ASSYRIANS IN IRAN ii. Literature of the Assyrians in Iran

 

ASSYRIANS IN IRAN

ii. Literature of the Assyrians in Iran

The modern Syriac idiom of the East Syrian Christians (termed “Neusyrisch” or modern, vernacular, or colloquial Syriac by scholars) has come to be labeled by the people themselves as “Assyrian.” This misleading term is also applied to the literature, replacing the old designation siprāyūtā b-liššānā sūryāyā swādāyā (literature in spoken Syriac); the latter was commonly used until the end of World War I. The term “Assyrian” was also intended to better distinguish literature in the spoken idiom from that in classical Syriac. Classical Syriac is referred to as liššānā ʿattīqa (ancient language) or liššānā siprāyā (literary language).

A spoken dialect of Mesopotamian Syriac, called Sūret and in local Arabic Fellīḥī, had been written by the poets of the “school of Alqoš” in the monastery of Rabban Hormezd as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century. But it remained for the American Presbyterian missionary Rev. Dr. Justin Perkins early in the 1840s to make the Iranian (As)syrian dialect of Urmia the most important literary language of the people who later called themselves Assyrians. Aided by the priests Aḇrāhām from Gūgtāpāh, Deṇḫā and Īšōʿ from Gāvār, as well as the Nestorian bishop Yōḫannān from Gavīlān and the deacons Isḥāq and Tammū, he worked out the first orthographical and grammatical rules for this spoken idiom and started an effective campaign against illiteracy. At the time of his arrival in Urmia, there were, among 125,000 inhabitants of the city, only about forty men able to read and write and among the women only one, the sister of the patriarch. Through Perkins’ admirable efforts, these people, after having been neglected for centuries, were awakened to an intensive cultural life. In the first (As)syrian press Perkins published not only his complete modern Syriac translation of the Bible, but also more voluminous publications than any Assyrian author after him (Macuch, pp. 117-30). Two of his first collaborators, Albert Lewis Holladay and David Tappan Stoddard, are known as the first grammarians of modern Syriac, the former through his neo-Syriac booklet Huggāyā (The speller) for the use of the natives, the latter through his English grammatical outline (London, 1855 = JAOS 5, 1856, pp. 1-180). The latter enabled Th. Nöldeke to present the first scholarly description of this language in hisGrammatik der neusyrischen Sprache am Urmia-See und in Kurdistan (Leipzig, 1868, repr. 1974) with more certainty than he could have done using only neo-Syriac publications. The grammatical and lexicographical investigations of the missionaries culminated at the end of the century in two scholarly achievements by the English missionary A. J. Maclean (Grammar of the Dialects of Vernacular Syriac, Cambridge, 1895, repr. 1971, and A Dictionary of the Dialects of Vernacular Syriac, Oxford, 1901, repr. 1972). It is noteworthy that Maclean chose the name of “Vernacular Syriac,” though his Mission was officially called “to Assyrian Christians.”

The literary production of the first decades of this literature was almost entirely in the hands of the missionaries. It is only at the end of the last century that we can name some outstanding native authors: Paul Bedjan (1838-1920; Figure 1) from Ḵosrava, known chiefly as an indefatigable editor of voluminous classical Syriac texts, was also a fine modern Syriac writer, as is proved by his Ktāḇā d-ebādatkārūtā. Manuel de piété (Paris, 1886, 2nd ed. 1893); Ḥayyē d-qaddīšē. Vie des saints (Paris and Leipzig, 1912), etc. Another Chaldean scholar Mgr. Tōmā Odō (1853-1918), the most outstanding modern Syriac writer, published Ktāḇā d-Kalīlā wa-Dimnā. Fables indiennes, traduites en langue chaldéenne (Mosul, 1895); Dictionnaire de la langue chaldéenne (Mosul, 1897); Ktāḇā d-grāmātīqī d-liššānā swādāyā (“Grammar of vernacular Syriac,” Urmia, 1905, 1911); Ktāḇā d-qeryānē gubyē (Morceaux choisis, Urmia, 1906); Ktāḇā d-māʾʾ matlē (“A Book of hundred tales,” a translation of the Fables of Lafontaine, Urmia, 1907, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1956); along with several theological and nationalist publications. His fine poetic style remains unequalled in modern Syriac literature. Rābī Bābā d-Kōsī, the head of the national movement in Urmia at the beginning of this century, was preparing an extensive Dictionary of Modern Syriac, of which only a few fascicles were issued; the work as a whole remained unpublished because of financial difficulties which prevented many Syriac writers from publishing the fruits of their labors.

