Is the Islamic State Exterminating the Language of Jesus?

We may be watching the deliberate destruction of Aramaic, unfolding in real time. 

Qaraqosh, Tel Kepe, and Karamlesh are just three of the Iraqi towns on the Nineveh plains captured in early August by the Islamic State (IS), but they represent the last major concentration of Aramaic speakers in the world. Pushing northeast of Mosul towards Kurdistan, the jihadist army now occupies the ancient heart of Christian Iraq. According to U.N. officials, roughly 200,000 Christians fled their homes on the Nineveh plains on the night of Aug. 6, justifiably fearful that IS fighters would expel them, kill them, or force them to convert. A local archbishop, Joseph Thomas, described the situation as "catastrophic, a crisis beyond imagination."

Beyond the urgent humanitarian crisis lies a cultural and linguistic emergency of historic proportions. The extinction of a language in its homeland is rarely a natural process, but almost always reflects the pressures, persecutions, and discriminations endured by its speakers. Linguist Ken Hale famously compared the destruction of a language to "dropping a bomb on the Louvre" -- whole patterns of thought, ways of being, and entire systems of knowledge are among what is lost. If the last Aramaic speaker finally passes away two generations from now, the language will not have died of natural causes.

Aramaic covers a wide range of Semitic languages and dialects, all related but often mutually incomprehensible, now mostly extinct or endangered. The last available estimates of the number of Aramaic speakers, from the 1990s, put the population as high as 500,000, of whom close to half were thought to be in Iraq. Today the actual number is likely to be much lower; speakers are scattered across the globe, and fewer and fewer children are speaking the language. Nowhere does Aramaic have official status or protection.

It's a mighty fall for what was once almost a universal language. First spoken over 3,000 years ago by the nomadic Arameans in what is now Syria, Aramaic rose to prominence as the language of the Assyrian empire. It was the English of its time, a lingua franca spoken from India to Egypt. Aramaic outlasted the rise and fall of empires, flourishing under Babylonian power and again under the First Persian Empire in the sixth century B.C.E. Millions used it in trade, diplomacy, and daily life. Even after Alexander the Great imposed Greek on his vast dominions in the fourth century B.C.E., Aramaic continued to spread and spawn new dialects -- for instance in ancient Palestine, where it gradually replaced spoken Hebrew. It was in Aramaic that the original "writing on the wall," at the Feast of King Belshazzar in the Book of Daniel, foretold the fall of Babylon.

Nearly three millennia of continuous records exist for Aramaic; only Chinese, Hebrew, and Greek have an equally long written legacy. For many religions, Aramaic has had sacred or near-sacred status. It is the presumed mother tongue of Jesus, who is reported in the Gospel of Matthew to have said on the cross: "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" ("My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?") It came to be used in the Jewish Talmud, in the Eastern Christian churches (where it is known as Syriac), and as the ritual and everyday language of the Mandaeans, an ethno-religious minority in Iran and Iraq.

Centuries after Alexander, Aramaic continued to hold its own across much of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. It was only after Arabic began spreading across the region in the seventh century C.E. that Aramaic speakers retreated into isolated mountain communities. The speakers of these varied "Neo-Aramaic" dialects were primarily Jews and Christians in what is now northern Iraq (including Kurdistan), northwestern Iran, and southeastern Turkey. Most Christian Aramaic speakers refer to themselves as Assyrians, Chaldeans, or Arameans; many call their language Sureth.

Though marginalized, this Aramaic-speaking world survived for over a millennium, until the 20th century shattered what remained of it. During World War I, as Ottoman power dissolved, Turkish nationalists not only massacred Armenians and Greeks, but also perpetrated what is known today as the Assyrian Genocide, slaughtering and expelling the Christian Aramaic-speaking population of eastern Turkey. Most survivors fled to Iran and Iraq. A few decades later, facing rising anti-Semitism, most Jewish Aramaic speakers left for Israel. Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq added further pressures and persecutions for the Aramaic-speaking Christians who stayed behind. Diaspora became a fact of life for the Assyrians, most of whom now live scattered across the globe, from countries bordering the former Aramaic-speaking zone like Turkey, Jordan, and Russia, to newer communities in places like Michigan, California, and the Chicago suburbs.

