Recovering a Lost Language From the Mountains of Mesopotamia

A scholar reflects on her quest to learn her ancestral Judeo-neo-Aramaic, one of the last surviving branches of an ancient tongue that was once the lingua franca of empires

Recovering a Lost Language From the Mountains of Mesopotamia
The author’s grandfather, Zion (age 19), grandmother, Esther (16) and aunt, Chana (1), in a family photo taken in Baghdad, 1936. (Zaken family archive)

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When my father was in high school, he and his youngest sister, Sarah, decided to teach my grandmother, Esther, how to read and write. They sat in their small apartment in the Qatamon neighborhood of Jerusalem. Once a middle-class Palestinian district that was emptied during the Nakba as Jerusalemite families fled advancing Zionist forces and were later denied return to their homes, Qatamon was repopulated in the 1950s with Jewish families mainly from Middle Eastern countries. They spent several evenings after dinner showing my grandmother the basics of how to hold a pen, demonstrating how to draw markings on paper with the metal tip, as they had learned in school as children.

Esther never learned to read or write — “she never needed to,” my father says. But by the time she died, she spoke at least four languages: Arabic, Hebrew, Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish) and a language whose name only makes sense when spoken in its own dialect, Lishana Deni, meaning “Our Language,” a rare tongue heard only in the mountains of Mesopotamia.

Esther was born in Zakho, a town in the largely Kurdish region of northwestern Iraq, close to the Turkish and Syrian borders. She was among the last generation of Jewish babies born on a small island perched in the middle of the Khabur River. That island is thought to be the original site of Zakho’s historical settlement and the source from which the entire city spread. Among the roughly 1,500 Jews of Zakho, as well as the neighboring Jewish communities in Erbil and Duhok, Lishana Deni, a unique form of Judeo-neo-Aramaic, was spoken.

The history of Jews in Iraq’s Kurdish region is both ancient and largely undocumented, as the communities themselves have produced few written records, relying instead on storytelling in their ancestral Aramaic tongue as the primary mode of cultural transmission from generation to generation.

Lishana Deni refers as much to the language itself as to the speakers of the language. Linguists identify Lishana Deni as a branch of Judeo-neo-Aramaic, one of the last surviving forms of ancient Aramaic, which was the lingua franca of the neo-Assyrian, neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid or Persian empires.

Living in isolated, mountainous towns, the small Jewish communities of northwestern Iraq spoke unique variants of the language that had once been spoken the world over, preserving Aramaic centuries after its demise under the rolling spread of Arabic and Islam across the Middle East in the seventh century. Other religious minority communities held onto their Aramaic as well. The unique languages of the Christians and Mandeans were persevered as much as a result of the marginalization of their communities as their geographic isolation. The Jews of Zakho and Duhok lived in Jewish quarters, restricted to trade only among themselves, often conscripted to labor for the local “aghas” (chiefs) in exchange for protection. When these communities migrated en masse out of Iraq’s Kurdish region in the early 1950s, the language was excised entirely from its site of origin. Within their community in Israel, my father’s family and neighbors maintained the Zakho dialect, but transmission to the next generation has been nearly nonexistent. As the last speakers of the language age and slowly begin to vanish from the Earth, so, too, does the language.

According to UNESCO, neo-Aramaic is now a critically endangered language, facing extinction as the communities who speak its some 150 dialectical varieties are breaking apart in the face of war, political repression and environmental disaster. (UNESCO’s classification system runs from “vulnerable” to “definitely endangered” to “severely endangered” to “critically endangered” and then “extinct”). As one of those dialectical variants, Lishana Deni, transplanted from Zakho in the mouths of about 1,600 Jewish migrants, is no longer being transmitted down through generations, marking the dwindling end of its lifespan.

In the newly established state of Israel, the rural-originating Kurdish Jews experienced extreme marginalization resulting from their impoverished conditions and the ethnic stratification in the society, which privileged Ashkenazi Jews as a matter of resource division. Upon arrival in Israel, the new Kurdish migrants, along with other Jews hailing from across the Middle East, were sprayed with DDT — an insecticide now known to have cancer-causing and wildlife-damaging effects — and placed into transit camps. The camps were rain-stricken and rife with poverty. Food was scarce and disease rampant, while educational opportunities were often stilted. Teens in the transit camp were sent to vocational schools instead of high schools, and many of the children entered agricultural or household labor to help provide support for their families, disrupting their studies or halting them altogether.

