All Things Assyrian
Is the Lost Language of Iraqi Jews Really Lost?
By Mardean Isaac

Asir Salaam Shajaa, the third generation in his family to care for the tomb, dusts off the hand-sewn green cloth used to cover Nahum's Tomb (photo: al Qaisi).
Between 1948 and 1951, the vast majority of Iraq's Jewish population of around 150,000 left the country, interrupting a remarkable literary and linguistic heritage. The Talmud, some of which was composed in Iraq, was written partly in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, a literary dialect using the Hebrew alphabet. The Jews of northern Iraq spoke particular forms of Aramaic, closely related to the Aramaic spoken by their Assyrian neighbors. Ever-decreasing numbers of Jews in Israel speak those dialects--relics of obscure, mainly rural communities. Other Jewish Aramaic dialects are now only used in academic or religious study.

The predominant Iraqi-Jewish language was a particular form of Judeo-Arabic, a term encompassing forms of Arabic spoken by Jews in Arab countries. Geoffrey Khan, a professor of Hebrew at Cambridge University, has done pioneering work on the spoken Aramaic dialects of the Assyrians and Jews of Iran and northern Iraq. "Jewish Baghdadi is different in all levels of structure, phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon, from Muslim and Christian dialects of Iraqi Arabic," he told me. Regarding the influence of Aramaic in Judeo-Arabic, Khan noted: "There do seem to be some elements that have been influenced by an Aramaic substrate, though it is not always easy to prove it." As far as linguistic aspects that exist across Judeo-Arabic dialects, he selected as one case the pronunciation of the /r/ as in an uvular /r/, a feature of Judeo-Arabic both in Iraq and in North Africa.

Following the Arab invasions in the 7th century, Arabic supplanted Aramaic as the lingua franca of the region. As the importance of Baghdad rose, Jews established a strong presence there. By the early 20th century, Baghdad was about a third Jewish. Some communities of Jews in northern Iraq--like Assyrians and Mandaeans--continued to speak Aramaic, adopting Arabic or Kurdish only for external use.

Baghdadi Jews would imbue their own distinct heritage into the Arabic language. The phenomenon of Iraqi Judeo-Arabic mirrors the status of Jews in relation to Iraq, as a people whose culture and habits were deeply shaped by broader Iraqi society and politics, yet who lived in parallel to it. In that status, it joins not only other Jewish diaspora dialects, but a legacy of languages in the Middle East that bear the trace of communities who navigated all sorts of political transformations before the homogenizing cultural and demographic forces set in motion by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of often-murderous nation states. The disappearance from Iraq of Assyrians, Jews, and other ancient groups like the Mandaeans, who also have a fascinating religious literature in their own Aramaic dialect, has only laid bare the lack of literature reflecting the linguistic richness and particular experiences of Iraq's various peoples.

"Like their Muslim and Christian peers, Jewish-Iraqi authors, poets, and journalists looked down on colloquial speech," the Jewish-Iraqi scholar Eli Timan told me. "Their definition of 'eloquence' was confined entirely to Fus'ha [classical Arabic]. In my opinion, this was a tragedy for our community and explains the dearth of Jewish-Iraqi documents in the field of literature."

It is eloquent of its ghostly status that some of the best fiction written in Iraqi Judeo-Arabic will likely prove to be the last. Samir Naqqash, an Iraqi-born Israeli novelist, wrote exclusively in Arabic. He refused to accept that he had lost Iraq and become Israeli, and refused to adopt Hebrew despite the decision ruining his career prospects. Naqqash instead wrote novels that conjured a vanished past of Iraq's dialectal and ethno-communal richness using the Judeo-Arabic (and other Baghdadi dialects) of his childhood that served as the keyhole to that past, and its only portable element. Since his death in 2004, no new literature featuring Iraqi Judeo-Arabic has been published.

The Dove Flyer (2013) became the first, and so far only, film shot in Iraqi Judeo-Arabic. Israeli actors, mainly descended from Iraqi Jews, learned the dialect for the film, switching to so-called Muslim-Arabic when in dialogue with Arabs, as Baghdadi Jews used to do. The film depicts a family experiencing both the imperiled material comfort and rigid social life of Baghdadi Jews in the final years of the Jewish presence in Iraq. As the gears of Zionism and Arab nationalism turn together, they increasingly become aware of their separateness, both seduced by and pushed towards making aliyah.

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, interest has risen in the Iraqi-Jewish heritage, although scant actual engagement with Iraq itself has taken place. Violette Shamash's Memories of Eden (2008), a memoir of Jewish life in Baghdad, features a Judeo-Arabic lexicon, including terms as diverse as loozina ("quince sweetmeat with almonds and cardamom") and slah ("synagogue," from Aramaic). Last Days in Babylon (2007) is an account of journalist Marina Benjamin's trip to Iraq in 2004. Her encounter with Baghdad's 22 remaining Jews ("too afraid to come together as a community, either for prayer or solace") is strange and haunting.