The most important editors of the periodicals appearing in Urmia were as follows: Mīrzā Šmūʾḕl Bādāl Ḫāngaldē (1865-1908): Za(h)rīrē d-ba(h)rā; Āḇā Solomon:Qālā d-šrārā; Šlīmōn Īšōʿ from Salmās (1884-1951): Ūrmī ārtādoksḕtā; Yōḫannān Mūšē (1874-1918): Koḵḇā. The following writers are mostly known from the mentioned periodicals: Rev. Aḇrahām Morhāč; Mīrzā Masrūf Ḫān Karam (1862-1943) published later a translation of the Robāʿīyāt of ʿOmar Ḵayyām and of the verses of the poet Bābā Ṭāher ʿOryān (Tabrīz, 1933); Rābī Pōlōs Sarmas (1870-1939); Rev. Mūšē Dūmān (1872-1917); Rābī Pēʾrā Amrīhaṣ (1872-1945); Rābī Aprḕm Uršān (1874-1937); Šmūʾḕl ʿAywāz Bḕt Yaʿqōḇ who emigrated to America but contributed from there to Koḵḇā; and some others, among them several immigrants in America who continued to participate in the literary life in their native country.

Although there were four missionary printing-houses in Urmia before the end of World War I, the Iranian Assyrian writers and poets were producing much more than they were able to publish. Many of their literary products remained in manuscript or were published only posthumously, sometimes long after the death of the author. E.g., Ktāḇā d-mūšḫātē (A book of poems) of Šimʿōn bar Dāwīd from Āda (1859-1914) was published in 1945 in Baghdad by his daughter Maryam; a heroic poem Ātor rabtā (Great Assyria) of Dāwīd Gīwargīs Māleḵ from Sopūrḡān (1876-1931) was published in 1932 in Beirut by Māleḵ Qambar; a collection of nationalist poems of Šlīmōn Īšōʿ from Salmās (1884-1951), Sāpār d-demʿḕ b-uṛḫā d-demmā(The journey of the tears on the bloody way) was published in Tehran, 1962 by William W. Māleḵ Pēʾrā. After World War I neo-Syriac books continued to be published in Tabrīz, but in that time of material distress the Assyrians could hardly afford much more than to reprint some older books which had been published in the press of Urmia. In fact, the most fruitful Assyrian writers in Tehran, Benyāmīn Kaldānī (b. 1879) and Benyāmīn Arsānīs (1882-1957) had to publish their works in lithographed editions.

Due to the lack of a proper printing-house, the Assyrian book production remained limited until the brothers Adday and Jean Aḷḫāṣ in Tehran, 1951, founded a new printing-house named “Ḥoneyn” after the Syriac-Arabic translator of Greek science. Adday Aḷḫāṣ (1897-1959) started in the same year to publish a new literary periodical, Gilgameš, which continued to appear for a decade and became a literary tribune for Assyrian writers, not only in Iran but in the whole world. He also achieved the first masterpiece of modern Syriac poetry, a versified translation of the Akkadian epic of Gilgamesh, which appeared in installments in his periodical. A complete edition was provided six years after his death by Jean (1908-69) (Tehran, Ḥoneyn Press, 1965). With his collaborators, the philologists Zayʿā d-Bḕt Zayʿā (1897-1972) and Nemrōd Sīmōnō (b. 1908), he succeeded in purifying the modern Syriac idiom of Turkish and Kurdish words, replacing them by classical expressions and creating an elegant literary language.

