Tur Abdin: a unique cultural milieu
Last week marked a milestone in my translation career as I completed my first book translation. I was very fortunate that the work I was translating was especially interesting and educational to me personally. I would like to share some insights I gained from working on the book and what conclusions we might draw from this authentic and personal work.
This book tells the story of a war fought in the late 19th century between the Assyrians (aka Syriacs), allied with the Ottoman Empire of which they were loyal subjects, and some Kurdish warlords who had taken over a historically Assyrian area of Mesopotamia known as Tur Abdin. These Kurdish tribes, unlike the more indigenous Kurdish communities that had lived alongside the Assyrians for generations, held religious and ethnic animosity for the Assyrians and subjected them to dispossession and displacement. They were also autonomous from the larger Ottoman Empire.
So, from the outset we have a very unique ethnic/linguistic/religious milieu being discussed here. We have the Assyrians, a Christian population assumed to be descended from the earliest inhabitants of Mesopotamia, the Arameans. We have the Muslim Kurds, whose language is not really discussed in the book, but who are clearly differentiated into different communities (neighbors and conquerors). Then we have the (mostly Muslim) Turkish rulers and officials of the Ottoman empire who are helping the Assyrians against the Kurdish invaders. Finally there is the glaring fact that the book is written in Arabic, the language that most Assyrians speak now after the Assyrian Genocide and displacement during WWI.
Shared religious language
It is a common idea that Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims use different terminology to speak about their religion. However, when reading this book, I found quite the opposite. Words I had learned in specifically Islamic contexts were used here for Christian practices entirely naturally.
The passage above includes several salient examples:
صلاة salah = ritual/congregational prayer
Commonly used for the 5 daily prayers of Muslims, but here used to refer to morning church services
الله تعالى allahu ta'ala = Almighty God
Possibly the most common form of referring to God in Islam. Here used in exactly the same way by Christians.
نصر nasara = to make victorious
One of the names of God in Islam is nasir, "the one grants victory". In general I would associate the verb with granting Muslims victory, but this may be just due to lack of exposure to writing by Christians.
ناشد nashada = to implore
This root also produced نشيد nashid, "song, hymn, anthem" often used in a religious sense in Islam.
في سبيل قضيتهم fi sabil qadiyatihim = for their cause
This phrase was repeated throughout the book and struck me as similar to the common Islamic phrase في سبيل الله, fi sabil allah, "for the cause of God, on behalf of God". This is used in various Islamic contexts including doing good deeds or dying as a martyr in battle.
This pattern of unexpected similarities continued throughout the book. It caused me to reflect on why I associate so many of these words with Islamic contexts and was surprised to find them used by Christians. Is it something about how I learned Arabic? Is it simply because my exposure to Islam is greater due to the cultural dominance of Islam in the Arabic-speaking world? I can't say for sure, but this book challenged my preconceived notions about non-Arab and non-Muslim minority communities.
Diversity and respect in the Ottoman Empire
It is a well-known stereotype that the Middle East is full of various religious and ethnic groups fighting one another for land and power. Some people who oppose this harmful view will promote an equally simplistic one: ethnic and religious groups have lived alongside each other for centuries in total peace and harmony, especially in the Ottoman Empire.
Of course, this lacks nuance and disrespects the real historical struggles of minorities in the Ottoman Empire, many of whom were subject to systematic kidnapping of their children for forced conscription in the devshirme system. The Ottoman Empire also levied a tax against its non-Muslim subjects, which has been justified by comparing it to the alms collected from Muslims, but which many considered a form of systemic discrimination.
One of my favorite aspects of this book was the way it used clear language to describe the varied experiences of minorities in the Ottoman Empire. The characters have candid conversations about religion and ethnicity. Consider the following passage, which discusses whether the Assyrians should be worried that local Kurdish communities will join the warlords and take up arms against their neighbors:
لقد صدقت يا كوو، ولكن هناك مأخذًا واحدًا عليهم، إنهم متعصبون. يتمسكون بالدين، ليس حبًا بسمو مبادئ دينهم، ولا حبًا بالقيم الأخلاقية التي يدعو إليها كتابهم الشريف، بل حبًا بالحقد والنقمة والتشفّي من أناس يعتبرونهم أعداء دينهم الحنيف. ويتهمونهم بالكفر، بخلاف ما يدعو إليه القرآن. وإذا كان مثل هؤلاء المسلمين مؤمنين بحق، حسب رسالتهم السماوية، لما اعتبرونا نحن السريان، أعداؤهم ودعونا كُفارًا. لذلك إني لا أثق بأناس يتمسحون بدين سماوي، يدعو إلى الرحمة والمحبة والتسامح والغفران، وهم يخالفون جوهره وقدسيته. فلتكن عيوننا مفتوحة تراقبهم عن كثب، ونُحصي عليهم تحركاتهم. فإذا اكتشفنا أنهم يمدون يد المساعدة إلى أبناء عرقهم، من الأكراد الأغراب، هاجمناهم في دورهم وأسرناهم.
