Lives Seen: Anatolian Arabic, Azakh and Authorial Authority

In a previous blog post, I noted how the Treaty of Lausanne established, among other things, official recognition of the communal rights of the Greeks of Istanbul, Armenians and Jews by the Ottoman Empire. These rights included mother-tongue education, religious instruction, and publishing activities. To assume that these three were the only minorities to benefit from such rights would be a bald-faced lie. To start, recognition was granted exclusively to non-Muslim minorities, meaning that the cultural and linguistic rights of huge collectivities – including Kurdish- and Zaza-speakers, Albanians, Circassians, Georgians, Bosniaks, Roma, Goranis, and others – failed to gain protection under international law. Add to that a number of other non-Muslim groups that, although belonging to self-governing millets during the Ottoman period, were now absorbed, at least legally, into the Turkish majority. These included Syriac Christians, Pontic Greeks, Romanians, Bulgarians, Yezidis, and Arabs. Some opted to leave Turkey (such as many of the Kurdophone Yezidi authors from Soviet Armenia I wrote about here), but large groups stuck it out in the new Republic, aiming to continue their cultures and ways of life regardless of the state’s nationalist principles.

How did identity and legal status overlap? In Islam, Secularism and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who is a Turk?, Soner Çağaptay explores the two stages of citizenship and inclusion in Turkey over the 1920s and 30s. At first relatively inclusive of linguistic, religious and cultural difference, the Turkish state restricted its definition of Turkish identity considerably in the 1930s. Çağaptay established a series of concentric circles of in- and out-groups more or less likely to be granted citizenship and inclusion. This was related to both religious observance (with a marked preference for Sunni Muslims) and perceived loyalty to the new state. While not the primary focus of Çağaptay’s work, the status of Arabic-speaking citizens of the Republic is particularly problematic to locate firmly within this model, as commonality in language masks quite a bit of diversity in other aspects of community. Some were welcomed with open arms, while others found themselves swept under the proverbial rug.

Arabic has been spoken in Anatolia for at least two millennia according to Jan Retsö. Arabic-speakers were attested in the writings of historians from other communities before the 7th century CE, when the invasions of Arabic-speaking Muslim groups from the Arabian Peninsula radically changed the political, economic, social, religious and cultural fabric of the region. After this, the constant presence of Arabophone polities competing with other states for control of Anatolia, or extending their rule over it, as well as the importance of Arabic in Islamic practice, ensured a prominent place for the language within Anatolia’s linguistic tapestry. Even during the Ottoman period, Arabic-speaking communities, together with travellers, traders, migrants, and court and religious officials would have kept the language very much present. Although numbers of Arabophones dwindled after the proclamation of the Republic in 1923, the influx of refugees from Iraq post-2003, and then Syria after 2011, as well as migrants from other Arabic speaking countries, has caused numbers to balloon once again.

Contemporary Arabic in Turkey isn’t just a story of migration, however. The province of Hatay, previously known as the Sancak of Alexandretta/İskenderun Sancağı/Liwā al-Iskandarūna (لواء الاسكندرونة) only became part of Turkey in 1939 after its inclusion in Syria’s sovereign territory for a good two decades. The story of the region is too complicated to tell in this short piece, and isn’t quite the thrust of my argument, so I will leave it for others to tell. It suffices to say that there is a lot of material out there to learn about the events of 1936-39 (see these works by Stéfane Yerasimos, Avedis Sanjian, Philip Shoukry Khoury, and Figen Atabey), including about some of the propaganda used to sway residents in their self-identification and loyalty towards the Turkish Republic (such as this paper by Haktan Birsel or this one by Esra Demirci Akyol), and foreign reaction to the move (for British opinions, see this piece by İsmet Türkmen). Aykol’s Masters thesis, defended in 2008, is a fascinating look at the enduring nature of the effects of Hatay’s absorption into the Turkish state as expressed by members of a variety of different ethno-religious groups.  

Photograph of a shop window with red text in Turkish over text in Kurdish, Arabic, English, and Syriac advertising a pharmacy.
A multilingual sign for a pharmacy in Midyat (credit: Michael Erdman)