Through the efforts of these literary personalities and of the Assyrian Youth Cultural Society founded in Tehran, 1950, the Iranian Assyrians have taken the leading role in modern Syriac literature. The following authors of our time deserve to be mentioned: Prānsā Beblā (b. 1896): Qānūnē šātʾēsāyē d-Hamūrābī (Hammurabi’s fundamental laws; Tehran, 1966); Laylawātē d-Bāḇēl (The nights of Babylon; Tehran, 1966); Ātorāyē d-māhal d-Wān (The Assyrians of the region of Van; Tehran, 1968). Warda Bḕt Haydārē (b. 1896): poetry. Šmūʾḕl Yōsip Bḕt Kūlyā (1898-1975): Sāpar d-qašīšā Ṣlīḇō lešmayyā (The journey of the Priest Ṣ. to Heaven, Tehran, 1962); Ḫāčāqōğḕ yan plaḫtā d-helṭūnyūtā b-hamāntā l-dūglē (The hypocrites of errors of superstitions, poetry; Tehran, 1967); he has left several manuscripts. Gūršūm Dūmān, Gūṇḫā d-gūṇḫē b-dōrā d-ātōmā (Atrocity of atrocities in the atom age, Tehran, 1965). Lilē (Lilly) Aḇrāhām Taymūrāzī (b. 1900): children literature, folklore, poetry, translations from English and Russian. Yūšīyā Amrīḫaṣ (b. 1900): Tpaqtā b-yemmā (The meeting with mother, nationalist poetry; Tehran, 1965). Dr. Pēʾrā Sarmas (1901-72): Tašʿītā d-siprāyūtā ātorētā I-III (History of Assyrian literature; Tehran, 1962-70); a Neo-Syriac translation of Barhebraeus’ Anecdotes (Tehran, 1964); a supplementary dictionary of the Assyrian (= neo-Syriac) language (Tehran, 1965); Aḫnām mānī(y) waḫ? (Who are we?; Tehran, 1965); and in Persian Ḥoqūq-e ensānī wa Ašūrīhā-ye Īrān (Tehran, 1965). Bābā Lāčīn (b. 1902): Ātorāyē wa-mšīḫāyūtā (Assyrians and Christianity, Ātor, 1969); poems in periodicals and calenders. Kākū Ōšaʿnā (b. 1902): Uṛḫā kitwanta(A thorny way; Tehran, 1965). Raǰīnā Īsḫāq (1902-66): Penqītā d-mūšhātē (A booklet of poems, published after her death, Tehran, 1966). Mārōsā ʿĪsā-Ḫān (b. 1903: Patriotic poems in Gilgameš). Īšaʿyā Šammāšā Dāwīd (b. 1906): Tašʿītā d-Betnahrayn Āšūr-Bāḇḕl (see Bibliography); numerous articles and poems in periodicals. Menašše S. Amīrā (b. 1906): Tašʿītā d-Ātor... (see Bibliography above); a collection of poems. Mīḵāʾēl Š. Amrīǰāʾṣ (b. 1909): Tašʿītā d-plāšā teḇlāyā trayānā (A history of the Second World War, poems; Tehran, n.d.). Amēṛḫāʾn A. Bḕt-Ḫūdā (b. 1909): Walwalyātē d-yātōmē (The lamentations of the orphans; Tehran, 1967). William Sarmas (b. 1910), brother of Dr. Pēʾrā (see above), is the most prominent and prolific Assyrian author, poet, dramaturgist, lexicographer and journalist (d. 1985). He lived in Cannes, where since 1970 he edited the periodicalMaṭēʾbānā bulletin d’information de l’association des assyriens (et des amis des assyriens) en France (see detailed review by Macuch, pp. 310-22). Mīšāʾḕl Bḕt Paṭros (1910-70): numerous poems and articles in Gilgameš and Ātor. Ṣūpyā (Sofia) Bāsīlīyōs (b. 1911) wrote poems and songs for the Assyrian club Nīnīve which were set to music by the famous Assyrian composer Nēbū ʿĪsā-bī and published under the little of ʿEsrī syāmē d-myūzīg (Twenty musical compositions, Tehran, 1970). Erāmyā Yūḫannān Slībā (b. 1911) has published the following collections of poems:Za(h)rīrā qa(d)māyā (The first ray; Tehran, 1955); Za(h)rīrā trāyānā (The second ray) and Tpaqtā d-lā spārā b-Nānū Šīrīn (An unexpected meeting with N. Š.; Tehran, 1965). William S. Dānīʾḕl, poet and composer: A(h)rīrē d-umtā nūtā (Rays of nationalism, popular Assyrian songs with melodies, 1944); Qāṭīnā ga(n)bārā:Mūšḫātē ga(n)bārē b-liššānā ātorāya I-III (The Hero Q., a heroic epic in the Assyrian language, Tehran, 1961-65); Rāmīnā pātantā (The charming R.; Tehran, 1967). He is now living in the USA where he directs the Assyrian radio and television program in Chicago and edits the periodical Mhadiana. Bābāǰān I. Āšōrē (b. 1912): poems, Šeblē (The gleaning, Tehran, 1965) and Beblē (The blossoms; Tehran, 1970). Dr. Wilson Bḕt-Manṣūr (b. 1927), editor of the periodical Ātor-Āšūrin Neo-Syriac, Persian, and English, published in Tehran. Ṭūḇīyā Abrāhām Gīwargīs (b. 1932), poet and translator, an official collaborator of the periodical Ātor, has published a translation of W. E. Wigram, Our Smallest Ally (Tehran, 1967) and a collection of aphorisms Mārganyātē d-ḫekmyātē (The pearls of wisdom, Tehran, 1970).

The manifold subjects of the Iranian-Assyrian literature in our day prove that it liberated itself from the narrow religious frame in which it was predominantly kept in the past.

(R. Macuch)

Originally Published: December 15, 1987

Last Updated: June 28, 2016

This article is available in print.
Vol. II, Fasc. 8, pp. 822-824

Cite this entry:

R. Macuch, “ASSYRIANS IN IRAN ii. Literature of the Assyrians in Iran,”Encyclopaedia Iranica, II/8, pp. 822-824, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/assyrians-in-iran-ii-literature (accessed on 30 December 2012).