Yawna

1. Name and Symbol

I decided to apply this ancient Aramaic name to the entirety of the literary and cultural works I produced for several reasons, the most important of which are:

1. The Levantine languages have been singled out by this name without the rest of the Semitic languages, in the Ugaritic language we find it under the root YNT, and in Aramaic and Hebrew under the root YWN. In Maaloula Aramaic, it is pronounced yawna, and in older Aramaic dialects it was pronounced yawnā, while in Tiberian Hebrew it was pronounced yōnā. It means “dove”.

2. This word was found long ago, among the earliest Aramaic inscriptions. In the inscription of Bal’am Son of Be’or, which was found in Deir ‘Alla in north-western Jordan, we find YWN, meaning “dove”, at the beginning of the ninth line. The age of this inscription is estimated to be about 2,800 years.

1.1.1 640

Figure 1.1: The inscription of Bal’am {Wikipedia> User: Disdero}

1.1.2 640

Figure 1.2: Deir ‘Alla site {Google Maps}

3. Biblically, the dove came to Noah heralding peace and the end of the flood:

Genesis 8:11, “When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth.”

4. The Bible considers it a symbol of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God:

Matthew 3:16, “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.”

5. It has been used on many occasions as a symbol of love and peace. The most famous of which is a painting by the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, which was chosen as a symbol for the first international peace conference in Paris in 1949.

Figure 1.3: Picasso’s painting {tate.org.uk}

Just as the dove is a symbol of peace and love, so is Aramaic the language that Jesus Christ used to spread love and peace to the whole world.

2. My story with the Aramaic language
2.1. The first spark:

My father used to write down and memorize the old Aramaic words that went out of use for one reason or another, and most of them were names for old tools that had disappeared or turned into antiques still kept by some, while their names are forgotten. This opened my eyes to the importance of documenting the names of these tools and how to use them, and so began the long journey of documentation with my cousin Simon (and my brother in baptism), who shared the same interest.

2.2. Documentation and Information Collection:

We started with pen and paper by writing down just names that we used to collect from the elderly and anyone who lived with or remembered these tools. Then, in 2006, I bought my first mobile phone with a camera and the first voice recorder that I would use for my university studies, and soon I began using them to record and document tools, information and stories that talk about the history and heritage of Maaloula. My cousin and I used to spend much of our time visiting elderly people in our village. We would ask them any questions we could think of or let them speak in their comfort and take us on a journey back in time into the world of simplicity, love, goodness and inner peace.

Our activities peaked between 2006 and 2011 when we began to understand our history and heritage better as we learned what to focus on and what to ask. Over time we have developed our documentation equipment.

Figure 2.2.1: Some elderly people whose knowledge we have documented. Photos from 2008 and 2009

Our love for knowledge and everything related to Maaloula drove us to explore every inch of the village from its highest peaks to its deepest caves.

Figure 2.2.2: Examples of explorations and adventures from 2006 and 2007

Figure 2.2.3: Examples of explorations and adventures from 2008 to 2011

Today, I have an enormous archive of Maaloula’s pictures with a total of more than 25,000 photos. 15,000 photos were taken by me and the rest are from different photographers. 3,000 of them date from as far back as 1890 to the end of 1999. This photo collection complements a large amount of information that I have gathered from the elderly and from books.

In 2010, I obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from Damascus University. At the beginning of 2012, Simon and I had to move to Lebanon to work there.

2.3. Academic study:

In 2013, Al-Nusra Front, along with other jihadist groups, attacked Maaloula, killing and displacing its people, and burning and looting its churches and homes. This has been a massive emotional and psychological trauma for Simon and me. In the aftermath, we realized the extent of the tragedy and decided to do our best to alleviate the consequences.

So, each of us chose our own path. Simon returned to Maaloula to directly contribute to revivifying and restoring what was ruined there.

I decided to keep my focus on the Aramaic language, as I realized that the displacement and dispersal of the people of Maaloula would be a direct cause of the language’s extinction and decline. I have decided to study it academically in order to be able to teach it later and thereby contribute to its preservation. Being familiar with the names of the researchers in the Maaloula Aramaic language, I knew I had to reach Professor Werner Arnold, who is considered the foremost academic reference to Maaloula Aramaic. I contacted him and we met in Lebanon when he came with his students on a trip, and he advised me to pursue a scholarship so I could study full-time without having to work. I applied and met the requirements to obtain a scholarship from the German KAAD (Catholic Academic Exchange Service) to study the Aramaic language at Heidelberg University under the supervision of Professor Werner Arnold.

On December 8, 2017, I was awarded a Master of Arts Degree in Semitic Studies, with a grade of 1.3 point in the German grading system and a “very good” rating, which is the highest rating that can be achieved. The topic of my thesis was entitled: “The Aramaic Watermills in Maaloula”, where I studied and analyzed three records in the Aramaic language which I had recorded in the years 2007, 2009, and 2010. The research had two main objectives. The first related to Molinology (the study of mills) and documenting what survived and remained in folk’s memory about Maaloula’s watermills, including how they worked and the names of their parts, etc. The second relates to Semitic Studies as well as analysis and study of the Aramaic text. A copy of my paper has been preserved in the Heidelberg University Library. In 2020, I have summarized, revised and transformed it into an article that will soon be published in a specialized academic journal.

