Feature

Longform's Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.

Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform's new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.

 

The Most Wanted Man in the World, Wired.

Edward Snowden sits down and speaks with Wired about how he became a household name.

"But in all my work, I’ve never run across anyone quite like Snowden. He is a uniquely postmodern breed of whistle-blower. Physically, very few people have seen him since he disappeared into Moscow’s airport complex last June. But he has nevertheless maintained a presence on the world stage—not only as a man without a country but as a man without a body. When being interviewed at the South by Southwest conference or receiving humanitarian awards, his disembodied image smiles down from jumbotron screens. For an interview at the TED conference in March, he went a step further—a small screen bearing a live image of his face was placed on two leg-like poles attached vertically to remotely controlled wheels, giving him the ability to “walk” around the event, talk to people, and even pose for selfies with them. The spectacle suggests a sort of Big Brother in reverse: Orwell’s Winston Smith, the low-ranking party functionary, suddenly dominating telescreens throughout Oceania with messages promoting encryption and denouncing encroachments on privacy.

Of course, Snowden is still very cautious about arranging face-to-face meetings, and I am reminded why when, preparing for our interview, I read a recent Washington Post report. The story, by Greg Miller, recounts daily meetings with senior officials from the FBI, CIA, and State Department, all desperately trying to come up with ways to capture Snowden. One official told Miller: “We were hoping he was going to be stupid enough to get on some kind of airplane, and then have an ally say: ‘You’re in our airspace. Land.’ ” He wasn’t. And since he disappeared into Russia, the US seems to have lost all trace of him."

 

Trouble in Paradise, William Prochnau and Laura Parker, Vanity Fair.

Settled in 1790 by mutineers, Pitcairn Island is one of the British Empire’s most isolated remnants, largely ignored until 1996. Then Pitcairn’s secret was exposed: generations of rape and child molestation as a way of life. Delving into the South Pacific island’s past, the authors chronicle its 10-year clash with the British legal system, which ripped apart a tiny society.

"Before he was convicted of five rapes and sentenced to three years, Steve Christian had been the mayor of Adamstown, the only settlement on Pitcairn, and generally the big man on the island. A seventh-generation grandson of Fletcher’s, Steve is the dentist (mostly extractions), drives the bulldozer, and, at 56, is still as good as anyone with a longboat, a job more important than any political post. He had been a leader—some said a boss—all his life, even as a kid. The special Pitcairn prosecutor, Simon Moore of Auckland, called him “the leader of the pack” of Pitcairn youngsters whose romps through places like Taro Ground and Bang Iron Valley in the 1960s often ended in sexual initiations. Some of the charges against him were made by women who had been children on Pitcairn and were now middle-aged and long gone.

Steve Christian is not a penitent man. Convicted, he refused to resign as mayor. The British governor fired him. His rights had been “trampled upon,” the charges against him “freshly fictionalized history,” he told us. “It was all consensual sex,” he said, an argument he seems determined to carry to his grave. Later, from his cell, he decided to take his case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg."

 

Nothing Says “Sorry Our Drones Hit Your Wedding Party” Like $800,000 And Some Guns, Gregory D. Johnsen, the Buzzfeed.

On December 12, 2013, a drone struck and killed 12 members of a wedding party in Yemen. If the U.S., which claims the strike was clean and justified, didn’t pony up the $800,000 in cash and guns as reparations, then who did?

"For much of the past century, the United States has gone to war with lawyers, men and women who follow the fighting, adjudicating claims of civilian casualties and dispensing cash for errors. They write reports and interview survivors. But what happens when there are no boots on the ground? When the lawyers are thousands of miles away and dependent on aerial footage that is as ambiguous as it is inconclusive? How do you determine innocence or guilt from a pre-strike video? When everyone has beards and guns, like they do in rural Yemen, can you tell the good guys from the bad? Is it even possible? And when the U.S. gets it wrong, when it kills the wrong man: What happens then? Who is accountable when a drone does the killing?

On Dec. 12, 2013, a U.S. drone carried out a strike in Yemen. Little of what happened that day is known with any degree of certainty. Most of the facts are adrift somewhere in the shadowy sea of a classified world. Identities shift and change depending on the vantage point, and what appears true thousands of feet up in the air often looks different on the ground. Following two reviews, the U.S. claims it was a clean strike and that all the dead were militants. Yemen disagrees, calling the attack a tragic mistake that killed civilians. Two countries, two conclusions. But one of them paid the families of the dead men a lot of money."

 

Escape From Syria: On the Road With the Refugees Walking to Europe, Alev Scott, Newsweek.

The civil war in Syria has not only sparked a mass exodus from the country, but has spurned a human trafficking network, taking Syrians to Europe.

"Ten thousand euros is a lot of money, but it gets results, and Jamil’s brother is lucky – only 50 Syrians have been officially accepted as refugees by the UK under the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme, established in January. Most Syrians cannot afford the cost of getting as far as the UK, which may be part of the reason for the relatively low number of Syrian refugee applications (460 in the first quarter of 2014, compared to Germany’s 5,385, for example.) Most Syrians heading for Europe have to make complex and dangerous journeys, mainly overland, starting with the crossing from Turkey to Greece, the traditional gateway to Europe. The usual port of departure from Turkey is Izmir, on the Aegean coast, south of Istanbul, from where they cross to one of the Greek islands – Mytilene, Samos and Chios are the nearest, most popular destinations. Some used to cross via the river Evros on the Turkish-Greek land border, but this route has become impassable since November 2013, when the Turks built a barbed-wire wall. Now the Bulgarian border is becoming a popular alternative.

Sea crossings are dangerous and – like everything in the murky world of smuggling – open to both negotiation and exploitation. Migrants pay different amounts depending on the type of boat, and the Turkish smugglers, ever businessmen, have raised their prices for the summer season, when passage is easier and demand higher. A place on one of the smallest boats, little more than dinghies with motors and most liable to capsize, used to cost around €600 in winter. “Now it is high season, so boat places are €800-€1,000,” says Walid, who sometimes acts as a middleman for Syrians paying the smugglers. “In summer the smugglers can charge more, just like for tourists.”"

 

Ukraine's Oligarchs Are Still Calling the Shots , Sergii Leshchenko, Foreign Policy.

The revolutionaries of the Maidan wanted to end crony capitalism. But it's back with a vengeance.

"Life has also become more complicated for Rinat Akhmetov, one of Yanukovych's sometime allies. The collapse of the Yanukovych regime and the outbreak of the rebellion by pro-Russian separatists have hit Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man, particularly hard. Much of his wealth is tied up in factories in the industrial city of Donetsk, now the heartland of the separatist rebellion and the focus of Kiev's military campaign to restore control over the east. Work at some of his plants has ground to a halt because of the fighting.

Now, caught between the rebels and the government in Kiev, Akhmetov finds himself desperately maneuvering to find a balance between the two sides. Even as he's bent over backward to express his support for the government in Kiev (once even accusing the separatists of "genocide" in his native Donbass region), he's also been urging President Petro Poroshenko to stop bombarding Donetsk as the Ukrainian military campaign fights to take the city back. Just to be on the safe side, Akhmetov has seen fit to relocate to Kiev since the pro-Russian militants took over his hometown. (He is notably reluctant to travel to Europe, however, apparently fearing a fate similar to the one that has met Firtash.)"

Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images; ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS/AFP/Getty Images; Ethan Miller/Getty Images; PABLO COZZAGLIO/AFP/Getty Images

Feature

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