Friday, April 02, 2010

Maronites in Israel seek to preserve Aramaic

ARAMAIC WATCH: Maronite Christians in Israel seek to preserve their language:
The Ben Yehudas of Aramaic
By Dorit Shilo (Haaretz)
Tags: Israel news

Two Aramaic-language television stations in Sweden are locked in a war for viewership among speakers of the ancient Middle Eastern tongue. Devotees of Suroyo TV and Suryoyo Sat (both are variations of the Aramaic word "Syriac," the Aramaic language) wage heated online debates over which station is superior. The majority preferSuroyo, the older station, and claim Suryoyo Sat copied much of its content and broadcasts too many reruns.

Some of the stations' most avid viewers live in Israel, primarily in Haifa and the Galilee. Shady Khallul of the Upper Galilee village of Jish says, "What does it matter which channel is better? The important thing is that they exist. These channels prove that our Aramaic language lives and breathes."


Shady Khallul and his brother Amir have been working for years to revive the holy language of Aramaean Christians in Israel and to bring it back into everyday use. Their model, Shady says, is none other than Eliezer Ben Yehuda, father of the contemporary Hebrew language renaissance.

"If you, the Jews, were able to revive Hebrew and turn it into a modern language, why can't we?" he asks. "Last year we received permission from the Education Ministry to teach Aramaic in first and second grades at the school in Jish, and we had to draft a curriculum from scratch. Amir wrote the textbooks and I traveled around the world to buy dictionaries and grammar books so that we could translate and adapt them for use in Israel. I brought most of the teaching material from Sweden, and the dictionaries from France. Most Aramaic books today are printed in Lebanon, but we have no way of bringing them in from there."

Unlike biblical Aramaic, written in Hebrew letters, the modern dialect - the Western variant of which is called Syriac - is written in another ancient script, which resembles a melding of the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets. Like Hebrew, the language comprises 22 characters and is written right to left. Each of Aramaic's two principle dialects - Western and Eastern - has its own alphabet. Both, however, share a classical written alphabet, Estrangela, reserved for prayers and religious texts.

The challenge before the Aramaeans in Israel, who use the Western dialect, is twofold: On the one hand they must teach their children to speak the language and persuade them to use it in their everyday lives, with family, friends and at school, and on the other hand teach them to read and write in the two alphabets (the Western and the Estrangela).


Precious connection

The Maronite Christians in Jish enjoy a vibrant community life and maintain close ties with Maronites living elsewhere in Israel - mostly in Nazareth, Acre and Haifa. These include 2,000 former South Lebanon Army soldiers who sought refuge here after Israel's pullout from southern Lebanon in 2000.

"When we first expressed the desire to teach Aramaic to members of our community, the people of the village were very enthusiastic," Khallul says. "Classes were immediately started at the church in Jish, on Fridays for kids and Tuesdays for adults. This year, after the Education Ministry approved the plan, people got even more excited. Schoolchildren were given the choice of studying Aramaic, and of 100 students in first and second grade, 64 chose Aramaic class instead of art and drawing."

I wish them good success.