Ancient artifacts. Centuries-old legends. Prayers dating back to the time of Christ. An enemy seeking to destroy it all. And a team of dedicated scholars trying to save the memories before it’s too late.
It may sound like the start of the next Indiana Jones movie, but for the team behind the Christian Communities of the East Cultural Heritage Project, the reality of Christian communities disappearing from the Middle East is a pressing threat.
Faced with persecution at the hands of ISIS, more than a decade of war, and generations of economic struggle, these researchers are looking to record the memories and traditions of the Christian communities of Iraq before they are lost forever.
But instead of swinging through empty tombs or digging through rubble, these scholars are asking the community members themselves to engage in the rich Middle Eastern tradition of storytelling, sharing their memories and descriptions in their own native Arabic and Neo-Aramaic languages – some of them singing and speaking the same language Christ himself did.
Dr. Shawqi Talia, a lecturer on Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at The Catholic University of America explained that his colleagues’ quest to preserve the history and culture of Iraqi Catholics is essential for passing on their meaning, not only to the next generation, but for the world.
Talia, himself an Iraqi Chaldean Catholic, told CNA that he wants young people “to know how life was and what life was all about for the Christians – not just up north but in Iraq as a whole – in the ’50s and the ’40s and the ’30s, and to know that our history goes back for 2,000 years.”
Yet as Christians from the Nineveh plain continue to leave their homeland due to threats of violence, Talia hopes Middle Eastern Christians in diaspora will see the stories, songs, histories and memories contained in the project not only as a record, but as a tool.
He wants Middle Eastern youth to “work in order to keep this kind of heritage alive, not just for the Christians from that part of the world who are now living in diaspora, but because it’s the history of humanity – for all of us.”
This history is not just for the Christian communities of the Middle East, but for all Christians and the whole world to learn from and preserve – especially as the ancestral lands continue to be embroiled in conflict. “You can read something in a history text, but now you see it, and you hear it in person,” Talia said of the recorded interviews.
Preserving the past
The idea behind Christian Communities of the East Cultural Heritage Project – a joint partnership between the Institute of Christian Oriental Research and the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America – was born over the course of years of conversations between Dr. Talia and Dr. Robin Darling Young, an associate professor of spirituality in the university.
“The reason that we started this project was that we wanted to put together materials that would make available to other people and to communities themselves records of various kinds of the life of Christian communities in the Middle East,” Darling Young told CNA.
Attacks by ISIS against Christian and other minority religious communities in northern Iraq heightened the sense of urgency in preserving this culture’s heritage and history. Since 2003, violence in Iraq and Syria has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more, including whole communities of Middle Eastern Christians.
In the past 14 years, an estimated 1 million Christians have left their communities in Iraq, leaving less than 500,000 Christians in the lands inhabited by the faithful for 2,000 years.
To begin preserving their history before it completely vanishes, the group used Talia’s connections to the Chaldean Catholic community in the United States, particularly those in the Washington, D.C. area and in Southeast Michigan, where some 150,000 Chaldean Catholics have established new homes over the past century.
Plans also exist to interview Iraqi Christian communities in Europe and elsewhere, as well as release a documentary funded by the Michigan Humanities Council. After developing a detailed questionnaire, the team began to record interviews with members of the Chaldean communities in both English and Neo-Aramaic, a form of the language spoken by Christ.
The researchers also collected photographs and documents to digitize and present online along with the recordings as part of a comprehensive online archive. Ryann Craig, a doctoral student in the department of Semitics, explained that after consulting with oral history experts at the Library of Congress and elsewhere, the team sought to “draw out descriptions of communal life in their original languages” in the interview process.
“My challenge was to try to craft questions that would get people to answer in their native tongue.” One of the first questions, she said, was to ask community members to explain the meaning behind their family name and its importance in their home village.
This same technique was also used in getting participants to sing special communal songs created for special occasions like marriages or births, as well as to describe childhood games, or record how family recipes were made and their importance.
Given the circumstances that have brought some Chaldean Christians to the United States, however, some interviews have captured a much different side of the Middle Eastern Christian experience: persecution and flight.
Craig told CNA that some of the first interviews of the project were conducted with recent refugees, many of whom were still processing the traumatic circumstances leading up to their exodus. “A lot of the questions we were asking just weren’t relevant for them,” she said of the questions about traditions and history on the group’s questionnaire.
“At that point we just decided to let them tell whatever story they wanted to tell, and didn’t really prompt as much as we do with people who have been here for decades and feel more settled.” In collecting both these stories as well as those from Chaldean Christians who moved to the United States decades ago for economic reasons, the group has been able to document a cross-section of Iraqi Christian life.
Among those who came over in the 1950s-70s, the researchers have recorded histories by people from smaller Christian villages who spoke Neo-Aramaic and were very much connected to the Chaldean identity and more ancient traditions and ways of life.
