Some excited Maronite children in Cyprus are preparing to share the island’s best kept linguistic secret with Pope Benedict XVI.
When the Pontiff arrives at their primary school on the outskirts of Nicosia during a historic visit to Cyprus next month, they will greet him in a unique tongue. It is rooted in Aramaic – the melodic, ancient language spoken by Jesus Christ and his followers.
The publicity should provide a vital shot in the arm for Cypriot Maronite Arabic (CMA), a language central to the identity of Cyprus’s small Maronite Catholic community, which is struggling to keep it alive.
It is commonly spoken by just 900 to 1,000 of the 6,000 Maronites on the divided island, where Greek and Turkish are the official languages.
Were Jesus to visit a shop in Kormakitis, a picturesque village that is the spiritual home of Cyprus’s Maronites, he would understand 40 per cent to 50 per cent of the conversation in CMA, said Youssef Soueif, the Maronite Archbishop of Cyprus.
But if Jesus attended mass at St George’s church in the village, “he’d understand it all – because it’s his language”, he added proudly.
The services in Maronite churches in Cyprus are in Syriac-Aramaic – as well as Arabic and Greek. Without a hymn book, congregants in Kormakitis glide effortlessly from one tongue to the other.
Aramaic is also used in the liturgy by the far bigger Maronite Catholic communities in Lebanon and Syria.
During his June 4-6 visit to Cyprus, Benedict XVI will give prelates and patriarchs from all the Catholic churches in the Middle East a preparatory working document for a special Synod in Rome in October on the problems facing Christians in the region.
Senior Catholic clergymen will fly in from Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories, the UAE, Jordan, Egypt and possibly Iran.
Thousands of ordinary Catholics from the Middle East are also expected to make the short journey to the Mediterranean island, delighted at the opportunity to see the Pope. Lebanese Maronites are said to be organising special chartered flights.
The Aramaic of Christ’s time would probably sound to a Kormakitis villager rather like Chaucerian English would to a modern Londoner.
A word often given as an example by CMA specialists is “cumi”, used by Kormakitis villagers to tell someone to “get up”. It was the same word that Jesus used to tell a girl to rise from the dead in Mark v: 41.
The Pope will conclude his visit with a prayer at the freshly spruced-up Maronite Cathedral in central Nicosia, where he will “speak some Aramaic phrases during the liturgy”, said Archbishop Soueif. The cheerful, Lebanese-born cleric, 48, is a multilingual professor of Oriental ecclesiastical studies – with a surprisingly bone-crushing handshake.
The Maronites in Cyprus are descendants of Christians who fled what is now Lebanon and Syria from the 8th century onwards.
The Maronite Church is in communion with Rome and an integral part of the Catholic Church, whose supreme head is the Pope.
The Maronite Church, however, retains its own tradition and practices. Its current patriarch – officially titled “Patriarch of Antioch and All the East” – is the long-serving Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, based in Lebanon. He is also a Cardinal, appointed in 1994 by the late Pope John Paul II.
CMA, a hybrid of Aramaic and Arabic with a non-written, oral tradition, developed on a track of its own. Isolated from the main currents of the Arab world, it incorporated Greek and Turkish words as well as French and Italian ones, absorbed during the periods of Lusignan and Venetian rule during the Middle Ages.
Spearheading the ancestral language’s survival and revival is Elias Zonias, a teacher at St Maron primary school, situated on the sprawling outskirts of Nicosia.
A fluent Kormakitis-born CMA speaker, he gives bi-weekly afternoon lessons to some 20-25 of the school’s 88 pupils. At home, he instructs his three children in the language and plans to launch afternoon lessons for adults.
Mr Zonias, 41, also hopes to complete a multimedia, CMA-Greek dictionary before the Pope arrives. Students will be able to click on words, hear how they are pronounced and see pictures of what they represent.
Because CMA evolved over centuries in a rural, agricultural setting, Mr Zonias is having difficulty providing words from the lexicon of the urbanised, modern world. “We still don’t, for instance, have a word for computer.”
His next project is a CMA-English dictionary.
Under Cyprus’s 1960 constitution, following Cyprus’s independence from Britain, the island’s Maronite, Armenian and Latin religious minorities had to choose to belong either to the Greek Cypriot majority or the smaller Turkish Cypriot community. They chose the former because they had more elements in common.
After Turkey’s invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974, which followed a brief, Greek-inspired coup, the island’s four Maronite villages – of which Kormakitis was the biggest – were stranded in northern Cyprus, on the wrong side of the dividing ceasefire line. The majority of the 6,000-strong Maronite community was displaced, moving south.
Kormakitis, which had a pre-1974 population of between 1,500 and 2,000, is today home to about 130 elderly people. Most Cypriot Maronites now live in and around Nicosia.
The population upheaval was inevitably detrimental to CMA.
When Mr Zonias and people like him arrived at their new schools in the south, they had trouble being understood by Greek-speaking pupils, few of whom had even heard of their language. Fluency in Greek, rather than CMA, became a priority for the uprooted Maronites.
This rapidly accelerated a process already under way from short-sighted education policies in the 1960s when Maronite parents were encouraged to speak Greek to their children because of the high failure rate at Kormakitis’s only school, where the language of instruction was Greek.
In November 2008, the Cyprus government, cajoled by the Council of Europe, agreed officially to recognise CMA as a minority language, boosting the hopes of Mr Zonias and others striving to save the ancient tongue.
On weekdays Kormakitis, which overlooks the Mediterranean Sea across golden barley fields and carob trees, has the eerie atmosphere of a ghost town. There is bird song but no sound of children – the village’s only school closed more than 10 years ago. At weekends, however, Kormakitis bursts into life when its population swells to more than 600 as former displaced residents and their families come back to visit relatives and celebrate mass. Access has been made much easier since 2003 when the Turkish Cypriot authorities unexpectedly relaxed rules on visits to northern Cyprus.
Many Maronites who were displaced from Kormakitis more than 30 years ago have been renovating their old village homes for weekend use. Some 40 people, mainly elderly couples, meanwhile, have permanently resettled in the village.
Mr Zonias has a house in the Nicosia suburb of Anthopouli near St Maron school, but also has a home in Kormakitis, an hour’s drive away, which he visits nearly every day.
The village’s gradual rejuvenation – which would be accelerated by a Cyprus peace deal – “will of course also help to revive CMA”, said Mr Zonias. “This language is the identity of Kormakitis.”
(source: the national)