We talk to Amine Jules Iskandar, founder of the Syriac Maronite Union -Tur Levnon – which works for the preservation of the Syriac language. This is the last in a series of three. He will elaborate the goals and workings of Tur Levnon, based in Lebanon, as well as the importance of the Syriac language, which is born from the encounter between Greek and Canaanite-Aramaic, its interconnection with identity, culture, liturgy and the importance of the Syriac language in the Maronite liturgy.
What is the importance of the Syriac language for the history of the Church in general? And for the Maronites in particular? What is the link between language, culture, and liturgy?
For a specialist in the Maronite language and spirituality, reading the current mass books is shocking. In the last edition of 1995, renewed in 2005, the mass books still have on each page the Arabic translation next to the original Syriac. When comparing the two language versions we realize that the Arabic version is far from being an honest translation of the Syriac original.
In the case of the sung hymns, it was necessary to adapt the number of syllables in order to preserve the original rhythm and the melody. For this to work, the meaning of the original text had to be abandoned to align the word to the music. For prayers not subject to melodies, the translator also faced insurmountable obstacles. Properly Christian and Syriac ideas had no equivalent in the language of the Arabs, so we had to use an approximation. In other cases, even if the word finds its corresponding translation, it remains devoid of all memory and the semiotic dimension. There is a full imagery and a cultural inheritance inherent to the Syriac term which is absent from the Arabic word.
These losses, these gaps, these weaknesses, these inaccuracies, and this disconnection from the past make the religious and spiritual message lose a good part of its dimensions and its subtlety, sometimes even the essential meaning. The liturgy is affected, especially in song. Because the Syriac has five vowels while the Arabic only knows three. That are two vowels that are lost and replaced by variations or embellishments of voices. But the embellishment and virtuosity are foreign to the ascetic Syriac mentality and its approach to the Divine. This causes a distancing from the Absolute as a synonym for Truth. All of these nuances are imperceptible to the layman as they become glaring to a Syriac reader who detects their crucial importance.
Why do you think Syriac is important to be taught in schools?
Syriac is a modern language because its syntax is modern. This makes it easier to teach and use. The Arabic imposed today in our schools is, like Latin, an archaic language. That is to say, for these two idioms, it is necessary to mentally solve grammatical problems in order to be able to form the correct sentences orally. Indeed, the word is not the same depending on whether it is subject or additional object. Likewise, the word is no longer the same in its singular or plural mode. In modern languages, the term does not change, except for the last letter. Thus, in French and in English, it suffices to add a final “s” for the plural. Elsewhere the form of the masculine singular is an “o” which suffices to replace in the plural. Take for example the word “tree” which in Italian is “albero” and becomes “alberi”, and in Syriac “ilono” becomes “iloné”. And this term will remain the same regardless of its function in the sentence.
To this we must add that the books of mathematics, astrology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, philosophy, poetry, geography, history, botany, geology, etc., transmitted by the Arabs to the West were all translated from original Syriac versions (taken over from Greek). It is therefore a language already shaped to face the challenges of the 21st century. In its syntax and in its terminological directory it is completely up to date.
Its teaching will be easy in Lebanon. For those who know Syriac and the Lebanese dialect, the similarities are obvious. The syntax is the same, the conjugation is the same, as well as a good part of the vocabulary. It is much easier to switch from Lebanese to Syriac than from Lebanese to Arabic. Because Lebanese is originally a dialect of Syriac, not of Arabic.
Nothing can justify the refusal to teach this language in our schools. No other term is better suited to our needs and to the expression of our deep aspirations. The Syriac vocabulary was born to signify and reveal the thoughts, ideas, and concepts specific to our spirituality and to the particular form of our Christian faith and our mentality. Its loss will be, at the same time, a perdition of our identity and that of our spirituality which will involve a real questioning of our existence itself.
What message does your association and the Syriac language bring to the world today?
The same mistake made by the Lebanese in 1943 is repeating itself today in front of our eyes in Europe. In France in particular, there is a questioning of French identity and its history. There is a refusal and a rejection of the founding myth without which there is no nation. However, the value of the nation itself is called into question in favor of the concept of globalization. The lack of mastery of the French language with is the case for part of French youth cannot be taken lightly. Language is the foundation of identity. Its destabilization can lead to excessive and unsuspected consequences.
French or European culture should no longer be underestimated. The importance and sense of family either. The denial of the Christian history of Europe and its traditions is a denial of self which leads inexorably to suicide. Attachment to one’s heritage has nothing to do with racism or xenophobia. Europe must not make the mistake of the Lebanese: welcoming the other has nothing to do with self-effacement. You don’t sacrifice your identity to open up better for others. If it is different, then the difference is what defines it. So, we have to start by accepting this reality.
The denial of the founding Christianity of the West forms a spiritual void as arid as it is devastating. Human beings, no matter how atheistic, cannot live without the spiritual dimension. It can only fill this void with other forms of beliefs or practices. The future cannot be built on all of the negations of the nation, of borders, of culture, of identity and of religion. Because nothing can be generated from nothingness or built on skepticism and nihilism.
I say, Europe do not deny yourself, your survival is at stake. And your attachment to your values and your past is not at all incompatible with the teachings of Christ.
It must be remembered, writes the Christian philosopher Philippe Sers, that the idea of nation is important for Christian thought. Each nation has its own personal vocation. Each nation is like a person who accomplishes a mission. The idea of a nation-person is not built around a material project, but around a spiritual one (1).
Do you want to add something?
As the president of the Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon, I would like to thank SyriacPress for the interest in our project and mission which is existential for Lebanon and for Eastern Christianity.
Moryo nvarékh / The Lord bless you
This was the last in the series of three “back to the source of the Syriac language” with Amine Jules Iskandar of the Syriac Maronite Union -Tur Levnon.
(1) Philippe Sers, Icônes et Saintes Images / La représentation de la transcendance, Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2002, pp. 207-208