In the lands where Aramaic once thrived, its descendants are now in danger of disappearing. Aramaic, often described as “the language of Jesus”, was once the lingua franca of Beth Nahrin (Mesopotamia) and the Middle East. Syriac, Aramaic’s modern descendant, was first recorded in the first century A.D. in the ancient city of Urhoy, Edessa in ancient Greek and modern-day Urfa in Turkey.
The Syriac language and the extensive network of universities in ancient Beth Nahrin played a crucial role in the preservation and transmission of historical Greek texts and the knowledge contained within them. Scientists, theologians, and scholars of history, literature, medicine, and astronomy documented and translated Greek texts into Syriac and Arabic and in this manner passed them on to future civilizations.
The Syriac language, despite a lengthy academic and liturgical tradition, is slowly losing its foothold in the Syriac homeland of Beth Nahrin. The situation is so dire that it is listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a threatened language.
Enter the Olaf Taw Association in the Gozarto region of Beth Nahrin. Based in Zalin (Qamishli), the Syriac organization working towards ensuring a future for the Syriac language in Syria. The idea behind the establishment of Olaf Taw was to create an all-encompassing secular education and language organization free from the oppressive, assimilative, and Arabist ideologies of status-quo regimes of the Middle East. The Olaf Taw Association includes a language institute that prepares Syriac schoolbooks, trains teachers, gives language lessons, and organizes cultural language activities.
According to the Association’s mission statement, Syriacs, as one of the oldest peoples inhabiting North and East Syria, have for decades, like other minority peoples of the region, been deprived of legal and constitutional recognition as a people with associated cultural and political rights. That is, denied by the ruling Baath regime. The Baath party, in power in Syria since 1963, has Arabism as its main ideology and has refused to recognize minority ethnicities. Syriacs were, and still are, seen and treated as indigenous to Syria but merely so in a religious capacity; they can be Christians, but not Syriacs.
Under the Baath regime, Syriacs and other Christian minorities were allowed to have private Syriac Christian schools under the auspices and administration of the various Syriac churches but Syriac language and cultural education was limited to a couple of hours per week of basic grammar focusing primarily on catechisms and religious hymns.
The private Syriac schools in Gozarto have Arab, Kurdish, or other non-Syriac students. In fact, non-Syriac students constitute the overall majority in most, if not all, Syriac schools. One important reason for this is the massive Syriac emigration of the last decades. Another reason is somewhat higher regard and ranking of Syriac schools, putting them in higher demand among non-Syriac parents.
The question here arises as to what then constitutes a Syriac school. Attempts to balance the number of non-Syriac students to safeguard their Syriac and Christian character have largely been ignored, opposed, or put aside.
The Olaf Taw Association, which is affiliated with the Syriac Union Party and the Syriac Culture Association, is determined to change this. Jalinos Eissa, teacher and co-chair of the Olaf Language Academy’s Syriac Language Academy:
“The Syriac language is key to the Syriacs’ identity and their survival in their homeland. We as the Olaf Taw Association are engaged in developing the Syriac language, setting up Syriac educational and language institutions, overseeing the preparation of books in the Syriac language, and preparing textbooks. We must preserve our Syriac language.
We intend and work to print books in the Syriac language in both the Western and Eastern dialects. And, importantly, we should always strive to raise the level of the Syriac language and give it a place among the international languages.”
The situation in Iraq
The current initiatives of the Olaf Taw Association and Syriac Culture Association have parallels in how Syriacs obtained full educational rights and self-administered schools in neighboring Iraq – a car ride from Zalin to the Nineveh Plains – Dashta d-Nineveh in Syriac – takes about 3.5 hours, the Christian suburb of Ankawa is a 5-hour drive.
The federal constitution of Iraq acknowledges Iraq as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Arabic and Kurdish are the official languages, but all Iraqi citizens are guaranteed educational rights in their mother tongues, including Syriac, in the areas where they live. Any language outside Arabic and Kurdish can become an official language if so approved by referendum.
