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“It is very simple,” said Shady Khalloul, Aram’s founder. “We are not Arabs. We existed long before Arabs came to this region, and it’s about time we get state recognition.”
But in the Middle East, few things are simple. And issues of ethnic and national identity are more complex than most. Aram’s drive for separate recognition is opposed by some other Maronite groups and by many Palestinian Israeli nationalists as an attempt to divide and weaken the Palestinians’ struggle not just for equal social and civil treatment, but also for recognition as an autonomous national minority within Israel.
In fact, Aram’s website says that it aims at “uniting all Christians in the Middle East to be one strong nation, to educate our children about their ancestors’ heritage and history.”
Aram’s attempt to revive Aramaic is central to its larger political drive. Aramaic — the term is derived from the name Aram, the grandson of biblical Noah via his son Shem — is a Semitic language that was once widely spoken by Assyrians, Chaldeans, Hebrews, Persians and Syrians. It survived the fall of Nineveh, Babylon and Jerusalem. But following the Arab conquest of the Middle East in the seventh century, the language quickly declined. Today, Aramaic, which is written in Syriac script, is mostly used for prayer and liturgy by Maronites, Assyrians, Chaldeans and other Christian groups spread through the region in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan and other countries.
According to Yona Sabar, a language professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, no more than 200,000 people worldwide use this language in their daily lives. The largest Aramaic-speaking community in the world today resides in Sweden — an anomaly attributable to steady Christian immigration from the Middle East during the past 100 years. It is this Swedish community that provides instructional materials to Aramaic students in Jish and to Beit Jala, a mostly Christian town on the West Bank where efforts to preserve and revive the language are also active.
The young summer camp participants in Jish are part of this revival effort. Most speak Arabic, there are no more than a handful of mostly elderly Aramaic native speakers today in Israel. These children and teenagers are encouraged by their parents and teachers to use as much Aramaic in their daily life as possible. In a way it is their mother tongue, since they have heard some Aramaic since birth. But they require more training and immersion for it to become their daily language.