While preparing his thesis on the rise of nationalist thinking among a rarely studied Middle Eastern Christian minority group who speak Syriac as a common language, Raid Gharib, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tübingen, happened upon a catalog of Syriac and other language sources, The Assyrian Experience: sources for the study of the 19th and 20th centuries, edited by historian Eden Naby and Harvard College Library’s Michael Hopper, head of the Middle Eastern Division.
Using Naby and Hopper’s book as a guide, Gharib began assembling a list of research materials, but quickly discovered that most of them – including about 90 periodicals and dozens of books – are only available at Harvard’s Widener Library. The solution, he decided, was to travel to Cambridge to conduct his research.
Before coming to Cambridge, Gharib contacted Hopper via email with the list of items he hoped to study. Hopper was able to pull many of the items before Gharib arrived in early August, along with others that might be useful to his research. Hopper also arranged for Gharib to have access to the Gibb Islamic Seminar Library, a quiet space used by faculty and students in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations located near the Middle Eastern Division collection.
“When I arrived here, I found Michael had prepared material for me that wasn’t even on my list,” he said. “I am very much indebted to Michael and his team for doing everything to make my studies here very comfortable and very successful.”
Often called Assyrians, Arameans, or Chaldeans, the Syriac-speaking people are an ancient Christian group with roots in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. Following World War I, a plan was in place to create an autonomous region for the Syriac-speaking population, but the plan collapsed due to the lack of political power and backing from the Great Powers. Without a homeland to bind the population together, Gharib said, the result was a scattered people around the world. With no unifying national identify, the community is today fractured, with no single leader to represent the population or preserve the culture.
While Gharib’s stay at Harvard recently ended, Hopper hopes his involvement with the library will continue – as a source of materials on the Syriac-speaking people.
“Collecting literature by or about the Assyrians is challenging. Because they have such a large diaspora, materials about them can come from almost anywhere—Sweden, England, Germany, Australia, or U.S. cities like Chicago and Turlock, California, in addition to the long-existing communities in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria,” Hopper said. “Much of it is self-published or contained in family papers, and has to be acquired through personal contacts rather than from commercial vendors. We hope Raid will now be a contact for us in acquiring materials from the various Syriac-speaking communities in Germany.”