Figure 2.3.1: Master’s Certificate

Figure 2.3.2: Master Thesis Cover

2.4. An interview with the German newspaper RNZ:

After I got my Master’s Degree, and within a week or two, the German newspaper Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung heard about it and asked for an interview.

In the interview published at the beginning of the year on January 3, 2018, I spoke about the historical importance of the Aramaic language, its current state and the situation of Maaloula after the looting and destruction, as well as the events and effects of the killing and displacement that befell its people.

Figure 2.4: Copy of the interview published in the RNZ newspaper

The translation of the interview: (The translation is semi-literal, and what I added in parentheses is for clarification or for rewriting some of what the journalist omitted)

(Headline:) He wants to protect the language of Jesus from extinction.

(Introduction:) Rimon Wehbi returns to Syria after completing his studies in Heidelberg – the 29-year-old intends to teach Western Aramaic to children in his destroyed hometown.

(Photo caption:) Rimon Wehbi studied Western Aramaic in Heidelberg – although it is his mother-tongue, it was here that he learned to write it. Photo: Rothe.

Written by Philipp Neumayr:

The Spirit of Jesus was omnipresent here even 2000 years later. He was. Today nothing in Maaloula is what it used to be. The picturesque mountain village in the middle of the Syrian Qalamun Mountains has been razed to the ground today. Many residents have left Maaloula and fled the barbarities of war. Most of them haven’t returned to this day, and maybe never will (The percentage of returnees is no more than 10%). Rimon Wehbi has. The 29-year-old lived and studied abroad for a number of years, the last two of them in Heidelberg. Now he is on his way to his completely destroyed homeland – with a mission: “I want to help save our language and our culture from extinction.”

Rimon Wehbi comes from a special village. It is one of the last where Western Aramaic is still spoken – the language in which Jesus Christ preached. For many years the village was a place of pilgrimage for Christians and tourists from all over the world. But then came the war and Al-Nusra. In just a few months, the fighters of the Islamist terrorist militia brutally tore down the foundations of centuries-old culture. Even if the government troops have now regained control of Maaloula, the small village is no longer what it used to be. Where a picturesque sea of houses clads the foot of a mountain in the past, ruins now stretch into the sky – including Wehbi’s parents’ house (In addition to most homes, churches and monasteries). “Thank God my family was able to flee in time. But they completely burned our house”, he says.

Much worse than the devastation, however, is the fact that many residents have been displaced, among them “mainly young people”, said Wehbi (They integrate over time into the new societies to which they fled, and thus abandon their language, culture and heritage). He is afraid that Maaloula’s tradition will come to an end, that language and culture could perish.

Wehbi decided to fight it himself. After stays in Damascus and Lebanon, he went to Heidelberg to study under Werner Arnold – the professor who once conducted research in Maaloula and has taught Semitic Studies at Heidelberg University for many years. “It is the only place in the world where my mother tongue is even taught”, says Wehbi.

Although he grew up with it, the Syrian learned a lot about his own language as part of his two-year Master’s Degree. For example, how it can be put on paper (written). Because in his homeland, explains the 29-year-old, Western Aramaic is only passed on orally, from father to son. “For this very reason,” he emphasizes, “it is important that young people learn the language as well.”

For this, Wehbi returned to Maaloula, around 60 kilometers northeast of Damascus not far from the Lebanese border, before New Year’s Eve (Editing error, the return took place at the end of January, not December). “I want to teach children and young people and use my knowledge to help keep the language alive.” He knows that this will not be an easy undertaking: “First of all, the entire infrastructure has to be rebuilt. Sometimes there is no longer even electricity.”

If he had wanted to make it easy for himself, Wehbi would have stayed in Heidelberg. “You can live wonderfully and safely here.” Many of his friends still cannot understand why the Syrian was drawn back home. “They tell me: You’re crazy, you’d better stay in Germany!” Smiles Wehbi. But he could not reconcile that with his conscience: “If all young people think that way – what about our country, our culture, our language? I don’t want all of this to perish.”

2.5. Return to my homeland:

Of course, as intended from the beginning, and after completing my Master’s, I returned to Syria in January 2018. I stayed in Maaloula for two months, gathering real-life information and thinking about what should be done. I realized that I must first secure financial stability in order to be able to live in dignity and to finance and complete my researches on Aramaic in a neutral manner and without pressure from anyone. So, I have worked in optics with my father and brother, and we developing our profession as much as possible, but at night and during the holidays I continued my research on the Aramaic language, establishing what you are seeing now and what is coming in the future.

3. Yawna series

In 2015, I started my first experiments in teaching the Aramaic language, as I created a YouTube channel, Facebook page, and exercises on Memrise that lasted for about a year and a half and reached 85 lessons before quitting because of my preoccupation with the Master’s theses.

Figure 3.1: Videos I posted on YouTube between 2015 and 2017

After returning to Syria, I gradually began to translate these earlier experiences and new information gained from my studies into an academic curriculum for teaching Aramaic.

