The Voice and Myth of Gabriel Afram

Ninos Maraha

Malfono Gabriel Afram has always been a myth who I have heard innumerable stories about. He was a strong and dynamic leader of the Assyrian movement during the 70´s in Sweden and played a central role in creating the Assyrian Association of Sodertalje, Assyrian National Federation in Sweden and Hujada Magazine. After that he stepped back from the political arena. However, his voice continued to echo among the Assyrian people through the radio program Qolo (voice in western Assyrian), which is broadcasted nation wide in Sweden and also world wide through internet. Parallel with his profession as journalist at the Swedish Radio he has been working on his biggest project ever the last 15 years. That is, the production of a Swedish-Assyrian dictionary with the aim to secure the survival of the Assyrian language.

I am standing outside the reception of the Swedish Radio, which is the public service radio broadcaster in Sweden and employs 2500 people. One of them is the Assyrian journalist Gabriel Afram, born in the village of Enhil in Turabdin and brought up at the monastery of Zafaran, where he studied the Assyrian language until he became 14 years old.

Malfono (Rabi in eastern Assyrian) Gabriel moved to Sweden in 1967 when he was 17 years old. As one of the first Assyrians in Sweden he arrived in a time when concepts like multi-ethnicity and integration policy yet were not in use in the Swedish vocabulary. That would be changed 1975, when big numbers of Assyrian refugees arrived to Sweden. At that time malfono Gabriel was active in the Assyrian Association in Sodertalje and in the new established Syriac–orthodox church. At the same time he was involved in the issues of the Assyrian refugees. During this period he was also recruited to ADO (Assyrian Democratic Organization) by Arsan Arsan and Ilyas Sahin, and together they organized the first ADO section in Sweden. Malfono Gabriel was comfortable as a political leader but less comfortable with the political game that followed:

- I do not fit in the political game, because there are many intrigues that do not fit my nature. I want to be clear, open and honest with the people I work with, and I want them to know where I stand. I believe that people are more satisfied with those kinds of people, who do not hide behind big words. The picture that the people have about me is based on my honest standpoint towards them.

Malfono Gabriel has stayed out of Assyrian politics for the latest twenty years. Instead he has put his energy on the radio program Qolo at the Swedish Radio. With a beautiful voice and classic Western Assyrian dialect he reaches Assyrian radio listeners not only in Sweden but also all over the world through internet consignments. It almost sounds divine when he read the news; as a part of him still where in the monastery of Zafaran.

For me this is the first time that I really face and discuss with malfono Gabriel and it struck me that he looks relative young. I almost become disappointed, bearing in mind that he was one of the founder of the “old time”. However, many times people forget that he was less than 30 years when he led the Assyrian movement in Sweden.

- It has happened earlier that people who only heard about me became surprised when they saw me. Like you they expected someone more grey and grizzled, says Gabriel Afram with a soft voice.

Wearing blue jeans and a comfortable sweater malfono Gabriel radiate humility and seem to enjoy life. Maybe you do that when you just finished a Swedish-Assyrian dictionary, thick as the Bible, with the aim to secure the survival of the Assyrian language:

- We live in a time when there are not enough textbook and teaching aids for the Assyrian language. Today’s youth are well integrated in the Swedish society and speaks the Swedish language well, and therefore they have big possibilities to learn the Assyrian language with the help of the dictionary.

The introduction of the dictionary was successful and malfono Gabriel has given interviews in both the national Swedish television and radio. The Swedish school minister, the Assyrian Ibrahim Baylan, opened the release ceremony of the dictionary in the Assyrian Association of Sodertalje. I was one of 600 Assyrians who came to honor malfono Gabriel Afram and witness this historical moment.

- It was a wonderful feeling. I did not expect so many people to come and particular not so many young Assyrians. It was a wonderful feeling to see the youth embrace their dictionaries while they waited for me to sign them.

For every Swedish word in the dictionary there are a dozen Assyrian synonyms, which is a result of malfono Gabriel’s perfectionism or as he modestly express it “it is not every day that I produce a Swedish-Assyrian dictionary”:

- I feel persecuted by this language. Where ever I am and what ever I do, I constantly invent new words and phrases. The day after the dictionary was printed I invented another synonym for the word “throw-in”, sunworo.

Have you also thought about producing an Assyrian-Swedish dictionary?

- I feel great love for the Assyrian language but everything depends on how much time I can put into this project. For me the immediate need has been the youth and therefore I have focused on a Swedish-Assyrian dictionary in the first place.

Now that you have done the hard work it seems like a possible mission to produce an English-Assyrian dictionary?

- You are right and I believe that it will happen. At the same time I also believe that the driving force behind such a project must burn for the Assyrian language almost to the limit of insanity, says Gabriel Afram with a twinkle in his eye.

Have you ever thought about using another language term than Assyrian for your dictionary?

- I have never thought about using another term, although I am very conscious about the name conflict among our people. This term has come from my strong conviction. I know that our language is called Syriac at universities and other institutions in the Western world. What I want to say is that if we can call our language Syriac then we can also call it Assyrian, because it is known in the world that the term Syriac is developed from Assyrian. If it is wrong to call the language Assyrian, then it is also wrong to call it Syriac, explains malfono Gabriel who draws a distinction between the Assyrian and the Aramaic language.

Regard the lack of knowledge in reading and writing in Assyrian among the Assyrian people, do you not see the danger in buying the dictionary only for the sake of the prestige?

- When we printed Touma Audo’s Assyrian dictionary in 1979 we sold many copies. It might be possible that it reached to people who had a greater love to the Assyrian language than me. However, I think that I made the biggest profit out of it, in the sense that it became my teaching master. It has not left my hands since the day we printed it. I do not believe that we can force the language on those who do not want to learn. It is always up to the one who is interested in learning the language to seek for the dictionary. Gabriel Afram takes a short break before he continues:

- I have taken a big step and filled out a big need, and often we see that success breeds success. My hope is that we will see a positive chain reaction that will lead to a further development of the Assyrian language.

During the interview malfono Gabriel calls attention to the Assyrian youth several times. Therefore I wondered how he felt when he received the distinction “The Assyrian of the year” from the Assyrian Youth Federation in Sweden:

- I felt and I am feeling especially proud because it was the Assyrian Youth Federation that gave me this distinction. It was them I had in my mind when I first started working on my dictionary. I could never have expected a better appreciation.

Along the distinction he also got 10 000 Swedish crowns (1400 dollars), which he choose to give to the Assyrian premier league soccer team in Sweden, Assyriska FF.

Malfono Gabriel’s 15 years long project has resulted in a revolutionary masterpiece and is a big step for the survival of the Assyrian language. However, the most urgent issue the Assyrian people face today is how to secure the Assyrian identity. The language is with no doubt essential for the ethnic identity. Yet, today the Assyrian people is constantly suffering in their homelands and as a result of that more and more are leaving their roots. In the light of malfono Gabriel’s great involvement in the Assyrian movement it was therefore interesting to hear about his opinions in this burning issue:

- We often say that our identity run the risk of obliterating in the Diaspora and off course there is such a risk. However, since we could not prevent the course of actions that caused the emigration of the Assyrian people, we need to look out for new solutions to our people’s exposure. We should not just see the Diaspora as something negative. Here we have got rights and been able to give the new generation the possibility to educate themselves. In Turkey, Syria, and Iraq our rights were limited and we were exposed to these countries fascistic policies. In many ways the emigration to the Diaspora saved our culture from dying out.

According to a research on ethnicity it takes only three generations for an ethnic group to assimilate in a new country. What do you think about that?

- If we take the Jewish people as an example; they have survived in Europe for almost two thousand years. I see many similarities between the Assyrians and the Jews. As an ethnic group we have as good chances to develop our selves. First, we have at least as rich culture as them. Second, the Jews have been exposed to a genocide in Germany and been persecuted in Russia. Thank God, this is something that we have been able to avoid in the Diaspora, however not in our homelands. Third, the world is getting smaller and the national borders are getting erased. Today, we can see our selves as world citizens, much thanks to the high technology that leads the corners of the earth closer to each other. Our radio consignments through internet and Suroyo TV are examples on how we can spread our language all around the world and create a feeling of an Assyrian identity.

How are the prospects for the Assyrian radio program Qolo?

- The aim with Qolo is that it will continue, because we do not want it to die with us. For that we need new fresh blood, and the technology of today gives me hope for radio Qolo’s further development. Malfono Gabriel gives a hint that his carrier as journalist at radio Qolo sooner or later is over:

- The journalist profession is very interesting but many times in life you need to choose what you want to give priority to. When I was in your age I thought I was immortal and that I would live for ever. Now I have reached a certain age when I see the years go by. Nowadays I feel that I have to do something to the aims I have before it is to late.

Malfono Gabriel might be a myth with his voice as a trademark, but his myth lives on and his voice echoes stronger than ever before. With his Swedish-Assyrian dictionary he has taken a big step for the survival of the Assyrian language. Who knows? Like Touma Audo’s dictionary inspired malfono Gabriel to produce a Swedish-Assyrian dictionary, his dictionary can breed a new language master who can further develop the Assyrian language.

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