Ancient language makes comeback in Iraq

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By Adel Kadhem

Azzaman, December 9, 2012

At least one of the Middle East’s ancient languages may not be doomed to extinction, thanks to the liberal tendencies that have been a characteristic of Iraq’s educational system in the past few years.

Since the downfall of the regime of Saddam Hussein, the government has removed restrictions on teaching languages other than Arabic and has allowed minorities to have their own schools in their own languages.

One of the language benefiting from liberalizing the education system has been Syriac, the ancient tongue still spoken by many Iraqi Christians.

Under Saddam Hussein it was illegal to teach the language.

But now there are more than 40 schools in Iraq where the curriculum is in Syria, a dialect of Aramaic.

And recently, Iraqi Christians celebrated the first Syriac school in Baghdad. Most of the other schools where teaching is in Syriac are situated in the Kurdish north.

The renaissance of Syriac is been backed by almost all Christian political factions and religious sects in the country. Many churches still have their liturgy in Syriac.

The language has never seen such revival in modern history. There are some hurdles mainly in regard to the variety of Syriac that should be taught at these schools.

The ancient – classical – variety is hardly understood by the majority of Iraqi Christians and there are disputes on which dialect to adopt.

Other hurdles include the flight of many Christians to foreign states. Those remaining, estimated at 300,000 people, are reported to be keen not to lose their language.

Syriac is the mother tongue of  almost all Christians in countries like Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.

But it is in Iraq that schools teaching most of their subjects in Syriac are now available.

There is a Department of Syriac at Baghdad University as well as several other universities in Europe, America, India and Egypt.

The government is offering scholarships in Syriac to prepare teaching staff in anticipation of an increase in numbers of students willing to have their classes in the ancient tongue.