Documenting a dying language

With a grant from Mifal Hapayis, the Minerva Publishing House is documenting a collection of Jewish-Kurdish folktales in Aramaic.

The Olive Tree Dictionary 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Minerva Publishing House)
The Olive Tree Dictionary 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Minerva Publishing House)
Language extinction is a very real, and very modern, phenomenon. The form of Aramaic spoken by Jews in the Iraqi-Kurdish city of Zakho is a good example. Because the last Jews from that city immigrated to Israel in the 1950s, there are no new native speakers of that language, and their descendants speak Hebrew.
Lishana Deni, as their language is called in Aramaic, has been identified by the Endangered Languages Project, an initiative launched by Google last year.
Another initiative, the Enduring Voices Project, a joint endeavor of National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, estimates that more than half of the 7,000 languages spoken today will have disappeared by the next century, as once-isolated populations are exposed to more dominant cultures.
When a language dies, so does the cultural identity of the speakers of that language. Knowledge of the natural world, spiritual beliefs, and the values and customs connected with that culture disappear as well.
A Jerusalem-based publisher has recently been awarded a grant from Mifal Hapayis, the national lottery, to publish a collection of Jewish-Kurdish folktales in Aramaic. “The world is changing; things are disappearing,” says Assaf Golani, founder of Minerva Publishing House with his wife, Adi Bavnik-Golani. “Cultures die because no one is paying enough attention.”
Although the Jewish population of Zakho was one of the least literate in the Diaspora, the community had a rich oral tradition of legends and ballads, whose characters were drawn from both Jewish and Muslim traditions. For this new collection, Minerva will record folktales told in Aramaic by Jerusalem resident and author Varda Shilo. The CD/book set will include the original recordings, and the transcriptions and translations of the stories into Hebrew.
Shilo, who turned 80 this year, has written a Hebrew-Aramaic dictionary, a cookbook featuring Jewish-Kurdish cuisine and Lishana, a previous collection of folktales, all published by Minerva.
The oral tradition of storytelling is another casualty of modern life. Not so long ago it was a popular form of entertainment in Arab towns and villages, as neighbors would gather to listen to tales of bravery or devotion. Golani, who is dedicated to the documentation and preservation of Middle Eastern culture, recorded and published many of these stories.
“We identified the best storyteller from each village within a specific geographical area in Israel, and recorded the story that best captures the spirit of that village,” Golani explains. Inspired by the work of the late Yoram Meron of Givat Haviva (an educational foundation furthering equality and understanding between Jews and Arabs in Israel), he uses academic guidelines to create the recordings in as natural an environment as possible. This means, as a Jew and an outsider, that he is not able to participate in the storytelling sessions.
Golani uses researchers he has trained; the recording equipment is hidden, so as not to make the narrator self-conscious. CDs of the original recordings come with a book in which the stories are transcribed in Arabic and, on the facing page, have been translated into Hebrew.
One collection, Tales of the Wadi: A Selection of Folktales from Wadi Ara, or Agadot Hawadi in Hebrew, has now been translated into English. It comprises 71 stories, all recorded during the years 1990-91. Golani’s own favorite story is the first in the book. Told by Hasan Abu Salem Jabarin from Umm el-Fahm, it is called “The Bahlul and the Dish of Kubbe.” Only a few pages long, it tells of a bahlul, a kind of holy man believed to possess miraculous powers, who magically transports a plate of his mistress’s still-hot kubbe to her husband, his master – who is far away, on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Each story features a short biography and a fullpage photograph of the narrator – in this case a road-construction worker and father of nine, born in Umm el-Fahm in 1917. Extensive footnotes describe the significance of a bahlul, what kubbe is (a mixture of wheat, ground meat and onions shaped into balls and deep-fried), explanations of the particular phrases and turns of speech used, and the setting in which the story takes place. Even this short and relatively simple story offers the reader an intimate introduction to a wealth of cultural customs and folklore.
A second Mifal Hapayis grant will fund a book/CD set of children’s songs in Arabic, to be used as an educational tool by early-childhood educators. Golani is presently collecting material for this publication.
Minerva’s published materials include self-taught language courses in colloquial Palestinian Arabic, and Hebrew-language courses for speakers of French, English, Finnish and Russian who have finished an ulpan and wish to continue on their own. “Hebrew is an easy language with hard verbs,” quotes Golani, who did coursework in Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. There are also Hebrew-Persian and Hebrew-Arabic dictionaries, and collections of Arabic folk music.
The publishing house is part of Minerva Group, which includes a language school offering 10 to 15 courses each year in colloquial Arabic. Because university classes tend to focus on literary Arabic, which is very different from spoken Arabic, Minerva attracts students wishing to improve their speaking abilities. “We also run courses for people who need Arabic for their work, like doctors, lawyers and people in the building industry,” says Golani. “We aim the vocabularies toward the specific professions.”
The third part of Minerva Group is a consulting service, focusing on Middle Eastern affairs: translations, research, and projects for NGOs and governmental agencies.
“We are academic and independent. We aren’t political,” Golani says. “Our goal is to present an accurate and authentic picture without judging or editing.” He applies the same principle to Minerva’s uniquely esoteric list of publications.
One of the more monumental projects is The Olive Tree Dictionary: A Transliterated Dictionary of Conversational Eastern Arabic (Palestinian) compiled by Brother J. Elihay, a member of the order of the Little Brothers of Jesus. Born in France in 1926 and residing in Israel for many years, Elihay’s first French-Arabic dictionary grew out of his own, early attempts to learn Arabic. Over the years he has published other books and study aids.
Almost 800 pages long, The Olive Tree Dictionary is a compilation of 9,000 dictionary entries and 17,000 phrases, phonetically transliterated into Latin letters.
This is because Arabic script doesn’t accurately allow for the wide range of vocal sounds present in spoken Arabic, where dialects differ greatly from location to location. For example, Arabic spoken in Morocco is very different from Arabic spoken in the Gulf States. Palestinian Arabic has the advantage of being widely understood throughout the Arab world, because it is closer to Modern Standard Arabic.
Golani speaks fluent Arabic and personally teaches some of the language courses. Of Minerva’s publications, he says he has more ideas than he’ll ever be able to develop. Minerva is currently seeking funding for Elihay’s fifth in a series of selfinstruction courses in colloquial Palestinian Arabic. “The world of publishing is so different now than when we started 10 years ago. We’re always trying to weigh how we deal with the changes,” says Golani. “Producing learning materials takes a huge amount of resources. Without the generosity and goodheartedness of Zamir Bar-Lev of the printing house, Printiv, we wouldn’t exist today.
“Not all of our projects are profitable; I expect that the value of what we are doing will only be appreciated many years from now,” Golani says. “But it is my great honor to save what we can for future generations.”
Minerva Publishing House’s website is in Hebrew and English:; information about Minerva’s language courses can be found at