In coordinated attempts to stem weather-borne diseases spreading in the camps, the new Israeli government along with the Jewish Agency (then the premiere Jewish settlement agency working in the new state) coordinated mass transfers of Iraqi, Kurdish and Moroccan children, who were placed in kibbutzim (communal farming settlements), homes of Ashkenazi families or public institutions, sometimes against the will of the families and children. Marginalization was systemic. The phrase “Ana Kurdi” — roughly translated from Aramaic to mean “I am a Kurd” — became rendered into a common slur in modern Hebrew, used colloquially to mean, “Are you stupid?”

The advantages and pressures of assimilation were manifold. Leaving Lishana Deni in the household and replacing it elsewhere with modern Hebrew was one of the many ways Kurdish Jews “became” Israeli. Lishana Deni has passed from a rare but enduring language of daily use to a relic of curiosity for academics and seekers, remembered fondly by those who spoke it in their childhoods.

My grandparents Zion and Esther were teenagers when they left Zakho in 1936, fleeing in the face of antisemitic threats against my grandfather’s life — threats he “earned” by violating the local trade restrictions that required Jewish traders to engage in commerce only with other Jews. They settled in Palestine, where they raised their family and “became” Israelis. From a young age, I recall my mother recounting my grandmother’s tale of her journey to Jerusalem, through the desert, eating manna from trees. This story was handed to me as a bit of a fable, as if we understood that perhaps my grandmother had been young and impressionable and her storytelling was colored by religious romanticism. It resonated with echoes of the tale of the Exodus from Egypt, Jews wandering in the desert fed by manna from the sky.

It is in fact true that my grandmother, at the age of 16, nursing her first baby and pregnant with her second, left Zakho for Palestine with my grandfather, traveling in the steps of others who had trickled out of Iraq as the British Mandate and Zionist missionizing had opened pathways for Jews to settle in Palestine. However, it would be years before my mother and I learned of the tamarisk tree, a shrub suited to dry climates whose sap oozes at night and dries by morning and can be harvested and eaten — and is also known as manna.

I often think of this as I roam through books, seeking fragments of information about Zakho wherever I find them: My grandmother’s knowledge, my grandmother’s understanding and my grandmother’s experiences far surpass anything that I could find in a book. I could search for years and never approach the lexicon she retained within herself. And sure, I know things she doesn’t: I’m sure she would find little use for a smartphone, and at the age I learned to read, she was already living in the house of the boy who would become her husband. At the age of 6, my grandmother moved into my grandfather’s home — not uncommon in Zakho for girls from families who struggled to care for their children — and they grew up together as betrothed, as close as siblings. My grandfather apprenticed at trade while my grandmother learned to clean, cook and care for the children and the household.

I was, and remain, the only granddaughter in our family to be born outside of the Middle East, separated from Zakho by continents and oceans, displacements and settlements, borders and languages and decades. My mother, an American, met my Israeli-born father on the streets of Jerusalem. After a whirlwind romance, my father’s American dream and my mother’s desire to return to her family brought them to California, where I was born. We moved to New York when I was a year old. As an immigrant’s child growing up in America in the 1990s, I experienced a normal dose of assimilative pressures. My American grandparents, for example, would snap at my parents, “Speak English!” Instead, one of my first words was “¡aqui!,” the Spanish word for “here,” which I learned from my Nicaraguan babysitter.

Hebrew, in my household, was rendered into my parents’ secret language, and what I knew of my ancestry, particularly my father’s, came in small bits and pieces, confused and conflated with my childhood ideas of the “Jewish homeland.” I knew my Israeli grandparents weren’t the same sort of Jews as my American ones, but the origins and history were less vital than the contemporary history of Israel. I grew up to understand myself as an American and Israeli Jew, with New York City secularity and first-generation rebellion, dyeing my hair pink and eschewing religious traditionalism. I once broke my father’s heart when he tried to offer me my grandmother’s leather watch and I turned it down, telling him that I didn’t wear leather.

My own upbringing had been what I considered standard Zionist, experiencing political education in youth group and religious school and generally learning my own Jewishness as inseparable from the state of Israel. Added to this was the knowledge that my own grandparents had themselves migrated to Palestine before the state of Israel was founded and participated in the building of that state — which to me lent an air of gravitas to my relationship with Israel and Zionism that I thought my Jewish-American, non-Israeli (but also Zionist) peers didn’t share. The preservation of a dialect that belonged to a place and time that had passed into memory felt less vital than living for the future.

I was 22 the first time I learned the name of the village whence my family hailed — prior to that, I had known only to call it a small village, not even certain to which country to attribute it. Years of reading have gone into my attempt to bridge this gap. I must read in an attempt to find that which my ancestors inherited, that which was lost to me (and of course my grandmother never read a word). I collect all the books on Zakho, Kurdish Jews and Iraqi Jews I can find, from the out-of-print Judeo-neo-Aramaic dictionary written by the linguist Yona Sabar, whose work has laid the foundation for the preservation of Lishana Deni, to Avi Shlaim’s newly published “Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew” (2023), which documents the exodus of Jews from Iraq and richly details Jewish life in Baghdad, including depicting the ethnic and class differences between the Baghdadi Jews and Kurds.

I applied to a course in Lishana Deni taught at the Oxford School for Rare Jewish Languages, and for eight months I woke up at 4 a.m. to study my grandparents’ birth language. In that classroom, I was the only student with ancestral ties to the language itself. Even the instructor, the Oxford scholar and linguist Dorota Molin, is a Hungarian Jew whose interest in the language is academic first. My classmates ranged from Jewish scholars interested in Biblical texts to Kurdish academics curious about Kurdish Jews to linguist hobbyists to an NGO worker who worked in northeastern Syria with Assyrian Christians, another neo-Aramaic-speaking community.

I often find myself searching for “Zakho” and “Judeo-neo-Aramaic” in scholarly databases and libraries to see if any new results appear. I find myself awake in the middle of the night typing “Zakho” into Google Maps and zooming in as close as I can, finding the famed Pira Delal bridge, wondering what now sits in the buildings that once were the Big Synagogue and the Small Synagogue, wondering if the green shrubbery on the banks could be descended from the mulberry trees my grandparents often fondly remembered.

On one such midnight search, I get the idea to enter “Yona Sabar” on the digital library JSTOR. Several hits. One catches my eye: a transliteration-translation of Mammo Yona Gabbai, a famed storyteller from Zakho. (In Lishana Deni, “Mammo” is an honorific, akin to uncle.) Early in his academic career, Sabar was paid to document, on tape, and translate interviews with elders from Zakho — an episode of his life documented in “My Father’s Paradise,” a book written by Sabar’s son Ariel about his father’s journey from Zakho to Israel to Los Angeles and his lifetime career documenting and preserving Lishana Deni.

These tapes, which still exist in archives in Jerusalem, are a rare and vital trove of memory, both through the stories told on them and the language in which they’re told. The interviewees relay details of ordinary life in Zakho, as well as folk tales, songs, recipes and family gossip: all the forms of life rendered through words. The particular document I have found is a transcribed and translated series of personal anecdotes narrated by Mammo Yona Gabbai, detailing his last years in Zakho and the community’s migration to Israel. I pick out words I recognize, familiar copulas and constructions. I don’t have much vocabulary but I understand the sounds.

And then I come to a word I know with my entire being, used in the exact way I know it. My body vibrates. It’s a simple word: “chayet,” meaning “life of.” It was the term of endearment my father would always call me: “Chayet Abba” (daddy’s life). And now he calls my child “Chayet Saba.” I had assumed the origins of this word were Hebrew, as חי (life) is a common Hebrew word. But here it is, in Jewish Aramaic, in exactly the same form and context my father uses it. And — I realize, suddenly — I’ve never heard the parents of any of my Israeli friends use this term of endearment. Pieces fall into place. There is context. (Interestingly, the word appears cognate with the Arabic noun for life, “hayat” — sometimes pronounced “hayet” — which is also commonly used in the same way.)

I sometimes think of context like staging a scene in a film: what is foregrounded, what is backgrounded and what is simply off-screen. Israel and Zionism were in the foreground of my upbringing; Zakho was off-screen entirely. I am learning to pan my camera, zoom in on other parts of the story.

On June 26, 1840, the British geographer and surgeon William Francis Ainsworth rode north from the Tigris River, cresting the hilly range forming the natural barrier to Zakho’s south. He later wrote in his notes:

As the stranger approaches Zakhu, he is struck with its bold and isolated appearance. It is not a town in a partially civilized country, like Mosul, but an outpost of warlike Kurdistan.

Approaching Zakho, Ainsworth and his team forded the Khabur River, which was “so full of fish,” Ainsworth wrote, “that in the evening while I was bathing in its waters, they were continually striking against my body.” That night, Ainsworth’s group camped out in the shadow of an ancient tower, all that remained of the ruins of a 13th-century Badinan governor’s home, away, as he wrote, “from the crowd of the curious.”

When I first came across this description, I laughed out loud, imagining this British expedition fording the Khabur and believing themselves concealed from the locals beneath the tower, which was an essential feature in the town’s landscape. I am certain that among the “crowd of the curious” were my ancestors. I try to imagine it: checking your nets at the river for a catch, and up out of the riverbed clambers a foreign-dressed group of strangers speaking an unfamiliar tongue, and they set up camp right on the edge of town without half a glance at the locals. I am reminded of alien visitation stories. Ainsworth wrote of Zakho’s isolated position and, in its isolation, newcomers and outsiders were infrequent. The apparition of Ainsworth’s group was a source of town gossip and myth for some time to come.

