Ancient language on verge of extinction in Iraq

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By Khaula al-Ukaili

Azzaman, December 6, 2012

A secretive Iraqi community and its distinct language are both feared to disappear, specialists say.

The group, known as the Mandeans, have Aramaic as their mother tongue and have been pursuing their own religion, which historians trace to John the Baptist.

But only a few thousand Mandeans have remained in Iraq and they are scattered across the country, according to Tareq Barakat, who administers Mandean Endowments at Iraq’s Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Barakat said it was extremely difficult now to gather enough Mandean students to attend a special school of their own and the language, one of the most ancient tongues still surviving, was on its way to become extinct.

Iraq’s Ministry of Culture and Antiquities has offered help, allocating the resources necessary to save Mandean culture which flourished in Iraq in the early centuries A.D.

The ministry has agreed to set up “The House of Mandean Knowledge” to preserve the community’s cultural heritage.

But Barakat said that was not enough and Aramaic, the Mandean language, “is threatened with extinction.”

There are other Iraqi ethnic communities such as those known as Chaldeans and Assyrians who still speak Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. But the Mandeans were probably among the world’s only remaining people speaking the original tongue.

Iraq’s first lady, Hiro Ibrahim, has urged the government to do what it takes in order to save Aramaic.

“The language which the Mandeans speak is going through a dangerous period,” she said, adding that Iraq needed a national song with words and phrases from all the languages spoken in the country.

The Mandeans had their largest communities in southern Iraq where they lived peacefully among marsh Arabs.

But like other Iraqi ethnic minorities, they have been fleeing the country in large numbers in the past three decades.

From several hundred thousand only a few thousand remain in the country.