Hatay has often been a focal point for those interested in multilingualism and inter-faith cooperation in Turkey, undoubtedly because of the overlapping ethnic, linguistic and religious identities espoused by its population. A 2009 paper by Fulya Doğruel and Johan Leman looked at exactly this issue with reference to the region’s Alawi, Sunni and Orthodox Christian Arabophone citizens. Since the uprising in Syria in 2011 and the ensuing civil war, it has also come into the limelight because of its proximity to the conflict and the links between communities on either side of the border. Another region of Turkey, however, is also home to significant numbers of Arabic speakers of various religious traditions. The area known as Tur Abdin, Syriac for “Mountain of the Servants”, hosts traditional communities of Arabic, Syriac (Turoyo), Kurdish and Turkish-speaking peoples. Linguists call the Arabic spoken here Anatolian Arabic, and it is closely related to dialects spoken to the south and east in northern Syria and Iraq. Faruk Akkuş gives an excellent overview of the state of the language in a 2020 publication, Arabic and Contact-Induced Change (pp. 135-58) (also of interest is his 2016 piece on Peripheral Arabic Dialects). This follows on a solid body of research conducted within the European Orientalist tradition, particularly by Otto Jastrow, Gheorghe Grigore and Bo Isaksson. Shabo Talay, similarly, provides us with more contemporary scholarship produced by members of the local linguistic communities. Talay is also the Scientific Coordinator of Šlomo Surayt portal, which aims to preserve and promote knowledge of the Surayt language spoken in the same region. 

Religious identification here is complicated. In the past, there were Arabophone adherents of various Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions. Until the 1980s, Syriac-speaking Christians, or Assyrians, were particularly prominent in and around the town of Midyat, but violence and assassination pushed many Christian residents out, with huge numbers leaving for Western Europe. A good historical overview of the region’s importance for Syriac Christianity can be found on e-GEDSH. At the same time, many of the local Arabophone Christians left for larger cities. The Arabophone Jews of Diyarbakir left for Israel in the 1950s (Akkuş, 135-138). Today, there are still Assyrians living in the area, but many of the original inhabitants and their descendants are to be found in sizable diasporic communities in Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands.

The Arabophone Muslim communities are large within local contexts, but use of the language is gradually decreasing. As Akkuş reports, and socio-economic as well as political factors are likely to continue putting pressure on speakers to assimilate into one of the dominant linguistic communities. A friend of mine who was working in Turkey as a diplomat (not Canadian) over the last five years told me that many of these people had expressed considerable consternation over the government’s offer of Arabic schooling for the child refugees from Syria. While not opposed to this idea, the Anatolian Arabic communities were angered by a lack of state support for their own retention and revitalization efforts, particularly given the way in which the schooling proposed by the government would have shifted the focus of Arabic in Turkey away from indigenous dialects towards those more prevalent in Syria and other Arab states. The depth and root of these communities’ grievances can be hard to come by in contemporary scholarship, but a few pieces – books, essays, and articles – can help to fill in the picture.

Cover page of book with text in the centre in maroon and maroon bands down each side.
The cover of Hayat fë Azëx.

One book in particular is entitled Hayat fë Azëx Xalf l Farman w fë Waqt l Farman (Life in Azakh: Before and After Sayfo) and was published by Bet-Froso & Bet-Prasa Nsibin in Södertalje, Sweden. The publisher of the work, located in one of the centres of the Assyrian diaspora in Sweden, is responsible for the appearance of a number of different titles in Azakheni, English, Swedish, Syriac, and Turkish regarding the lives and histories of Christians from Tur Abidin. I purchase such materials for the British Library through the Assyriska Riksförbundet’s online book seller, Tigris Press. The work’s connection to a diasporic Assyrian publisher in Sweden should hardly be surprising. Apart from the content, the orthography of the Arabic text, written in the Roman alphabet, bears a clear resemblance to the one used for Turoyo works published in Sweden and the Netherlands (see, for example Ëno hano ëno and Toxu yëlfina Surayt). The author of the work, Cabbud Bayt-Ḫanna Maqsi, is only listed as having written Hayat fë Azëx according to both the database of the Royal Library of Sweden, Libris, and WorldCat. Similar to many Assyrians born in Turkey, however, Maqsi also has a Turkish name, Abut Buğday, under which he has authored three other books in Turkish and Syriac: Sayfo üzerine; Özgürlük kuşları; and Hatırasız resim: şiirler. Two of his Turkish-language articles on Syriac history can be found on this site. A brief biography online (in Azakheni) states that he was born in Azakh in 1964 and left for Europe in 1983. More details are also available in Swedish on this site. Hayat fë Azëx is his first book published in Azakheni; a few of the poems not featured in the photos provided can be seen here.