But the circumstances surrounding the trip, informed partly by the birth of Benjamin's child and the turmoil in Iraq, prompted a deeper investigation into the past, including into Judeo-Arabic. Conversations with other Iraqi Jews such as philanthropist Edwin Shuker, who escaped Iraq to London in 1971, transforms her consciousness of the power that the language she had resisted as a child growing up in London had once held. "You couldn't talk in public because as soon as you opened your mouth," Shuker tells Benjamin, "because of the Judeo-Arabic accent, someone might realize you were a Jew."

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Eli Timan, one of the rare custodians of the Iraqi Judeo-Arabic heritage, is a member of the Iraqi-Jewish community in London. Timan left Baghdad for England at the age of 16, and has since spoken "a mixture of Jewish-Iraqi and English" with his family and the rest of the community. The proficiency of Jews in western languages, which had seen them well represented in the administrative and commercial activities of the British in Iraq, was an obstacle in passing Judeo-Arabic onto his children. "As their grandparents spoke English," Timan told me, "they did not have to communicate in Jewish-Iraqi."

Timan felt compelled to begin work on Judeo-Arabic in 2004 when, during an Aramaic class, he met a young student whose father was an Iraqi-Jew from India. Keen to learn the Jewish Iraqi dialect, the student encouraged Timan to write a Targum (dictionary). "The events in Iraq were daily headlines at that time," Timan told me. "I, like many Iraqi Jews, woke up to the fact that after 2,600 years of continuous existence, only a handful of Jews were left in Iraq and our heritage was completely lost, except in the diaspora where we spoke Jewish-Iraqi, listened to Iraqi music, and made Iraqi-Jewish food."

Timan applied successfully for a small grant from the then-newly formed Endangered Language Program at SOAS University of London, backed by the Swedish billionaire Hans Rausing. Since 2006, Timan has accumulated 100 hours of recorded testimony from Iraqi Jews living in the U.K., Canada, and Israel, around 10 percent of which has been transcribed and translated into English. The recordings include local history, Iraqi politics, and personal memories and narratives. "It is quite interesting to note," said Timan, "that the more educated make use extensively of standard Arabic. The same case applies to Jews who left Iraq after 2003." These observations further attest to the fragility of a language so tethered to the social and cultural life of a particular community that was already under sustained pressure.

Peter Austin, a distinguished linguist at SOAS, worked with Timan on the preservation of Iraqi Judeo-Arabic. He described Timan's work as a "single-handed attempt to record as much information about personal histories as possible before the last older speakers pass on." Austin expressed pessimism over the future of the language, especially owing to the dispersal of the community and the tendency of English and Hebrew to "suppress and destroy smaller immigrant languages."

Last November, Timan gave a lecture ("What is Jewish-Iraqi Arabic?") in South Hampstead, hosted by Harif, an organization dedicated to the history and heritage of Mizrahi Jews, and Spiro Ark, a Jewish cultural center. By the end of the event, attended by a mixture of intrigued European Jews and wearily nostalgic Jews from the Middle East, Timan's own downbeat take on the prospect of any Iraqi-Jewish Arabic revival was under siege from an increasingly enthusiastic and curious audience. This was especially true of the young parents in the crowd, many of whom had a background or familial experience with Arabic-Jewish dialects but had not yet encountered serious attempts to chronicle and revive it.

Having had no occasion in many years to ask what certain words and phrases from their childhood meant, they quickly set about forging new consensus on expired vernacular. One mother insisted on the importance of transmitting a capacity for Arabic gutturals to children at a young age; another claimed that although her parents had done so, she hadn't practiced any form of Arabic in London, and so was still struggling with the language phonetically in adulthood. Tentative arrangements were made to start classes.

The scholarly value of Judeo-Arabic was made clear during a tour of the Judeo-Arabic collection in the British Library. The collection contains thousands of manuscripts and texts, ranging from a version of Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, copied in Yemen in 1380, to the mid-19th-century The Hebrew Gazette, designed for the Iraqi Jewish community of Bombay.

Ilana Tahan, a curator of Hebrew and Christian Orient studies at the British Library, told me that the portion of the archive containing published material (often published outside of Iraq) particular to Iraqi Jews, "spans more than 140 years, and covers a wide range of subjects such as Bible, religious law, liturgy, folklore, and literature." Both Ben-Gurion and Tel Aviv Universities have, as of the 2017-18 academic year, included Judeo-Arabic as part of new programs on Jews in the Arab world.

Iraqi Judeo-Arabic was particularly reactive to an environment that has irreversibly vanished, and the expulsion of Jews from that environment was so extreme as to threaten the memory of it, until the passage of time revived an archival and academic focus on the Jewish experience of Arab countries. It was the Jewish exile from Iraq--which was also a return to Israel, site of their original exile--which occasioned the need to give categorical and scholarly form to a language that was previously the reflexive province of an ancient community. The study of Iraqi Judeo-Arabic is a way of reclaiming a distinct Jewish experience before the remaining connections to it disappear forever.


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