Thursday, September 25, 2014

Elias Khoury on Palestinian Christian Identity

Arabic original in al-Quds al-Arabi here. For more on Israel's decision to create an "Aramaean" nationality, see here.

The Aramaean Game

by Elias Khoury

Amidst the host of identity conflicts in the Arab Middle East, the Israeli magician has pulled out of his hat a new identity that he wants to give Palestinian Christians. The Hebrew state, which succeeded in transforming Druze identity into a national identity within Israel-- at least on paper and in enlistment documents-- has discovered a new national identity for Christians, so now they are not Palestinians or Arabs, but Aramaeans! This was the decision of Mr Gideon Saar, the Israeli minister of the interior, with the agreement of the priest Gabriel Naddaf, an Orthodox priest in Nazareth!

I do not know why some orientalist working in Israeli intelligence decided to revive an Aramaean nationality, without any basis outside the Israeli imagination, which always strives to fragment what remains of the Palestinian people in their occupied nation into different nationalities! After the priest Naddaf's failure to convince Christians to enlist in the Israeli army in order to serve the state that stole their land, occupied their homes, and plundered their possessions, his mind or the mind of his employers hit upon the 'genius' idea of creating a special nationality for Christians. Naddaf or his employer can't talk of a Christian nationality that extends from the Vatican to America, since no such thing exists apart from the fact that it would disturb Israelis, so he had to go back to the past and extract some identity from the graveyard of history.

The level of ignorance in the Aramaean proposal is enough to make you feel pity. Mr Naddaf, apart from his ignorance of the history of Palestinian Christian families, most of which come from Hawran, the cradle of Arab Christianity (most believe that the Naddaf family, who have roots in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, are of Hawrani origin), is ignorant of the history of the relationship between the Aramaic language and the land from which it came and the transformations experienced by its speakers.

Anyone who knows the rudiments of Syriac history knows that the coming of Christianity to greater Syria and the rise of the Antiochian Church led Aramaic-speaking Christians to distinguish themselves by adopting the name "Syriac". Syriac is Christian Aramaic. Gabriel Naddaf, who claims to have studied theology, does not know this obvious truth, just as he is unable to invent a Syriac nationality, since the Syriac Christian community already exists in Palestine.

The use of Syriac in church services was not limited to the Jacobites and Maronites. All the Christian churches used Syriac in their prayers until Arabization began and the Church was Arabized. However, the Church did not abandon partial use of Syriac and this even applies to the Orthodox Church to which Naddaf claims to belong. As for the use of Greek in the Church, it came about after the Crusades, when the Eastern Church was subjected to the worst sorts of persecution under Crusader rule and so its leaders fled to Constantinople and when they returned, they came back with Byzantine rituals.

Christians, like all the people of the Levant, used two languages before the Arab conquest, Byzantine Greek and Syriac. With Arabization, Greek disappeared but Syriac filtered into the Arabic language and became a fundamental part of that langauge. Syriac was only preserved partially, in northern Mount Lebanon and among the Surianis or the Syriac Orthodox living in the Jezira. The Syriac identity of the Maronites dissapeared with their Latinization, that is, their incorporation into the Church of Rome, while the Syriac identity of the Surianis has been subjected  to many trials, chief among them the slaughter in their villages in Turkey during the Armenian Genocide.

The Christians of Palestine, like other childreno of the Palestinian people, can be related to a mixture that stretches from the Canaanites to the Arabs, as Palestine in the Torah is called the Land of Canaan. After the establishment of the Hebrew state, there was a cultural and literary movement called the "Canaanites" that called for belonging to the land and not to a Jewish religious identity. It regarded the Muslim and Christian Palestinian peasants as the remnants of the Jewish people who lived in the Land of Canaan. This movement, however, which counted Benjamin Tammuz among its pioneers, quickly dissipated under the dominance of racist Zionist ideology.

Everything I have written above would be unnecessary if Naddaf had any inkling of the history of his country and his people and had not turned into a petty informant whose head is being stuffed with false information by a stupid orientalist in the Israeli intelligence services.

The most amusing thing that I've read is where Naddaf says that we are Greeks and Aramaeans and not Arabs. By Greeks he means the Rum Orthodox community and here his ignorance is most evident. The appellation "Rum" was the name given to the Orthodox Christian Arabs by their Monophysite opponents who accused them of abandoning the Church of Syria, which at that time was the national church, much like the Coptic Church. The Rum are not Greeks and the adjective "Rum" that was attached to them was adopted over time. As for the Greek domination over the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, it is one of the consequences of the Ottoman era and the circumstances of the occupation have prevented this from changing as happened in the Antiochian Church in Syria and Lebanon.

The premise of the Israeli minister of the interior and his follower Naddaf is a pile of imaginary notions. The goal is to fabricate an identity out of nothing in order to promote enlistment in the Israeli army among the Christian youth.

If this Naddaf knew what he was saying, he would go to the villages of Iqrit and Kafrbirim and join in the struggle for the right of their inhabitants to return. Just as a reminder, some of the inhabitants of those two villages are Maronites, who still use Syriac in their religious rituals.

This Naddaf is an embarrassment to the Church and to Palestine. If he just know how the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus of Nazareth has entered into the Arab mosaic and spread its words within it... If he knew how much we love this language, to the point that it is fused with our consciousness and our language... If he knew the staggering number of Syriac words have entered into our daily lexicon...

His problem isn't his ignorance, since someone who doesn't know is able to learn. His problem is called accepting inferiority to the point that it has led him to be a traitor.

As for the buffoonery called Aramaean nationalism, it is destined to be forgotten.

Amidst the madness of sectarian and identitarian death that is leading the Arab Middle East into the abyss, Palestinians know that their unity is the most precious thing that they possess, so they are not facing any problem of identity because they know who they are and do not need a Zionist teacher to guide them to themselves.

Let Palestinians leave questions of identity and racism to the Israelis who are searching for an identity for their nation that they will not find.

As for Palestine, her identity is the land, suffering, freedom and resistance.

No comments: