Sunday, April 27, 2008

'The last Mohicans' of Christ

Conversion to Islam on road to Damascus spells the end for Aramaic, the native language of Jesus

Published Date: 27 April 2008

By Robert F Worth

In Malula, Syria

ELIAS Khoury can still remember the days when old people in the mountain village of Malula spoke only Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Back then the village, linked to the capital Damascus, only by a long and bumpy bus ride, was almost entirely Christian, a vestige of an older, more diverse Middle East that existed before the arrival of Islam.

Now Khoury, 65, grey-haired and bedridden, admits ruefully that he has largely forgotten the language he spoke with his own mother.

"It's disappearing," he said in Arabic, sitting with his wife on a bed in the mud-and-straw house where he grew up.

"A lot of the Aramaic vocabulary I don't use any more, and I've lost it."

Malula, along with two smaller neighbouring villages where Aramaic is also spoken, is still celebrated in Syria as a unique linguistic island. In the Convent of St Sergius and Bacchus, on a hill above town, young girls recite the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic to tourists, and booklets about the language are on sale at a shop in the town centre.

But the island has grown smaller over the years, and some locals say they fear it will not last. Once a large population stretching across Syria, Turkey and Iraq, Aramaic-speaking Christians have slowly disappeared, some fleeing westward, some converting to Islam. In recent decades, the process has accelerated, with large numbers of Iraqi Christians escaping the violence and chaos of their country.

Malula's linguistic heritage stirred some interest after the release of Mel Gibson's 2004 film The Passion Of The Christ, with its mix of Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew dialogue. Virtually everyone in town seems to have seen the film, but few said they understood it. Yona Sabar, a professor of Semitic languages at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that was not their fault as it included different dialects of Aramaic, and the actors' pronunciation made it hard to understand anything.

Aramaic has also changed over the centuries, taking on features of Syrian Arabic.

But most residents of Malula believe that their town's ancestral language is still the same one Jesus spoke, and will speak again when he returns.

"Our parents and grandparents always spoke to us in this language," said Suhail Milani, a 50-year-old bus driver. "I hope it will not disappear."

Sabar said that today, Malula and its neighbouring villages, Jabadeen and Bakhaa, represent "the last Mohicans" of Western Aramaic.

With its ancient houses clinging to a dramatic gorge in the mountains, Malula was once remote from Damascus, the Syrian capital, and local people spent all their lives there. But now there are few jobs, and young people tend to move to the city for work. Buses to Damascus used to leave once or twice a day; now they leave every 15 minutes, and with better roads the journey takes about an hour. Constant exchange with the big city, not to mention television and the internet, has eroded Malula's linguistic separateness.

Khoury's 17-year-old granddaughter Katya offered a few samples of the language: "Awafih" for "hello", "alloy a pelach a feethah" for "God be with you." She learned Aramaic mostly at a new language school in Malula, established two years ago in a bid to keep the language alive.

Khoury smiles at the words, but recalls how in his own childhood 60 years ago, schoolteachers slapped students who reverted to Aramaic in class, enforcing the government's "Arabisation" policy.

"Now it's reversed," he says. Families speak Arabic at home and are more likely to learn Aramaic at the language centre, where foreigners also study.

In the town's centre, a group of young people outside a market seemed to confirm Khoury's gloomy view. "I speak some Aramaic, but I struggle to understand it," said Fathi Mualem, 20.

Twenty-year-old John Francis (Western-sounding names are common among Christians in Syria and Lebanon) said: "My father wrote a book about it, but I barely speak any."

Malula – Aramaic for "entrance" – derives its name from a legend that evokes the town's separate religious heritage. St Takla, a beautiful young woman who had studied with Ste Paul, is said to have fled from her home in what is now Turkey after her pagan parents persecuted her for her newfound Christian faith. Arriving in Malula, she found her path blocked by a mountain. She prayed and the rocks divided in two, a stream flowing out from under her feet.

Today, tourists walk up and down the narrow canyon where the saint is said to have fled. Nearby, two dozen nuns live at the Convent of St Takla, presiding over an orphanage. "We teach the children the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic," said one nun, "but everything else is in Arabic."

But even the town's Christian identity is fading. Muslims have begun replacing the emigrating Christians, and now Malula – once entirely Christian – is almost half Muslim.

No comments: