Armenians, Kurds in Lebanon hold on to their languages

Friday 18/03/2016
Armenian children leaving their school in Beirut’s Armenian quarter of Bourj Hammoud.

Beirut - Armenians and Kurds, who constitute the main ethnic minorities in Leb­anon, have fared differ­ently in preserving their ethnic identities, including the cru­cial element of language.
Armenians have succeeded in keeping the use of their mother tongue widespread among their community but the Kurds of Leba­non have been largely absorbed into Arabic culture.
“I can quite confidently say that 90% of Lebanese Armenians can speak their native language, though some do not read or write in Arme­nian,” said Armenian Catholic priest Elie Yeghyaian, who also teaches at Armenian schools.
“Armenian is a vibrant language, rich with songs, poems and culture. It is spoken at home and used in the church, especially the Greek Ortho­dox Church, where mass is held in Armenian only,” Yeghyaian said.
“Even if children are not learning Armenian at school, they are forced to speak it to be able to follow mass and participate in church services.”
Since arriving in Lebanon a cen­tury ago, the Armenian community of 170,000 has established many churches, cultural clubs, philan­thropic and youth organisations, in addition to political parties, schools and a university that play a big role in maintaining their ancestral lan­guage.
They also have radio stations that cover news of the Armenian com­munities in Lebanon and the dias­pora and two Lebanese TV stations, Al-Mustqabal and Orange TV, broad­cast daily Armenian news bulletins.
However, younger people differ from their forefathers in the ability to master Arabic, especially among children of mixed marriages.
“Our language has been los­ing ground among children whose mother is a Lebanese. In fact, most Armenians who speak perfect Ara­bic have Lebanese blood and their mother tongue is Arabic more than anything else,” Yeghyaian noted.
Until the early 1960s, Armenian children were mostly enrolled in Armenian schools that did not teach Arabic. In time, the schools intro­duced the regular Lebanese cur­ricula, including Arabic literature, history and culture, preparing stu­dents for the Lebanese official bac­calaureate examinations. Unlike their ancestors, who could hardly communicate in Arabic, young Ar­menians have been able to integrate and interact with their Arab envi­ronment.
“When Armenians first arrived in Lebanon [fleeing genocide in Turkey], they spoke their native language in addition to the Turkish language. Eventually the third gen­eration lost the Turkish, replacing it with Arabic,” Yeghyaian said.
With more Armenian children joining Lebanese schools, there is a whole generation who can speak their ancestral language but cannot read and write it, the priest said.
“We used to have 50 to 60 Ar­menian schools in the past but the number dropped to 28 because many Armenians have emigrated and others are joining Lebanese es­tablishments,” he said. “But some parents are keen to inculcate a sense of duty towards the ancestral language and would give their chil­dren private Armenian lessons.”
Catholics, who make up about 10% of the overwhelmingly Ortho­dox Armenian community, have been particularly integrating in Lebanese circles and losing attach­ment to the native language. “The Orthodox don’t even consider us as Armenians,” said Lucy Djabrayan, in her 60s.
“At home, we speak both Arabic and Armenian because my mother is Lebanese but my nephew insists on speaking Arabic. Even when we talk to him in Armenian, he answers in Arabic. He is more Lebanese than Armenian,” Djabrayan said.
“If you don’t learn how to read and write at a younger age, it is dif­ficult to learn it later. That is why I believe 50% of our children can only speak the language.”
The Kurds, the second largest mi­nority in Lebanon, are losing their battle to keep their language alive.
“The Kurdish identity has been largely lost in Lebanon. There are no Kurdish schools. The community is dispersed, the children go to Leba­nese schools where no Kurdish lan­guage is taught and people are not talking in Kurdish anymore,” said Mohamad Fattah Atriss, a leading figure of the Kurdish Razkari Party.
“In Turkey and Syria, you have whole Kurdish areas and so it is impossible to lose their language there. But in Lebanon, the Kurds are isolated from each other and have dissolved in their Arab entou­rage,” Atriss said. Although they have their own political parties and cultural clubs and maintain their traditional celebrations, the lack of Kurdish schools has been a main handicap for the community.
There is no official count of the Kurds who arrived in Lebanon around the same time as the Arme­nians, fleeing violence and poverty in Turkey. According to the Kurdish community, they number 125,000 in Lebanon.
“Schools are necessary to per­petuate the language but the com­munity lacks the means and funds to establish them… Kurds are in­stead learning Arabic, English and French,” Atriss said. “However, we are trying hard to continue to use Kurdish and we want to teach it to our children because it is their mother tongue, which they should not give up.”
Yeghyaian said he considers lan­guage to be at the core of ethnic identity. “We should preserve it to preserve our heritage and history and reinforce our attachment to our identity,” he said.