Mehreen Zahra Jiwan
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Mehreen Zahra Jiwan
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By Geoffrey Vendeville
The university is now one of the only places in the world where students can learn Ge’ez
Tens of thousands of ancient Ethiopic manuscripts – maybe more – have collected dust for over a century because they are written in what is now a rarely studied language, Ge’ez.
But a new course at the University of Toronto is teaching a new generation of students to understand the ancient Semitic language so that one day they can access this long-lost trove of knowledge.
This week, Professor Robert Holmstedt of the department of Near and Middle Eastern civilizations welcomed 25 students and members of Toronto’s Ethiopian community to the first day of an introductory course on Ge’ez, which like Latin, is only used in religious services, in this case for the Ethiopian Orthodox and Catholic churches.
With this course, U of T becomes one of the only places in the world where students can learn the fundamentals of Ge’ez. The program came about through several significant donations, including from The Weeknd, the Ethiopian community and the Faculty of Arts & Science.
Department chair Professor Tim Harrison has said that he hopes, with continued support, U of T will eventually add more courses and be positioned to launch the first Ethiopian studies program in North America.
Professor Robert Holmstedt, a specialist in Biblical Hebrew and Northwest Semitic languages, introduced students to orders of the alphabet in the first class on Ge’ez.
Since the subject is so rarely taught, Holmstedt had to invent course materials and revise one of the only Ge’ez textbooks in English, the 40-year-old Introduction to Classical Ethiopic: Ge’ez by Thomas O. Lambdin. Ge’ez is a window into an ancient culture and offers insights into other Semitic languages, he said.
“I like giving students access to things that 99.5 per cent of the world doesn’t have access to,” he said. “It’s part of advancing our knowledge and the pursuit of truth. This is the very nature of the university. We can’t leave this behind.”
Michael Gervers, a history professor at U of T Scarborough, helped launch the course with a $50,000 donation and a call to Toronto’s Ethiopian community to contribute.
The call was answered and the donation matched by none other than Toronto native and Grammy-award winning artist Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. The Weeknd.
The campaign for the language course has a $200,000 goal and has received support from the Faculty of Arts & Science and the Bikila Awards organization, a local Ethiopian community group named after Olympic marathoner Adebe Bikila.
On Monday, just as he had promised, Gervers sat in on the class, hoping to be one of the first to learn the language at U of T.
Although he has been studying ancient Ethiopia for 40 years – he has swung from ropes to explore rock-cut monasteries in Ethiopia and created a database of tens of thousands of photographs of Ethiopian art and culture – Gervers does not know the language.
Amharic-speaking students helped him with his pronunciation when he was asked to recite a letter of the alphabet.
The course’s first students included members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities, students with an interest in Ethiopian culture, medievalists and students in comparative linguistics.
Before any of the students can uncover the secrets of ancient Ethiopic texts, they must learn the basics. In their first class, they were introduced to Ethiopic letters and to the present tense of verbs like “to sit.”
Hours of memorization come next. Holmstedt urged his students to carry a ringlet of flashcards so they can learn the alphabet on the go.
“Walk around campus memorizing words instead of looking at your phone,” Holmstedt said.
Gervers said he hoped the Ge’ez course would be the first of many classes that would form the basis of an Ethiopian studies program at U of T. He has proposed a graduate-level course in the history of Ethiopia.
“Ethiopia is usually left out of the curriculum because it’s so different,” he said. “There is no point of entry through European languages like English, French, Spanish or Italian.”
The campaign will need additional funding to add further courses in Ge’ez – and even more to kickstart Ethiopian studies.
For many students in the course, the subject isn’t only academic.
Sahlegebriel Belay Gebreselassie, a third-year undergrad in international relations and political science, has an “intimate personal connection” with the class.
“It’s a part of learning my history, my language,” he said.
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By Nicholas Keung
Training her eyes on the Syrian artifacts on display at the Royal Ontario Museum, Ghazel Alkak couldn’t help thinking of her now-ruined home near Aleppo. However, the 24-year-old law graduate is grateful and proud to see her culture and heritage preserved at the museum’s Middle East Gallery in Toronto, her new home.