Meanwhile, the majority of Chaldean refugees coming over to the United States as a result of violence and persecution are more likely to speak Arabic than Neo-Aramaic, and are also more likely to come from larger, more cosmopolitan cities. Still, among those persecuted, “there’s a profound sense of them being Christian, because they’re being persecuted for that reason.”
'More than just memories'
Though Talia is not involved directly in the interview process, he stressed to CNA the importance of gathering oral histories due to their unique ability to capture the essence of what it’s like to be a Middle Eastern Christian.
Just as his mother painted the experience of growing up in her hometown for Talia and his siblings, so too do these oral histories transmit the feeling of being in the communities of northern Iraq. “When you see these memories put on audio or on video, you can feel as if you were, or are present.”
While Talia was raised in Baghdad, his mother came from a Christian village of around 5,000 people in the northern Nineveh plain, without electricity, but maintaining many ancient traditions in their daily lives, including use of the Neo-Aramaic language.
“It’s more than simply nostalgia,” he explained of the stories. “It’s more than just memories. It’s a way of life which has disappeared or is disappearing.” For Talia, the importance oral history plays in Middle Eastern culture has all the more weight due to the uncertainty faced by many communities.
Even those that have been freed from the hands of ISIS are often in ruins, and much of the Middle Eastern Christian community is now in diaspora. Talia wants to help ensure “that the community isn’t gone simply because it isn’t in the villages or the towns.”
The next generation
The preservation of their home cultures and traditions is also a major concern for young Middle Eastern Christians who want to know more about their roots. Yousif Kalian is a second-generation Iraqi immigrant and a member of the Syriac Catholic Church.
As an undergraduate student at The Catholic University of America, he was a young adult researcher on the Christian Communities of the East Cultural Heritage Project, and he has continued to work with the endeavor after graduation.
He initially learned about the project while taking a class with Dr. Talia. “I’ve always had an interest in the region from a professional point of view, on top of being Iraqi-American,” Kalian told CNA.
He said that within both Catholic and secular culture in the United States, there is a lack of understanding about Middle Eastern Christians, as well as a culture gap between Middle Eastern parents or grandparents and their children or grandchildren.
This, he said, has left a lot of questions about identity and culture among many of his Middle Eastern Christian peers. Kalian sees this project’s blending of oral history and multimedia access as a way for young people to help change that knowledge gap.
“If you know anything about the Middle East, the oral tradition is the most prominent tradition there,” he said, pointing to the recitation traditions in Islam, Judaism and several Christian churches. Singing and storytelling are closely tied up with the identity of the people, he explained.
“I think not just preserving dates and numbers and facts, but really preserving the stories is the most important thing to preserve from Middle Eastern Christian culture,” Kalian stressed. “We all grew up with stories. The monastery that my grandfather is named after was destroyed by ISIS in 2015,” he said.
“And my grandfather’s name was Behnam.” Saint Behnam and Saint Sara monastery was established in the 4th Century in the Nineveh plain, about 20 miles from the city of Mosul. In late 2014, ISIS fighters took control of the monastery, expelling the monks under threat of death.
On March 19, 2015, the terrorist group released images of the destruction of the tomb of Saint Behnam and the surrounding buildings. Yet, Kalian keeps the memory of the monastery with him, as a part of who he is.
“The story goes that my great grandma couldn’t have a son,” he told CNA. “Kept having daughters, and in Middle Eastern culture having a son is a point of pride: he carries the name and the wealth and protection.
So she went to St. Behnam monastery and was praying, ‘Please give me a boy, St. Behnam. I’ll name him after you if you give me a boy’.” “Sure enough, she gave birth to a boy, and he survived,” Kalian said, “He survived, and she named him Behnam.”
“You can find a book on Christianity in Iraq, or you can find a book on this monastery. But stories like this: they’ll die with our parents or grandparents.”
“That’s why I think this project is so important: to get the recipes of the food that they cook and the history behind the food they cook, and the names of our parents and grandparents and where they come from, and these saints and stories and traditions…once we move here, to an extent it stays and is alive, but in another sense it gets lost,” he lamented.
“That’s why I think that this project really is important.” And he is not the only one who is excited about the chance to pass on these stories: his siblings and other friends from his Syriac Catholic community have been interested in having a template to interview their parents and grandparents, and a way to digitize their memories.
Kalian himself hopes to interview his family members and priests to collect their oral histories. “I think every young person, if offered the opportunity, would love to speak with their grandparents or parents, if you gave them a structure to find out more about their own history,” he said.
“If you make it an active thing to learn about your culture and not just have it be reading or watching documentaries. Being able to engage – having it be an active thing and have an active culture – will engage them more and therefore persevere our communities, our history, our culture and our language.”
Once completed, the Christian Communities of the East Cultural Heritage Project will be accessible at www.ccmideast.org and in the archives of the Institute of Christian Oriental Research at The Catholic University of America. Documentary video will also be distributed in Michigan at a later date.
By Adelaide Mena