In the winter of 2018, I tested the beta version of the first level (A1) with eight friends, who generously provided ample patience and feedback, after that, I made a lot of improvements to the curriculum.

And in the summer of 2019, I was finally able to fulfill a dream that had always struck me: to do the first free course for the Aramaic language in Maaloula, which I announced here on Facebook. I worked to follow modern teaching methods by dividing the class into groups and giving them worksheets and exercises in the form of games that I had prepared and printed out.

Figure 3.2: Middle and high school students in the 2019 course

Figure 3.3: One of the certificates I handed out to students after completing the course

After this course, I’ve introduced new modifications to the curriculum to make it more accurate, useful and enjoyable. Work is now currently underway to design it in a modern style.

Figure 3.4: Draft pages of the first level book in the Yawna series

4. Coloring book for kids

After realizing in 2020 that early-stage children would not be able to benefit from the series I am preparing, I decided to dedicate a coloring book to them through which they would learn some Aramaic words in a fun way. In choosing the words, I relied on several criteria, the most important of which are: being of Aramaic origin, being age-appropriate and connecting with their environment without carrying complex meanings or difficult words, and so on. I have included a second goal in this book, which is to bring the drawings as close as possible to the Maaloulian environment. This will help document and spread the culture and heritage of Maaloula and educate younger generations about them, whether they live in Maaloula or elsewhere. The third goal is to teach them how to draw and color.

I have communicated with all of the Maaloulian artists I know, as they are more aware of the environment and details of Maaloula. Some of them had to apologetically decline due to being busy or lacking specialization in children’s drawings, and the rest presented their art with love and generosity. The coloring book will soon be available for children.

Figure 4: Draft pages from the coloring book for

I have heard from some that they fear that teaching Aramaic to their children could lead to a decline in the development of their Arabic or other languages, but this stance is refuted by scientific research as well as many real life examples that confirm that a child can learn more than 4 languages at the same time, with the exception of course for children who suffer from certain problems delay their growth, as well as and their educational and cognitive performance.

Here are some examples confirm that two or three languages are not that many for a child:

A four-year-old girl speaks 7 languages

A seven-year-old boy speaks 5 languages

A twelve-year-old girl speaks 20 languages

A fourteen-year-old boy speaks 12 languages

As a personal experience, I learned Aramaic as my mother-tongue, then I learned the Damascus dialect (a mixture of Aramaic and Arabic) from the community. After that, I studied Modern Standard Arabic and English at school and was one of the first in these two subjects, and later I continued study English and reached an advanced level. Eventually I learned German, in addition to my knowledge of a few words and phrases in yet other languages. My language learning has not prevented me from learning others and, on the contrary, my language learning experience has accumulated and the process has become easier and easier over time.

5. Yawna's website and supplementary pages

In 2020, I decided to establish this independent, non-profit website, in order to publish as much information and documentation as possible about Maaloula and its Aramaic language.

I have worked on the preparation of the main content of the site taking into account several criteria:

  • Scientific and linguistic accuracy and reliability of information.
  • Simplify as much as possible.
  • Presenting in an engaging style that is supported by illustrations.

Every Wednesday around 10:00 am (7:00 GMT), I will post a new paragraph on the website. We will first learn about the Semitic languages in general, then Aramaic and its various languages and dialects, down to Maaloula Aramaic in particular. We will also learn about Maaloula’s history, geography, archaeology, heritage, literature, the arts and traditions of its people, and much more. Then we will move on to advanced stages, which we will talk about later.

To take advantage of the features provided by Facebook and YouTube, I created a page and a channel to support and complement the website:

6. Team

Rimon Wehbi

6.1. Design and programming:

Edward Wehbi

Books and logo design

Fadi Barhoum

Technical development of the website

6.2. Proofreading and translation of the website content:

Phil England

English language proofreading

Other languages are coming soon …

6.3. Coloring book participating artists:

Coming soon …

7. Yawna's goal

Yawna aims, with all its projects and programs, to achieve two main goals:

1. Preserving the Aramaic language, particularly the endangered Maaloula Aramaic, through research aimed at documenting and studying it, and then translating the results into modern educational and cultural materials.

2. Preserving the culture and heritage of Maaloula and providing further research into the history, geography, archeology, heritage, monuments, arts and traditions of the people of Maaloula, etc.

8. How you can help

I know that the task of preserving the Aramaic language and preventing it from disappearing is not an easy task, but it is also not an impossible one, and each of us can help preserve, disseminate and define it:

1. Speak in Aramaic whenever you can, as this is the first and most important step of all to extend its life.

2. Talk to your children in the early stages of childhood so they can acquire it as a mother tongue.

3. Encourage those around you to speak and learn the Aramaic language.

4. If you speak one of the modern Aramaic languages, you can contact us to exchange information or cooperate in specific research or projects.

5. If you have certain skills that can be helpful in preserving the Aramaic language (designing, drawing, typing, programming, translating …), you can contact us to take part in future researches and projects.

6. Contribute to the translation and proofreading of the website’s content into the language you know.

7. Share the website or its articles on your social media pages.

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