died out as a spoken language in the 14th century. Other churches, the Chaldean and the Church of the East, pushed for the vernacular. Using the vernacular means the church, when it teaches the language, teaches the vernacular. That helps to preserve the language.
Rob Moll is online assistant editor for Christianity Today magazine. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
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