Azakh (ازخ/ܐܙܟ) is particularly interesting for more than just its linguistic history. Renamed İdil in 1937 by the Turkish authorities, the town was first noted in Assyrian records as early as the late 9th or early 8th century BCE. The town’s inhabitants witnessed numerous invasions and lived under the sovereignty or suzerainty of various Imperial and other regimes, including those of the Assyrians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, and eventually Arab and Turkic polities. An overview of this, along with Syriac sources for the town’s history, was authored by Mehmet Şimşek, author of Süryaniler ve Diyarbakır. The website of the İdil Kaymakamlığı claims that the widespread use of Arabic came about in the 13th-15th centuries CE, when the Artuklu (Artuqid) rulers banned the use of other languages. The Şırnak İli Tourism and Culture Directorate’s website adds that the name Azakh is actually a Persian loanword, the original toponym being the Syriac Beth Zabday (ܒܝܬ ܙܒܕܝ), although this is disputed as a conflagration of two different localities’ names, according to the Wikipedia page. Both the town’s Mor Dodo and Meryem Ana churches feature on pages devoted to culture in Turkey’s south-east. This brings into focus the way that Syriac and other Christian communities’ physical heritage is often commercialized for tourism purposes, even when the faithful are not granted full access to them or permission to use them for religious and cultural ends. For more information on this, see Marcello Mollica’s 2011 paper.     

In the 19th century, Azakh was a flashpoint between local Kurdish notables and Ottoman central authorities on the one hand, and local Christian hierarchies of governance on the other. Numerous attempts to besiege the town failed, and during the First World War and Sayfo, it became a fortified refuge for Assyrian and Arabic-speaking Christians fleeing surrounding villages. Sadly, repelling the attacks of Kurdish militia and Ottoman forces and surviving genocide was not the end of Azakhenis’ troubles. The village was accused of complicity in the Şeyh Sait Rebellion in 1925, and faced considerable deportations of Assyrian men to Cizre. The 1930s saw further aggressive attempts at Turkifying the town, and the 1960s brought depopulation following anti-Christian violence in the wake of the 1963-64 Cyprus Crisis. The final blow was the ousting of Mayor Şükrü Tutuş in 1979. Tutuş had opposed the sale of land in the town to Turks and Kurds, and his replacement by a Kurdish official paved the way for considerable changes in the town’s demography.

A page of text in black and white.
Text on the history of Azakheni and the author’s emigration.

This considerable detour through the history of the village might be a bit of overkill, but I think it’s an apt way to consider what Hayat fë Azëx represents. A quick look through a few pages, as well as the poems found online, shows that it is a highly emotive and personal history of the town. Some of the pieces explain the origins of Azakheni in the language itself: the historical, linguistic and social conditions that gave rise to an inter-faith, inter-ethnic means of expression influenced by the languages of surrounding communities. Other pieces are poetry, carrying through Maqsi’s emotion at having returned to Azakh after years in exile; his joy and sorrow at the continuity and disruption witnessed in the town’s physical and social fabric.

A double-page spread from a book with text in black and white on the left and a black and white photo of a steeple on the right.
A poem on the author’s return to Azakh after 27 years abroad.

In many ways, Maqsi’s work evidences another form of continuity, that of textual and expressive traditions within Syriac Orthodox and Assyrian communities. The use of poetry to convey historical events of note is something that can be found throughout a number of 20th century Syriac, Turoyo and Swadaya texts, including both those produced in the homeland and in diaspora. The British Library holds a number of examples: Nísan d-Húyādā (ܢܝܣܢ ܕܚܘܕܝܐ); Qínātā (ܩܝܢܬܐ); Tašʿítā d-Plāšā Tebílāyā Trayānā (ܬܫܥܝܬܐ ܕܦܠܫܐ ܬܒܝܠܝܐ ܬܪܝܢܐ); and Sa’úrútā l-Dayrā d-Qaraṭmín (ܣܥܘܪܬܐ ܠܕܝܪܐ ܕܩܪܛܡܝܢ), to name a few. Hayat fë Azëx thus shows how genres and styles can flow across different languages; how culturally bound forms can survive the migration of a community to new contexts, whether physical or not. As I wrote in an earlier blog about Kyrgyz genealogies, Maqsi’s work also highlights the importance of perceptual or conceptual flexibility in approaching historiographical texts. Its value as a record of Azakh’s linguistic context is immeasurable, but so too should it be esteemed for the manner in which it transmits the history and memory of a people on their own terms.

History writing in Turkey underwent a tremendous shift in the 20th century, similar to the way in which ethnic and national identification were altered. Linguistic signifiers were imbued with new meaning. The resultant histories, similar to the new iterations of the standard language, silenced or erased the presence of a number of communities from official accounts. By engaging with works such as Maqsi’s Hayat fë Azëx and other examples of Anatolian or indigenous Levantine and Mesopotamian Arabic, we help to chip away at the hegemony claimed by or bestowed upon such state-sponsored narratives. It is important to see them as they were created. They should be dealt with as active expressions of presence, memory, and ingenuity by communities confident in their own identities, rather than monuments commemorating the presence of an object-people, waiting to be analyzed and squared with official accounts. This is how we do right by them, and celebrate both their agency and their creativity, complexities and all.

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