Ainsworth’s expedition, funded by the British Royal Geographical Society and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, was a quest to research the Chaldean Christian communities of the Middle East, with whom Ainsworth had come into contact on a previous (failed) British expedition seeking a viable continuous commercial route to India through Iraq via the Euphrates River. Ainsworth’s entries on Zakho, occupying about three pages in his writings, describe the journey and the landscape, and extrapolate at length on theories about the likely proximity of Mount Ararat of antiquity, said to have been the landing site of Noah’s Ark. Yet his only mention of the actual people of Zakho is of the curious crowd of onlookers he sought to avoid.

Unlike Ainsworth, my primary interest is in those people from whom he hid. I encountered Ainsworth’s writing during my own quest, one to learn about Zakho and the history of the town and land my family had come from, a history I was not taught as a child and one I have spent most of my adulthood uncovering.

Now, in Israel, leading militant, far-right figures such as Itamar Ben-Gvir, who hails from Kurdish and Iraqi ancestry, hold seats in the Knesset. Ben-Gvir ascended to prominence in Israel by centering his political base in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, inciting his followers to attack the Palestinian families living under threat of eviction and settler displacement. One of his main targets is the home of the El-Kurd family, which has been the family’s residence since the 1950s and is currently occupied by settlers.

In a bizarre dialectical twist, many Ben-Gvir fans on social media have fixated on the last name of the El-Kurd family, leading the family’s son, the Palestinian poet Mohammed El-Kurd, to sarcastically tweet, “Stop asking if I’m Kurdish. I’m very clearly from Scandinavia.”

Whose memory, whose right to claim home matters more? In Sheikh Jarrah, Ben-Gvir and his supporters fight to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from houses they claim once belonged to Jews. Yet my grandfather served in the Haganah, the primary Zionist paramilitary organization in Mandatory Palestine, which became the Israeli Defense Forces following the establishment of the state. His posting during the 1948 war was in the corridor between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, a region systematically ethnically cleansed of Palestinians. The apartment I know as my family’s home, perched among the hills of Jerusalem’s Qatamon, was ethnically cleansed of its original Palestinian inhabitants. Some family, whose name I don’t know, remembers my family home as theirs — only they could never return because my family was living in it. Somewhere in Zakho, someone else lives on the land that had been our family’s home for generations. Whose claim wins? Whose memory?

We are born into memory and language, the way we are born into geopolitical and material realities that shape our worlds. Language is a world-maker forged within memory; it exists to codify and identify and manage our experiences in the world, based in a system of memorization, practice and repetition. Individuals do not create language but we act in relationship with languages. As I watch my own child acquire language, moving from basic structures (sounds) into more complex formulations that have become entire sentences, paragraphs, full ideas, I am aware that this process of making meaning is a —perhaps the — defining collaborative human experience. I have also become aware of the life cycle of language, that dialects and vocabularies are birthed into existence within the specific conditions of their creation and can disappear once those conditions cease to exist.

The conditions for this dialect are fading from existence. Zakho in 2023 survives without its Jews, who are now enfolded into the long history of the town but, like the language itself, will soon pass out of living memory as those who have memories of a Zakho that was home to Jews depart the world. This, I think, is one of the realities of memory and diaspora: When we leave a place, that place continues to exist, but we take with us the memory of how it was. Those diaspora communities who have an ongoing, fluent relationship with the place they come from continue to see and experience those places as living, but for those who can never go back, the places from which they came become fixed, crystallized, frozen in time.

I see this in my own father, remembering a pre-1967 world in Palestine and Israel with the openly innocent nostalgia of early childhood unblemished. So this becomes my challenge and my quest: How do I engage with this language, with this place, with this history, with this present, with this future? What is the purpose of learning this language?

At my brother’s wedding in December 2022, my aunt Sarah (my father’s youngest sister, who had once sat with him trying in vain to teach their mother to read) swept me up in a hug. I whispered into her ear, “Mato Kefach?” (“How are you?” in Lishana Deni). She replied, “Bash-ile,” (“Good”) before realizing what we had said, what we had done. I watched her eyes crinkle into a familiar smile and she squeezed me again. It’s more than the words themselves. It’s the shared recognition underneath them. And something else: the sharing of something that transcends memory.

This article was published in the Fall 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition. It emerged from a collaboration between New Lines magazine and the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University (NYU). New Lines served as the Kevorkian Center’s Practitioner-in-Residence for the Spring 2023 semester.

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