“Given what we all suffered, our museums destroyed and artifacts stolen, it is great to see Syrian history represented at the museum in Canada,” said Alkak, as she and her peers toured the ROM with volunteers from a University of Toronto support program for newly arrived Syrian youth.
“We came from a beautiful country with a rich history. We are very proud of it.”
Only three weeks after her arrival via Turkey under Canada’s Syrian refugee resettlement program, Alkak is already making new friends through the Cultural Exchange and Support Initiative of the U of T Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations department.
Since the project’s inception in the spring, Syrian youth eager to learn English have joined U of T student volunteers keen on brushing up their Arabic every Saturday, over a traditional Syrian lunch prepared by a group of newcomer Syrian women paid to make the food.
The sponsored tour by the ROM on this Saturday was one of many field trips and activities made possible by the many U of T volunteers and support from the Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations department and the Dean’s Office at the Faculty of Arts & Sciences.
“We do not want these youth to feel isolated, lonely, sad, excluded and neglected,” said Rasha Elendari, one of the program’s founders, herself a PhD visa student from Syria.
“We know our students here want to help support the Syrians and be their friends, and learn about their culture. This is a great opportunity for a cultural exchange.” During the weekly language workshops, participants are provided a theme and a list of vocabulary for their conversational exchange, followed by a writing exercise in which they’re required to read a sentence and write a short paragraph on the selected topic.
On this sunny and balmy November Saturday, participants were given a list of words about archeology and the question of why it is important to study the past and human history. Firas Baroody, 19, arrived in Canada with his family via Jordan in February and has been part of the group since May. He’s now in Grade 12.
“We can practise English here and they can learn Arabic from us. We talk about how to learn a new language and we use cue cards,” said Baroody, who commuted for 90 minutes from his home in Burlington. “Here we make Canadian friends and Syrian friends.”
Rob Martin, another co-founder of the initiative, said the program has a roster of 150 volunteers from all academic disciplines and the workshops have been well attended. “We hope this can be a stepping stone for the Syrian newcomers in Canada where they feel they are a part of something,” said Martin, a PhD student in archeology. “They have been through so much and endured traumas. It’s great to see them come out of their shells, make new friends and be happy.”
Karam Jamalo, who reached Canada by himself in April from Lebanon, said the U of T workshops are the highlight for him each week and he was thrilled to visit the museum to reminisce about his home country.
“I love the Syrian lunch. It reminds me of home. This is an amazing program for young people like me,” said Karam, 24, who dropped out of his business administration studies due to the conflicts in Syria and is now studying at George Brown to finish his high school equivalency.
Robert Mason, an archeologist with the ROM and a guide for the tour, said he hoped the visit would give the newcomers a sense of empowerment.
“We want to create a link between these artifacts and their descendants,” said Mason. “We want them to know that Syria isn’t just a bombed-out shell. Their country has made a lot of contributions to the world, to our civilization.”
Alkak and her family will move from a refugee shelter near the U of T campus to an apartment in Scarborough within days, and she said she can’t wait to move on and go back to school. “I will come to the workshop even after I move away. I’m so happy here,” she said. “During the war, it was difficult to trust people and communicate. Being here, I feel relaxed and learn you can trust people again and make friends.”
To learn more about how you can get involved or donate to support our humanitarian initiative please contact us! e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The NMC-CESI is sponsored by The Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, The Faculty of Arts and Science, and Victoria College at the University of Toronto.
The Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations is pleased to announce that it has partnered with Woodsworth College to offer NMC261Y0 – Field Archaeology in the Republic of Georgia for the 2nd year of G.R.A.P.E. – the Gadachrili Gora Regional Archaeological Project investigating the Neolithic origins of wine in the south Caucasus.
Please note that space is limited so students should consider applying as early as possible.
– Application deadline: February 13, 2017
– Program URL: https://summerabroad.utoronto.ca/programs/georgia/
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