The havoc wrought upon Syria during its long civil war — a war unspeakable in its cruelty and irremediable suffering — exposed the people to the murderousness and caprice of the inhuman: Hundreds of thousands killed, cities levelled to the ground and millions compelled to wander in search of refuge or to dwell in the open fields.
Yet we know the day will come when cities will be rebuilt and salvation will descend on the bruised spirit of the survivors. The day will come, that is, when the victims of that war will step toward grace out of the shadow of damnation.
But, alas, there is one victim that not only will be denied that reprieve but is destined to fade into oblivion, to see the springs of life that had sustained it for two millennia dry up. The victim? Aramaic as an extant language that, until recently, was spoken on the streets by an ancient people living in modern times.
The death of a language, hyperbole aside, is one of the greatest disasters that can befall man.
How beguiling would it be to walk the streets of a town and hear ordinary folks conversing in the tongue of a civilisation that had drawn its last breath more than two thousand years before? Not just beguiling but miraculous!
Well, the people of Maaloula were, until recently, the only community on earth that still spoke Aramaic. This ancient tongue was the linguistic currency of rational exchange used by Jesus Christ and his contemporaries, as it was that of people everywhere throughout the ancient Levant. In short, it was through the idiom of a classical tongue that a people, in our time, encoded, preserved and communicated thought.
For decades, Maaloula, a small town 35 miles northeast of Damascus, built into the rugged mountain side, and full of old churches, convents and monasteries, attracted not just pilgrims, but also linguists engaged in studying the bewildering multiplicity of ancient languages still spoken on this crowded planet, and intellectually inquisitive polymaths from around the world thrilled to hear, as they walked, Aramaic actually spoken on the streets. For them, the experience surely must have had the status of a recondite fantasy, like encountering some anti-gravitational creature in science fiction.
All that is dying, according to the London-based Foundation for Endangered Languages, as reported by news media. Until recently, only 80 per cent of Maaloula’s inhabitants spoke Aramaic, and the remaining 20 per cent were over sixty years old. Then the coup de grace came in late 2013, when insurgents, of the fanatic stripe, seized the town, forcing most of its inhabitants to flee. Though regime forces recaptured it seven months later, two-thirds of those inhabitants have yet to return. Thus, the war generation was born outside Maaloula and have had to learn Arabic to get by. It is estimated that Aramaic, as a spoken language, will perish forever within a decade or two.
We do not have one language, nor twenty or thirty. Nor even several hundred. Roughly 7,000 languages are thought to be in current use. Yet, even when just one of them dies — even one belonging to a family of languages spoken by isolated or moribund ethnic communities, let alone one spoken by Christ and his contemporaries — we mourn. For, it is in language that human grace is defined and in it that we find the prime carrier of our human meaning. We did violence to that meaning when we enabled the destruction of spoken Aramaic in our time, instead of nurturing it as a rich semantic fashion of expression that embodied the cultural myths of an ancient era — and lest we forget, myths are the subtlest language of experience.
“For more than two thousand years, we have kept the language in our hearts”, George Za’arour, 67, a Maaloula native son, and an academic specialising in Aramaic, who is also author of several books on the subject, was recently quoted in an AFP news report as saying, seemingly despondently. “We are the last people on earth who have the honour of speaking it”.
What will become of the idiom and metaphor, the shared memories and pragmatic conjectures on life that this ancient language, in our time, had been a custodian of for the people of Maaloula? And why have these folks been chosen — by history, one assumes — to endure this fate? To ask that is to ask for reason from the voiceless night. It is what it is. But henceforth something from us, of us, will die too.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.