All Things Assyrian
A Gatekeeper of Knowledge
By Jacqueline Taylor
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A Assyrian teacher writes on the blackboard during an Assyrian language class in Baghdad November 20, 2012. ( Saad Shalash/Reuters)
Language is the gatekeeper of knowledge. Every language carries with it a unique set of knowledge which it gathers and passes on through generations. One could argue we were only put on this earth to teach future generations what we have learned. When a language is lost, we lose more than just words, we lose untold customs, cultures, traditions, and wisdom. Small languages are being lost at an alarming rate due to globalization. In our world of media, travel, education and technology, our society has forgotten to consider the cost of these "advancements" on our rapidly-shrinking world of language. While we may not be able to stay the forward pull of globalization, we should strive to document and preserve endangered languages, written and spoken, before extinction. There is undeniable value in watching closely as a language dies. Linguistic scholars work in an attempt to glean remaining knowledge from speakers before languages disappear.

Racing the clock, British Professor Geoffrey Khan works tirelessly to document and record speakers of Neo-Aramaic. However, the preservation of one Neo-Aramaic dialect may prove to be especially vital historically, culturally, and religiously.

Until 1915, Aramaic was spoken by Jewish and Christian populations in a great number of communities within the area of western Iran and northeastern Iraq. The dialects of Aramaic spoken in this region fall under a blanket referred to as NENA (North Eastern Neo-Aramaic). NENA consists of around 150 distinct dialects, most of which are already extinct. The Jewish dialects of NENA fall under a smaller category, Jewish Neo-Aramaic, or JNA. The community of JNA speakers from Urmia in the Western Azerbaijan region of Iran were known as Nash Didan, which translates to "our people." This community of roughly 400 families named their language Lishán Didán, which translates to "our language."

Lishán Didán and other Jewish dialects are drastically different linguistically from the language of the Christian communities occupying the same land. Jewish and Christian co-territorial dialects are distinct from each other. There is a strong religious drive to preserve Christian dialects of Aramaic, however, there is no similar mission to preserve the Jewish dialects. The loss is particularly compelling because of the importance of translation and text to Jewish culture.

Jewish literary expert Adam Kirsch has studied the unique historical importance of textual analysis to Jewish culture and the sacredness of books to the Jewish people. This is rooted the tradition of deep analysis of the Talmud. Jewish questioning and analyzing is carried over to all forms of literature. Insufficient documentation of Lishán Didán will rob future generations of Jewish scholars of the ability to translate Lishán Didán texts.

Simply preserving the written work is not enough for this particular dialect. Lishán Didán evolved as an orally based language, written using Hebrew letters with phonetic spelling, but often with elisions, the leaving out of certain sounds. If only written texts are saved, the intricacies and unique qualities of this dialect will be lost. Variations in spelling may be clarified by listening to recordings of speakers. Kahn's use of modern recording technology to document the last living speakers could prove to be invaluable to future translations.

Lishán Didán may be the key to unlocking lost history, because the Nash Didan played a role in a crucial moment in ancient history. The Nash Didan people pride themselves on an identity of being the direct link from biblical Judea to the modern day. Some go as far as to proclaim themselves the original Jews.

The Babylonian Exile, the detention of the Jewish population in Babylonia, ended in 538 BC. The Jewish captive population was relocated back to Jerusalem. The Nash Didan are the Jewish captives who stayed after the release, or were left behind. The region is now ruled by countries that would most likely not look favorably on Jewish historical archaeological quests. It is in their interest to erase traces of Jewish history in the region.

Current leadership in Iran destroyed the ancient Jewish cemetery, leaving in its place an unfinished hospital and empty lot. The land of Urmia was inhabited for centuries by the same small Jewish community since the Babylonian captivity. Like all humans, Nash Didan must have left important historical traces which could be excavated if future political climate allows.

IN THE Jewish faith, any text containing the name of God must be buried. Archeologists would most likely uncover important historical text among the artifacts. These texts and artifacts could fill in historical gaps. Perhaps within the buried history are answers to why the Nash Didan remained after the Babylonian exile, or how treatment changed with the changes of rulership over Urmia. Due to current politics, we have the inability to search for history deeper than surface level at this point, but that may not always be the case. The documents and recordings Kahn captures may be the only breadcrumbs we can follow in future historical research.

Consistent with the plight of Jewish communities around the globe, Nash Didan were victims of sporadic pogroms until 1915. The first fragment of the Jewish population left Urmia between 1915 and 1918. Ottoman invasions during WWI combined with the assassination of the Assyrian patriarch forced some Nash Didan to flee. These Nash Didan sought refuge just to the North of Urmia in the Caucasus Mountains, or fled to Palestine. A smaller portion of this group went to Tbilisi, Georgia.

In 1920, Nash Didan experienced its largest mass exile. The Simko Shikak revolution made Urmia unsafe for the Jewish population; this spurred the migration of the majority of Nash Didan to immigrate to America and settle in Chicago. Chicago was not an arbitrary choice, as Nash Didan were aware of an already established Assyrian community there.

The Nash Didan's search for community resulted in melding with the Christian Assyrian community. The two communities shared similar foods, and were able to communicate with each other speaking Assyrian. The Nash Didan were a smaller and less influential group, which resulted in the Nash Didan culture being lost to the larger Christian Assyrian community. Each generation showed rapid assimilation. Lishán Didán was not passed on to children; within two generations, it disappeared from Chicago. The predominantly English-speaking third and fourth generations of today are mostly unaware of their heritage. When asked their ethnicity, they might say Jewish or Persian.

Only the wealthiest Nash Didan were able to stay in Urmia through the migration in 1920. These Nash Didan remained in Urmia until 1951, when almost all Aramaic-speaking Jews from Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Persian Azerbaijan, and Persian Kurdistan were forced to leave the region. Only a few remained in Iran until after the revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. Today, Urmia has no Jewish population. The speakers who left the area in 1951 and 1979 hold the key to recording the history and language of the Nash Didan. This last wave of immigrants settled in either Israel or Los Angeles. Most of these speakers are older adults, in their 60s, who speak another language primarily.

Accurate statistics for the number of current speakers are unknown; outdated assessments show fewer than 5,000 speakers of Lishán Didán, and those speakers are very advanced in age. Kahn's documents and recordings capture an intimate glimpse into a lost community. The urgency to document and record Lishán Didán before its impending death is time-sensitive. The Nash Didan community and culture is almost completely gone.

Given that Jewish history filled with persecution and relocation, the lack of attention to Lishán Didán is unnerving. The chasm between the lack of interest in Lishán Didán and the historical relevance of the Nash Didan is staggering. Jewish people have survived against all odds. The Jews are also responsible for unprecedented linguistic achievements, with the rebirth of Hebrew and revitalization of Yiddish. The Nash Didan population is now primarily in Israel and California, yet the bulk of funding for Geoffrey Kahn's work comes from England.

With memory, history and language being key to the Jewish foundational principals, perhaps the lack of funding for Lishán Didán simply lies in the lack of awareness about the small Nash Didan community. The Nash Didan community, which has been a victim of persecution, Diaspora and globalism is being erased. The Nash Didan culture is an important piece in the puzzle to the history of the Jewish people. Attention must be paid to the death of this language.

May its memory be a blessing.

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