In Iraq, Syriacs (Assyrians-Chaldeans-Arameans) are a recognized people and have the right to establish their own schools and teach their language alongside the official curriculum. Regional government funding is allocated for Syriac schools, teachers, and textbooks. Similar organizations and institutions as Olaf Taw have been set up in Iraq, for example the Soraya Foundation for Media and Culture based in Ankawa. A Syriac curriculum has been developed which is taught at Syriac schools in the Nineveh Plains and the Governates of Dohuk and Erbil.*
The situation in Syria
Back in North and East Syria (NES), Syriac secular cultural and political organization in the Gozarto is now possible following the establishment of the Democratic Autonomous Administration (DAA) of North and East Syria. The DAA functions as a decentralized and democratic federal administration. Currently only governing areas north and east of the Euphrates River, the system is intended to be scalable to the national level.
In the its Social Contract, the founding document of the autonomous system in North and East Syria, the Democratic Autonomous Administration,
“… guarantees the participation of all individuals and groups, on equal levels, in the discussion, decision, and implementation of affairs. It takes ethnic and religious differences into consideration according to the characteristics of each group based on the principles of mutual coexistence and peoples’ fraternity. It guarantees the equality of all peoples in rights and duties, respects the charters of human rights, and preserves national and international peace.
Within the consensual democratic federal system, all segments of people, in particular women and youth, shall form their organizations and democratic institutions. The democratic federal system guarantees free practicing of all political, social, and cultural activities, and enjoying all the merits of free and equal life.”
The area currently governed by the DAA is majority Arab, Kurdish-led, and has a degree of acceptance and participation of parties and organizations of smaller minorities such as the Syriacs, Armenians, Yazidis, and others – though not necessarily the majority of each respective people.
Many non-politically active Syriacs have remained neutral or loyal to the Assad regime in their defense against radical Islamist and Jihadist ideologies, maybe, in their view, the absence of a good secular alternative or maybe out of fear for retribution for siding with the DAA might the regime ever regain full control over North and East Syria. Even years after the Assad regime handed over control of Syria’s northeast, a number of groups in the region chose not to join the DAA, instead stayed loyal to the Assad regime, joining the opposition, or have affiliated themselves with different regimes, forums, powers and actors active in the region.
While Assad regime forces mostly withdrew from northeastern Syria at the beginning of the revolution, forces were strategically left behind in Zalin at the border with Turkey, the airport, and the neighborhoods linking the two. A significant part of Hasakah city also remained under regime control. Both pockets have been used by the ruthless and dreaded Syrian intelligence services and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to maintain a presence in the northeast.
Sporadic fighting between regime forces and the security forces of the DAA have over time eroded the amount of territory in Zalin and Hasakah under regime control.
After the establishment of the DAA in the regions and cities of North and East Syria, the organizations and political parties affiliated with the DAA have made use of their right in the Social Contract to enjoy full linguistic and cultural freedom and to live their own cultural and linguistic identity on the basis of participatory life and inclusiveness. The Olaf Taw Association received recognition in 2017 from the DAA’s Education Directorate and opened its center in Zalin and the Qenneshrin center in Hasakah city where it began officially training teachers and students in Syriac. At the same time, Olaf Taw worked on developing a full Syriac curriculum to be taught at Syriac and other schools in the DAA to replace the current Baathist curriculum.
During slow and often difficult negotiations and preparations from 2015 to 2018 between the DAA and the Syriac school boards – where Syriac churches now allow laymen to take positions on school boards – the developed Syriac curriculum was partially introduced for the first two grades with the intention to expand to higher grades over time. So far, implementation of the curriculum for higher grades has not happened. In August 2018, the churches, school boards, and parents heavily objected to replacing the current curriculum. In a large protest in the streets of Zalin, members of the clergy, school boards, and Syriac, Arab, Kurdish, and other parents declined the imposition of the Syriac curriculum on their schools.
