Lovers of Aramaic language hope new film sparks rebirth

By Susan Abram
Staff Writer

Across the nation today, thousands of moviegoers will hear the words of Aramaic, an ancient language spoken by Jesus and his disciples and one that wars, assimilation and time have almost silenced.

It is exciting for local priests and scholars, who hope Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" -- which is entirely in Aramaic and Latin -- will cast new light on the Semitic language, which has largely been confined to church walls and archaeological circles.

"It gives the public a chance to hear the language Jesus spoke," said the Rev. Joseph Tarzi, who has taught Aramaic classes at St. Ephraim's Syrian Orthodox Church in Burbank.

"This is the first time in the history of the entertainment industry that it is used for the public at large. To hear the language this way, I'm very excited."

Once the language of the Middle East and beyond, Aramaic can still be heard in villages of Northern Iraq, Eastern Turkey and Syria and also in the United States, where Assyrians, Chaldeans and Arameans still use the language as part of their liturgy.

Though Aramaic is still taught, many linguists believe its very existence hangs by a fragile thread.

"After 9-11, we definitely saw a rise in students who wanted to take Arabic, so there was a positive there," said Yona Sabar, professor of Hebrew and Aramaic languages at the University of California, Los Angeles, who also is a native speaker of the language.

"If one student comes to me and says, 'I'm here because I want to learn Aramaic,' then I will say the film is successful in that way."

About a half-dozen students learn Aramaic each year, Sabar said.

"Aramaic is still in a precarious state," he said. "I doubt if the movie will change its progress. Maybe we can prolong it, but I doubt it will really last 30, 40, 50 years as a spoken language but will remain as a cultural language.

"Languages sometimes die in one way, but come back in other forms."

But Estiphen Panoussi, a Palmdale resident who teaches philosophy at Antelope Valley College and who has taught Aramaic in universities across Europe, said the film will undoubtedly pique the interest of those interested in cultures.

"Symbolically it will be very interesting, to see the language Jesus spoke," said Panoussi, a Chaldean from Iran. "The film will bring cultural attention to Latin and Aramaic. My hope is that it will stimulate people to learn Aramaic."

Gibson uses subtitles in his film, which depicts Christ's final 12 hours. The script was translated into first-century Aramaic for the Jewish characters and "street Latin" for the Roman characters by the Rev. William Fulco, director of ancient Mediterranean studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Fulco said he had to reconstruct the language, but he hopes it will be familiar to those who still read, write and speak it.

"They will likely recognize it," he said. "I'm kind of glad, if nothing else, that the film is raising the interest of the language. One thing that I noticed with the press, is that they are asking me about Aramaic. Just to tell them what it is is a big step for the language."

Local religious leaders said they are encouraging their congregations to see the film. About half of those who attend St. Paul's Chaldean Assyrian Catholic Church in North Hollywood will likely understand much of the movie, said the Rev. Noel Gorgis.

"I myself, I cannot speak it, but I will understand it," Gorgis said. "This big movie will not only let us hear our language, but will maybe bring attention to our people who have been forgotten by the world. With all that happened to us, we are still here."

The Rev. George Bet-Rasho of St. Mary's Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East in Tarzana said Gibson's choice to tell the story in Aramaic has brought pride among his parishioners.

"We're hoping it will revive the interest of scholars and universities," he said. "Now we feel we have not been alone, that our struggle to keep this language is not in vain. All of a sudden, the whole world will hear this."
Susan Abram, (818)546-3304 susan.abram@dailynews.com