Some linguists divide what remains of Neo-Aramaic into four groups: Western, Central, North-Eastern, and Neo-Mandaic. By the end of the 20th century, Central Aramaic was spoken by a tiny community of a few thousand survivors in Turkey. At least in non-ritual contexts, the
"Neo-Mandaic" variety of Neo-Aramaic used by the Mandaeans of Iran and Iraq had dwindled substantially; today just a few hundred people speak it. Meanwhile, Western Neo-Aramaic was down to a single stronghold: the town of Maaloula and two of its neighboring villages, northeast of Damascus. Here a 1996 estimate claimed as many as 15,000 Aramaic speakers, including many children; in 2006, the University of Damascus opened an Aramaic Language Academy, supported by the government of President Bashar al-Assad. There was reason for hope.

But then the Syrian civil war began. In September 2013, Maaloula fell to rebel forces, reportedly a mix of al-Nusra Front (a jihadist offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq) and Free Syrian Army fighters. The remaining Aramaic speakers fled to Damascus or to Christian villages to the south, according to linguist Werner Arnold, who has worked with the community for several decades. Government forces recaptured Maaloula in April 2014, but "most of the houses were destroyed," says Arnold, and "there was no water supply and no electricity."

A few families returned to Maaloula in July, according to Arnold, but prospects for restoring the academy now seem remote. "I had huge dreams about it," says Imad Reihan, one of the academy's Aramaic teachers, "but in this war, in my country now, I can't think about Aramaic." Reihan has served as a soldier in the Syrian Army for the last four years; he is currently near Damascus. "We lost a lot of it," says Reihan of the language, "and a lot of children don't speak it now. Some try to save the language anywhere they are, but it is not easy." Reihan has cousins in Damascus and Lebanon who are raising their children to speak Aramaic, but dispersal and assimilation can be ineluctable forces. Only in Maaloula will Western Neo-Aramaic survive, says Arnold -- and it remains unclear whether, or when, the community might return.

Thus, until early August, the best hope for Aramaic's survival was in northern Iraq, in the diverse North-Eastern subgroup, with its greater number of speakers and its roots in larger communities. The Christian population of Iraq has been in free fall -- from 1.5 million in 2003 to an estimated 350,000 to 450,000 today -- but the Nineveh plains had been spared the worst. In January, Baghdad even announced its intention to make the region a separate province, a gesture towards Assyrian aspirations for autonomy.

But then in June, IS seized Mosul, as Iraqi forces disintegrated. On Aug. 6, with the Kurdish army withdrawing, IS captured Qaraqosh, Iraq's largest Christian city, with 50,000 inhabitants. The Christian population in the area left overnight, with most fleeing towards Erbil, the Kurdish capital.

Despite U.S. airstrikes in recent days, IS still holds the heartland of Aramaic, now emptied of its original inhabitants. "The threat to the Christian Neo-Aramaic-speaking population of northern Iraq is very great," says linguist Geoffrey Khan, adding that the region has dozens of Aramaic-speaking villages and that "each village has a slightly different dialect." Khan's full-length study of the Neo-Aramaic spoken in Qaraqosh, and similar studies undertaken in neighboring towns, may now stand as monuments rather than descriptions of living communities. "Since each village has a different dialect," says Khan, "if the inhabitants of the villages are uprooted and thrown together in refugee camps or scattered in diaspora communities around the world, the dialects will inevitably die." The unfolding tragedy "is reminiscent of the terrible events in the First World War," adds Khan, which "led to the death of scores of Neo-Aramaic dialects of southeastern Turkey."

Khan's North Eastern Neo-Aramaic Database Project at Cambridge University has compiled data on over 130 of the dialects once spoken across the region, half of which are from Iraq. Most of the others are already gone, or are spoken only by scattered individuals living in the diaspora.

After a century of expulsions and persecutions, can spoken Aramaic survive without its homeland on the Nineveh plains? Between assimilation and dispersion, the challenges of maintaining the language in diaspora will be immense, even if speakers remain in Erbil.