Dr. Thomas Schmidinger, lecturer at the University of Vienna, commented on the conflict around the Syriac schools at a conference on the history and future of northeastern Syria organized by the Kurdish Friendship Group in the European Parliament and the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs:
“This conflict was used by the Syrian regime to accuse the Kurds of oppressing the Christians and Christian organizations who were close to the Syrian regime, told a lot of… propaganda lies about the conflict. Actually, this conflict was mainly a conflict within the Christian Assyrian community. Because it was mainly the so called Syriac Union Party … who is part of the self-administration of North and East Syria who wanted to change the curricula of the schools from the regime curriculum towards an Assyrian curriculum that teaches the Aramaic language, according to the Kurdish schools that were established by the self-administration.
But it was the Assyrians who work with the self-administration who wanted to change these schools. And most of the clerics of the Christian denominations who are still more or less with the Syrian regime opposed this move of Aramaization of the schools, let’s say it like that. And also, the communities were split because some of the Christians think that it is a problem for their children if they go to a school that is not recognized by the Syrian government because with a degree of the self-administration their children would not be able later on to study in Damascus or Aleppo at an official university of the Syrian regime.
So, it was not a conflict of Kurds against Christians. It was a conflict between Christians who wanted to focus on their Aramaic-Assyrian identity versus Christians who accepted the notion of the Baath regime that they are Arab Christians and that they should attend Arab schools …
So, the notion that Kurds oppress the Christians and closed down their schools was just not true. And by the way, at the end of the day there was a compromise found and the compromise is now that they actually still teach in Arabic, but they added a few classes in Syro-Aramaic. I don’t know if this compromise will stay forever but this is the situation for now …
So, there was no closing down of other schools. But the question is how these minority communities position themselves towards the self-administration of northern and eastern Syria and towards the Syrian government. And it was also a question of ‘What is our language?’ ‘Is our language Arabic or is our language Syriac or Assyrian?’ And this is a conflict that is going on within the religious communities of the Christians in the region.”
An important and legitimate concern of the parents was that the new curriculum would only be accepted in the DAA and not in Syria as a whole. Such a situation would decrease their children’s future prospects for higher education and employability. There is no clear answer to that question at the moment. It will take time to develop the new Syriac curriculum, train Syriac teachers, and educate students in the language. The question of national acceptability will only be answered through negotiations with the regime.
The self administration of NE #Syria requires all students to learn #Kurdish, #Syriac, and Arabic. I met Jalinos Issa at the Olaf Taw Association in Qamishli, where he explains the new language curriculum. pic.twitter.com/WZVGmkDR9O
— Doktora Amy Austin Holmes (@AmyAustinHolmes) March 5, 2019
After the protests, the DAA exempted Syriac and all other Christian schools from needing to implement the new Syriac curriculum, allowing them to continue teaching the Baathist curriculum of the Syrian regime. Arab schools within the DAA are also allowed to continue teaching the Syrian regime curriculum. Some Kurdish and Arab schools, however, have chosen to introduce the DAA curriculum in their respective languages. The first three grades are taught in the children’s mother tongue, either Arabic or Kurdish. In the higher grades, a second language is compulsory. An agreement between the DAA and the Syrian regime has been established that allows students who have completed their education in the DAA system are allowed to gain admittance to Syria’s higher educational institutions pending they pass an exam demonstrating their knowledge.
A preliminary conclusion, therefore, can be that in the DAA, the full implementation of constitutionally guaranteed education in Kurdish has begun, the mother tongue train has finally left the station. The train is currently travelling uphill. The necessary institutions, expertise, and curriculum are in their infancy and it will take time for the full acceptance of Kurdish as an official language in some parts of Syrian society. But the train has left the station.
For Kurdish, at least.
Have Syriacs, as a people, missed this train … or will they get on at the next station?
*Information pertaining to the quality and ranking of the Syriac schools was not available at the moment of publication.