“Gawvo, I believe you,” said Safar Agha, “but they have one fault: they are fanatical. They are devoted to their religion not out of love for the noble values or the moral principles called for in their scripture, but out of malice, to satisfy a thirst for revenge against people they consider enemies of their orthodox faith. They accuse their enemies of being infidels, even though the Quran says not to. If Muslims like these believed in what is right, according to their own heavenly message, they would not consider us Syriacs their enemies or call us infidels. I don’t trust people who grovel before a sacred religion, asking for blessings, love, and forgiveness, all the while acting against its ethos and sanctity. Let’s keep our eyes open and watch them carefully, keeping track of their movements. If we discover that they are lending a helping hand to the foreign Kurds, their distant relatives, we will attack them in their homes and take them prisoner.”
[Upon further reflection, the leader admits that their closest neighbors are unlikely to betray them:]
حافظوا على حق الجوار، وراعوا الأماكن المقدسة الواقعة في منطقتهم. فلم يسيئوا إلى السريان المتواجدين هناك. بل بالعكس، فقد كانوا يدافعون عنهم ضد الأكراد الذين كانوا يحاولون أن يغزوهم، أو يُشردوهم بعد أن يغتصبوا أراضيهم.
"They’ve protected the rights of their neighbors and taken care of the holy places in their area. They never insulted the Syriacs located there. On the contrary, they defended them against the Kurds who were trying to raid the holy sites or steal their land and expel them."
The leader of the Assyrians both exhibits great respect for Islam as a religion and great derision for people who use it as justification for any sort of crime. He then acknowledges that different groups of Kurds have treated them differently and some have been excellent neighbors.
In another passage, the author recognizes the diversity of the Ottoman Empire and the delicate political landscape they must navigate:
وفي غداة اليوم التالي، وفي موعد صلاة الصبح، دّق ناقوس بيعة مار يعقوب دقات قوية متواصلة، إيذانًا بالصلاة. امتدت أيدي السريان إلى جبهاتهم ليرسموا إشارة الصليب، إعرابًا عن شكرهم ووفائهم لمخلصهم يسوع المسيح الذي أنقذهم من جحيم المعركة ونصرهم على أعدائهم.
لقد لاحظ السريان أن عددًا كبيرًا من الجنود العثمانيين وضباطهم قد ركعوا عند سماعهم دقات الناقوس، ورفعوا عيونهم نحو السماء، وطرحوا إشارة الصليب على جباههم وهم يسبحون ويمجدون الرب، استغرب السريان من حركتهم تلك، وظنوا بأن الجنود النظاميين إنما قاموا بتلك الحركة إما تقليدًا أو سخرية. ولم يدروا أن العثمانيين قد بسطوا نفوذهم وظل إمبراطوريتهم على سدس العالم. وأن ثلث سكان ممتلكاتهم يدين بالنصرانية. فلا عجب إذا ركع جنود عثمانيون ليؤدوا بدورهم الصلاة في الميدان، ويشكروا خالقهم على منته ورعايته ورحمته. كان بين الجنود العثمانيون عدد من النصارى.
ربما أخفى القادة مذهب جنودهم عن الناس، لئلا يتهموا بأن في مساندتهم للسريان، إنما يشنّون حربًا دينية، مع أن الغاية من مجيئهم إلى مديات لمناصرة السريان، لم تكن حبًا بمناصرتهم، بل تثبيتًا للسلطة في المنطقة. وتحرير الأراضي الواقعة تحت النفوذ العثماني، من الدخلاء أو الثوار والمتمردين أو الطامعين.
The next morning, the loud bells of Mor Yaʿqub Church rang out continuously to announce it was time for the morning prayer. The Syriacs put their hands to their foreheads to make the sign of the cross, expressing their gratitude and loyalty to their savior Jesus Christ, who saved them from the hell of the battle and granted them victory over their enemies.
The Syriacs noticed that many Ottoman soldiers and officers had knelt upon hearing the church bells ringing and lifted their eyes to the sky. They made the sign of the cross on their foreheads while exalting and praising the Lord. The Syriacs were shocked to see them making that sign, and they thought that the imperial forces did so either to imitate them or mock them. They did not know that the Ottomans’ influence extended far and wide, their empire covered one-sixth of the world, and one-third of their territory’s inhabitants were Christian. So it was no wonder that the Ottoman soldiers knelt to pray in the square and thank their creator for His blessing, guidance, and mercy, because there were some Christians among the Ottoman soldiers.
Perhaps the commanders hid their soldiers’ affiliation from the others so that their support for the Syriacs could not be interpreted as intended to start a religious war. The purpose of them coming to Midyat was to support the Syriacs, not out of love for their Christianity, but rather to entrench their authority in the region and liberate the lands located under Ottoman influence from intruders, revolutionaries, rebels, and greedy people.
This passage really demonstrates how complicated communication was for these populations. The Assyrians were relying on the Ottoman army for help in what they saw as a holy war, but they were also aware that not all Ottomans were exactly friendly to Christian minorities. At the same time, they were ignorant of the fact that there were actually Christians in their ranks. It had deliberately been hidden from them for political reasons. The layers of identity and culture here are not so simple as "they've been fighting each other for millennia" or "they've always lived in peace".
That's it for this post - thank you for reading, and please let me know your thoughts in the comments.