Friday 29 June 2012

... and transported to 1940s Kurdistan by Gulan

My second South Kensington trip of the day was to the Royal Geographical Society for a BISI-sponsored evening organised by our friends at Gulan.

Gulan is a very dynamic and imaginative London-based charity for the promotion of Kurdish arts and cultures, especially the region's minority communities. Past events of theirs have focused on Yezidi, Faylee and Kaka'i; last night we were taken back to the Aramaic-speaking Jewish community of Zakho, on the Turkish border, where UCLA professor Yona Sabar grew up in the 1930s and 40s.

Our guide was Yona's son, the journalist Ariel Sabar. He spoke with raw honesty of rejecting his father's history and identity as a teenage wannabe-surfer in 1980s LA. Becoming a father himself ten years ago prompted a radical rethink of his roots and family history, and his relationship to Yona. The eventual result was a joint trip to Zakho in 2005 and Ariel's marvellous, prize-winning book, My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq.

If you have ten minutes to spare you can watch and/or read a C-Span interview with Ariel or if you have a full hour there's a much fuller one on Fora TV.

As Ariel reminded us, the Jewish community of Kurdistan has its roots in Sargon II of Assyria's capture of Samaria in 722 BC and deportation of its population to the banks of the Habur river. Indeed, Zahko sits on an island in the middle of that very river. The newcomers adopted the Aramaic language of central Assyria but kept the Hebrew script, and there they remained, impoverished but largely content and well integrated, for some 2700 years until the mid-20th century politicisation of religion dispersed the community across the globe.

After Ariel's talk, Sarah Panizzo of Gulan interviewed the erudite and charming Yona. She drew out out reminiscences of his grandfather, mother—married at 13 in an amazing multi-layered purple-and-blue outfit which still looks as good as new—and school life. Many audience members had their own questions and memories to share—who knew there were Kurdish Jews in Burma?—and the evening could easily have gone on to midnight or beyond.

Yona has made it his life's work to document and study Aramaic, both as a historical phenomenon and as a living—but now dying—language across the diaspora. You can read more about Aramaic in three chapters of BISI's book, The Languages of Iraq: Ancient and Modern, edited by Nicholas Postgate (2007):

  • Alan Millard, Early Aramaic
  • Geoffrey Khan, Aramaic in the medieval and modern periods
  • Eleanor Coghill, Fieldwork in Neo-Aramaic

Out in the foyer, the Courtauld Institute's Conway Library generously displayed a selection of Anthony Kersting's extraordinarily evocative photographs of 1940s Kurdistan, taken on a wartime RAF posting to the Middle East. Sadly, the crush of people made it difficult to stand back and appreciate them fully and I can't find any of them online either. So I do hope the Courtault will provide further opportunities to view this magnificent collection, which is worthy of much closer study.

Thank you to all at Gulan, the RGS and the Courtauld, as well as to Sabar père et fils, for putting on such a rich and captivating event.

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