The fate of Jewish Neo-Aramaic, of which several dozen dialects were once spoken across the region, is instructive. Some 150,000 Jews of Kurdish descent, from Aramaic-speaking families, are estimated to live in Israel today, according to author Ariel Sabar's memoir, My Father's Paradise. The survival of the remaining Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialects is "precarious," says Ariel's father, linguist Yona Sabar, "due to the natural assimilation of the Neo-Aramaic speakers into Israeli society and the passing away of the older generation that still spoke and knew Neo-Aramaic from Kurdistan." Several major dialects of Jewish Neo-Aramaic are already extinct, none is thought to have more than 10,000 speakers, and even that high a number seems unlikely, with young speakers now exceedingly rare. "Luckily, the Jews have left these areas [to safety] long ago," says Sabar, one of the foremost chroniclers of how they once spoke.

Unless quickly reversed, the murderous presence of the Islamic State on the Nineveh plains may be the final chapter for Aramaic. Globally, languages and cultures are disappearing at an unprecedented rate -- on average, the last fluent, native speaker of a language dies every three months -- but what's happening with Aramaic is far more unusual and terrifying: the deliberate extinction of a language and culture, unfolding in real time.

friends of Maaloula


How to Take a Picture of a Severed Head

What are major news organizations doing sending jihadi-approved photos from inside the Islamic State?

He's a charismatic figure, the sort that would catch the eye of any good photo editor.

Clad in all black except for the beige kaffiyeh wrapping his face, he stands, arms raised, weapon in one hand, ISIS flag in the other. Through dark aviators, he stares down the camera from just a few feet away. 

The picture above, dated June 23, filed by an unnamed photographer, and distributed by Reuters, claims to be of a jihadi militant on the streets of Mosul, two weeks after the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, now called the Islamic State (IS), shocked the world by taking control of Iraq's second-largest city. Time used the image. So did Newsweek, The Daily Beast, The New York Review of Books, and NBC News. And thus, the world got one of its earliest glimpses of Islamic State-controlled Iraq: defiant, in control, triumphant. 

The sudden takeover of a wide swath of Iraq by Syria-based militants calling themselves the Islamic State is both one of the biggest stories of the year and one of the hardest for news organizations to cover. The brutality that made ISIS notorious over the course of the Syrian civil war has become a fundamental part of its Iraqi regime. Few journalists have been allowed in by IS's media arms to provide a sense of what life is like under the Islamic State -- which is, in part, why a VICE News documentary that premiered Aug. 7, in which filmmaker Medyan Dairieh spent three weeks with the group, has been generating a stir. Most media coverage of the Islamic State's reign has come from areas of relative safety, such as refugee camps in Kurdistan where those fleeing the jihadi advance have taken shelter, or from those embedded with the Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting against further IS incursions. Few reports have included direct contact with the militants themselves, only with those caught up in their wake.

Except, that is, for the photos.

Shortly after the takeover, a handful of news agencies, including giants like Reuters and the Associated Press (AP), began sending out pictures from Mosul. Shot by anonymous stringers -- that is, freelancers who contribute regularly -- the photos reveal daily life under a self-declared caliphate, and depict everything from raucous demonstrations full of fluttering jihadi flags and weapons-filled checkpoints to more mundane scenes of bustling markets. Taken together, they show a combination of breathtaking brutality, widespread support, and a well-functioning state.

They're also fraught with ethical pitfalls. The use of unnamed freelancers by major news organizations in an area ruled by one of the world's most dangerous militant groups has raised a host of questions, from how these agencies can ensure their journalists' safety to whether they can vouch for the methods of the anonymous photographers working for them -- or these journalists' relationship with the IS fighters they claim to cover.

And as interviews with a few of the photographers currently working within the caliphate indicate, some agencies are willing to work far outside of traditional journalistic norms in order to provide a window into the world now almost entirely cut off from outsiders, in some cases even sacrificing editorial control to militant jihadists -- all in order to get an up-close glimpse of the enemy.

Abu Mirwan -- not his real name -- has worked as a photographer in Iraq for well over a decade. He is now filing photographs for an international agency, he said in a telephone interview in early August. (He wouldn't say which one.) After the IS takeover of Mosul, Mirwan, a Sunni Iraqi, reached out to an agent of the caliphate, who said he could get him permission to work again. The agent was true to his word, Mirwan said. He even shared a pleasant meal with three IS leaders, who told him they would help him by giving him stories and inviting him to see IS events.

The congeniality didn't last long. Mirwan says that a few days later, he was taken to see another member of IS's leadership. It was a very different meeting. The IS leader threatened Mirwan, telling him that if he did anything that damaged IS's reputation, he'd be killed and that if he took any photographs without IS knowledge, he'd be given 100 lashes. From now on, he was told, before he sent out any photos, he'd have to share his memory cards for approval first.

And that's how he's operated since, Mirwan says. IS invites him to cover events, such as military shows and rallies. He photographs them, with a minder in tow, and when he's through, he clears his images with an IS representative before they go out to either the international agency he works with, or to a local agency he works with which then passes them on to its international contacts.

Mirwan was recruited to document IS's recent attack on the town of Sinjar, he says -- the same takeover whose aftermath has prompted U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. There, he was photographing fighting until a few members of ISIS called him over. Thirty men lay waiting facedown on the ground, hands bound behind their backs. Three or four women were standing by, watching. It was an execution.

Take the pictures, he was told.

Mirwan says he's frightened. But the money he makes filing for international agencies is good, he says, and taking photos is the only way he knows to make a living. "I've been doing this job for 15 years," he said. "This is how I support my family."

Not all imagery coming out of the Islamic State is vetted like Mirwan's. Mohammed (who is also using a pseudonym because he fears IS reprisals) has been working as a journalist for over 10 years and is currently based in Mosul, running a local photo agency, where he has two photographers working under him. In a phone interview in late July, he said his agency sells between seven to 10 photos a day, for about $50 a photo. They work with a variety of different agencies, he says, but mainly with the AP. The agency doesn't know who the stringers supplying its photos are, Mohammed says. He is the AP's only point of contact for his agency's photos.

Mohammed says his photographers operate without IS permission, snapping furtive images via camera phones and transmitting them out of IS territory by satellite. And not all of AP's Mosul photography has been flattering for IS, in the mode of packed rallies and lively markets: The agency has sent out photos, for instance, of Mosul residents walking over rubble -- the aftermath of IS's destruction of the Tomb of Jonah the Prophet, a revered Muslim shrine. Another photo shows an empty park, where a statue of Iraqi poet and cultural icon Adi Tammam once stood.  

Mohammed and his photographers do tremendously risky work, but AP is very good to him, he says, and is concerned with his safety: The agency will call to check in on him, and remind him not to take unnecessary risks. But few are willing to take these sorts of chances. Mohammed says he knows of other photographers operating under the same conditions as Mirwan: filing only photos that have been cleared with an IS representative, working out of a TV station in Mosul, who keeps all the images on file.

AP refused Foreign Policy's repeated requests for an interview on its decision to use unnamed stringers in Mosul. However, in an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the agency wrote, "The Associated Press is transparent about the source of images we distribute and the safety of our journalists is paramount."

Over email, a Reuters spokesperson did not respond to a list of nine questions including one about whether the agency knows the identity of its stringers in IS-controlled Iraq, and whether it was comfortable with the requirement that any photographer working in Mosul must appear to support IS. Instead, the agency issued a statement saying it "chooses a mix of staff and stringers to provide the best coverage ... which is hallmarked by its independence and freedom from bias." It balances the use of staff photographers and stringers based on operational requirements, said spokesman Chris Artis, "as well as the deep knowledge of the conflict held by local editors."

News agencies' decisions about whether to rely on stringers in IS territory take place against the backdrop of the intensifying propaganda war unfolding between the Islamic State and the Iraqi government -- one that many have argued IS is winning. The group has shown a particular savvy when it comes to brand management: It maintains active social media accounts, regularly publishing images, including the occasional gruesome beheading or mass execution, which are often picked up by news outlets. The militants have a designated propaganda arm, known as the Al Hayat Media Center, which produces high-production videos and a magazine. And reports from other areas under IS control describe similar attempts to control all information bound for the outside world through similar review processes as those described by Mirwan and Mohamed in Mosul: IS set up an "information office" in the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, for instance. For its part, in response to IS's effective public relations efforts, the Iraqi government has issued a set of "guidelines" for members of the media covering the fight against IS that forbids "broadcast[ing] the messages of armed groups or their savage acts" while exhorting journalists to praise "the heroic acts performed by security personnel," and to "broadcast programs that spread enthusiasm and a fighting spirit against terror." (The guidelines were condemned by human rights groups as an attempt to prevent critical coverage.) 

Providing anonymity for photographers operating in dangerous territory is a common practice for news organizations, including Reuters and the Associated Press. But the combination of a particularly violent subject, known for its PR savvy, and photographers with whom these agencies have little familiarity and at times almost no contact, is problematic, journalism ethics experts say. By running images from photographers like Mirwan and Mohammed, news organizations open themselves up to charges that they're serving as what Ethical Journalism Network Director Aidan White calls "unwilling foot soldiers" of extremists in this propaganda war. "It's the question of whether or not one is falling into the trap of actually promoting the political interests of" the Islamic State, White said.

But while news agencies must be aware of the hazards of allowing a dangerous group to depict itself on its own terms, they must also balance against the value of providing public information about an important newsmaker, said Patrick Baz, Middle East and North Africa editor for Agence France-Presse (AFP). AFP hasn't used stringers in IS-controlled Mosul, but it has distributed the group's own images of what it claims to be executions. They're photos that may be intended to intimidate, Baz says, but they also have what he calls "historical value."

"We all know it's propaganda, but we all know at the same time that the world needs to see what's going on," he said. "Our duty is to ring the alarm bell and say, 'Hey guys, this is what's going on. This is what we've found on these guys' website.'"

And conceding some editorial independence for the sake of access isn't a situation unique to the Islamic State, he says. News agencies readily use images distributed by the U.S. army, the Israeli army, or NATO forces, Baz said -- decisions that are rarely, if ever, questioned. And military embeds, for instance, often come only after extensive screenings, and with their own restrictions on coverage (though these are typically couched in terms of security, and aren't accompanied by promises of lashings).

In the buildup to the premier of part one of VICE News' documentary, the company touted its journalist's "unprecedented access." Indeed, VICE's cameras appear to go deep into the caliphate, and the footage they capture is chilling: In the first two installments, based in Raqqa, Syria, children as young as 11 pledge loyalty to the caliphate, and IS members give brazen interviews that include pledging to "raise the flag of Allah in the White House." There are also happy scenes, of a sort: Men living under IS rule play with children in a river. And front and center, of course, are the demonstrations of Islamic State power: a tank spinning in circles; IS's signature black flag waving from a turret; a parade of stolen Iraqi weapons; a rally in which a crowd is prodded into a call-and-response: "The Caliphate!" "Established!"

In an email statement to Foreign Policy, VICE offered no details about the terms of the embed, nor did it share them in an interview with the Huffington Post. It said it offered "a previously unseen look at life under the control of this terrifying extremist group" and said filmmaker Dairieh "has worked in the region's most challenging environments ... and has extensive contacts."

In forthcoming episodes, VICE promises to take viewers further into IS's world. They'll watch prisoners detail how they'll be punished for their crimes, see an IS-run wheat mill, and hear a representative talk about the group's plans to establish schools and factories. Viewers will have no sense of how much of the footage may have been screened ahead of time by the group before airing, or the degree to which IS decided where VICE's cameras would go. The documentary is fascinating. Watching men and young children declare their passion for jihad, seeing masked men on horses patrolling city streets -- it's hard to look away. How much it tells us about the reality of life under a caliphate is an entirely different matter.

Part two of the documentary closes with a scene of an IS recruitment rally, which many attendees are shown filming on their cellphones. "The Islamic State has been established," a kaffiyeh-wearing man sings to the gathered crowd. "Beautiful virgins are calling; enroll me as a martyr." The crowd stares back. Some sing along. The weapons are held high, and rows of black flags flutter in the background.

Sebastian Meyer contributed reporting from northern Iraq.