An Ancient Language on the Brink of Extinction Finds New Life
Professor is electronically recording original Mandaean documents
Charles Häberl, director at Rutgers’ Center for Middle Eastern Studies has been on a mission: to save the language of the Mandaeans, a religious minority in Iraq whose numbers and security have dwindled since the start of the war in Iraq.
Now, with the release of the computer encoding system, Unicode 6.0, the distinctive symbols and characters of the Mandaic script are accessible for most common technological devices.
Prior to this version of the encoding system, the Mandaean lettering required for general desktop computer typing did not exist. Unlike before, Häberl is now able to maintain the history and culture of the Mandaean people by electronically recording their historical documents in their original script.
“This latest software release will prove a boon to Mandaeans working to preserve both their classical language and their living tongue in the information age,” said Häberl, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literatures.
According to Häberl, the inclusion of the Mandaic script in mainstream technology has immediate ramifications for his research.
Häberl and James McGrath, the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, have received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to produce an electronic version of the Mandaean Book of John from its original handwritten text in Mandaic as well as to translate the book into English.
Häberl made a small, but not insignificant, contribution to the new version of the language encoding. He persuaded the Unicode developers to include four characters used by the Mandaean schools in Iran and Australia.
“These characters are used for teaching purposes and occasionally to render the spoken form of the language, thus ensuring that this character set could be used for both classical Mandaic and the living language. I consider this to be my most important contribution to this project,” Häberl said.
Mandaic, like many languages of the world and particularly the Middle East, is close to becoming extinct. “The rapid disappearance of these languages represents an enormous loss to the cultural and scientific patrimony of mankind,” Häberl said.
Häberl first learned of the Mandeans in the 1980s as a child when he enjoyed the fantastical, time-machine effects that learning about ancient cultures provides.
“My mother always supported my academic interests. I remember when I was around the age of 10, she bought me a catalog of the British Museum,” said Häberl. “It contained a bunch of Mandaean artifacts in the museum. I had thought of these as something belonging to a different time and different world.”
Roughly two decades later, the study of Mandaeism, Mandaeans, and the Mandaic language brought Häberl to a time when members of the religion, which dates back at least 2,000 years, are fleeing Iraq from persecution. Mandaeism is a Gnostic sect whose adherents follow the teachings of John the Baptist.
A linguist with a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University, Häberl seeks to preserve what he can of the Mandaic culture through its language. He wrote an explanatory introduction to The Great Treasure, or the Ginza, the Mandaeans’ work of highest authority. His first book, The Neo-Mandaic Dialect of Khorramshahr, is a descriptive grammar of one of the surviving dialects of the Mandaic language. It was published by the German firm Otto Harrassowitz in 2009.
“It is intended to be a long-lasting description of a dialect that has not been previously documented,” said Häberl, who is originally from Monmouth County, New Jersey. “Language documentation is just so important.” Interest in ancient languages has surged since the release of movies like The Passion of the Christ and Stigmata, which featured Aramaic. Mandaic is a subfamily of Aramaic.
In addition to working for the CMES, Häberl teaches courses at Rutgers in Arabic and on the modern Middle East. He knows several languages, including Italian, Latin, Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew. His research focuses upon Aramaic dialects and Iranian languages, both ancient and modern.
Estimates are hard to nail down, but there were anywhere between 30,000 and 60,000 Mandaeans living in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003. Now, between 3,000 and 5,000 remain, according to the Mandaean Society of America.
Before the start of the war, Mandaeans had been more or less free to practice their religion, Häberl said. The Mandaeans in Iraq are largely well educated and many became doctors, engineers, dentists, and jewelers after Iraq’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1932. “This kind of led to the suspicion that they were all fabulously wealthy,” Häberl said.
Following the breakdown of Iraqi society following the 2003 invasion, Mandaeans became a particularly targeted minority. The Mandaeans who remain in Iraq are subject to religious persecution, with houses of worship robbed and destroyed. Many have been forced to convert to Islam, kidnapped, or killed.
“The situation is really awful. That’s the only word I can use to describe it,” said Suhaib Nashi, a Morristown pediatrician who serves as secretary of the Mandaean Society of America. “Most of the community has already escaped. ... With the country so divided and religious fanatics in the mainstream daily living, it’s very difficult for a non-Muslim to continue living without every day somebody knocking on the door for him.
“Unfortunately, and I say this with very painful feeling, I don’t see them going back at all,” Nashi said.
Preserving the culture is paramount, but disorganization and bureaucratic tangles are making it difficult for Mandaeans to settle abroad in large numbers.
“If you send an Iraqi Catholic to Switzerland, he will easily find a church that will embrace him,” Nashi said. “Sending four families of Mandaeans to Switzerland ... what happens to their kids? It’s really finishing up what the insurgency has done, which is to annihilate this religion from the face of this earth.”
Nashi is working to ensure that significant communities of Mandaeans settle in the United States and other countries. So far, about 1,000 Mandaeans from Iraq have settled in U.S. cities, mostly in Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles.
Häberl has met with several of these families and appreciates the warmth they show to him. “They invited me on a personal level to visit their homes, to learn about their culture,” Häberl said. “So [the grammar] was a natural thing for me to pursue given my own personal interests and my contact with the community.”