JAMES MAY

A Hymn in Aramaic

Noël Farman’s dialect of sorrow, loss and faith

By Marcello Di Cintio

Noël Farman performs a rite born in ancient Babylon and sung in the language of Jesus Christ. Farman is a Chaldean Catholic priest. The Chaldean Order, originally known as the Church of the East, dates back to 4th century Mesopotamia. The Church split from the mother church in Rome during the 5th century but reentered into communion with Catholicism and was renamed the Chaldean Church in 1552. The Church answers to the Vatican but remains centred in Baghdad and maintains its own liturgical rites and cultural traditions. Chaldeans celebrate mass in Aramaic, for example, and accept married men as priests. Farman himself has a wife and three children. Today, there are 1.5 million Chaldean Christians scattered around the world.

I joined the Chaldean Catholic parishioners at St. James Church in Calgary for their Sunday evening service. The ceremony began when Farman appeared at the front of the church and the congregation rose to sing an opening hymn. Though no longer a believer, I was raised Catholic and recognize the structure of the liturgy—Catholicism is a tattoo—but my childhood church did not prepare me for this aural beauty. My Catholicism never sounded like this. The Chaldeans sang together in Aramaic and seemed to draw collective breath from some distant, Eastern elsewhere. The voices chanted minor chords that drew arabesques through the aroma of frankincense and women’s perfume hanging in the nave. At the altar, Farman stood and faced the hanging crucifix, occasionally turning to the congregation and using his hands to encourage them.

Noël Farman told me about his life as we sipped Turkish coffee in his downtown presbytery. He was born in Isnoah in 1952, the same village in northern Iraq where members of the Chaldean faith believe the Ark of Noah eventually landed. His family moved to Mosul when he was two years old. A decade later, Noël enrolled in a seminary school run by French Dominican fathers. There he embraced the French language and culture, and became a man of faith. But Farman did not rush into the priesthood. “I decided I would like to have a Christian mission as a layman,” he said. 

When he finished school, a bishop friend sent him to Italy, where he worked within the Focolare Movement, a lay organization that attempts to create greater unity among Catholics and various other Christian denominations, and seeks connections with followers of other faiths. Later Farman was employed as a translator and, for three years, as a tour guide leading groups of travellers on religious and cultural journeys through 20 countries in Europe and the Middle East.

Farman returned to Iraq and trained as a journalist with the Dominican Fathers. The Dominicans appointed Farman as the assistant editor-in-chief of the Arabic-language magazine Christian Thought, where he worked for 10 years. Farman also freelanced for Alef-Baa, the leading culture and issues magazine in Iraq. He wrote predominantly about religious topics for both magazines, but maintained a wide focus. Farman reported on the election of the first Christian patriarchate in Iraq, for example, and examined monastic life. He wrote about Mother Teresa and reviewed European cinema with religious themes. In 2000 the International Catholic Media Organization elected him its Middle East vice-president. “It was like a new seminary for me,” Farman said. “My pen was baptized for writing.”

But a young man living in Iraq during the 1980s faced other obligations. Even a man of God is pressed, on occasion, to answer the earthly demands of violent men. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, Farman was forced to serve in Saddam Hussein’s army. Farman’s skills with language kept him out of combat. Instead he translated for military engineers working on the bases and for six months guarded an Iranian border town called Qasr-e Shirin that the Iraqi army had occupied. He never experienced the trench warfare, the horrors of which echoed the First World War. Farman barely spoke to me of his time as a soldier. I sensed that very little of the man he became was forged during his few months of reluctant service in someone else’s war.

Farman returned to journalism after the war and became a deacon in Baghdad in 2000. The position allowed him to serve communion, to preach and to administer the sacraments to the sick and dying. After four years, however, members of his parish pressured him to become a priest. After serving the Catholic community for years as a layman and as a journalist, Farman was ready to lead a congregation. He returned to his original church in northern Iraq and was ordained by the Chaldean archbishop four days after Christmas in 2004—an auspicious time of year for a man named Noël.

Peace is an elusive and fragile notion for these Iraqi Christians. It is little wonder they grasp it tenderly.

When the opening hymn ended, Farman gestured for the congregation to sit, but he continued to sing. Almost the entire Chaldean ritual is conducted in song; even the Gospel is sung rather than read. The Aramaic end-vowels lend a natural music to the language, and Farman’s skilled voice lends it art. Farman is one of fewer than 10 Chaldean priests qualified by the Order to sing the Aramaic mass. Acolytes to the faith around the world learn the music of the service by listening to recordings of Farman saying mass and singing hymns.

Farman’s parents taught him to sing when he was a boy—both had beautiful voices—but a family tragedy strained his early associations with song. When he was six years old, Farman’s infant brother died. He does not recall how; he remembers only that his brother was “a very beautiful honey baby.” Farman’s parents mourned their son’s death with long, doleful chants, and young Noël learned to associate music with his parents’ pain, particularly his mother’s. For years afterward, Farman fled the room each time she began to sing. He assumed her songs were laments for his brother, and Farman didn’t like to hear them. Only much later did he realize that music could be joyful. “Until I was 12 years old, I was thinking that singing was to cry.”

Mournful singing distinguishes the religions of the Middle East. Chaldeans place great importance on observing the Stations of the Cross, Christ’s long walk to crucifixion, and they lament his ordeal through sorrowful requiem. Shiite Muslims observe the bloody martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, Mohammed’s grandson and the third Shia imam, with dirges. And both of these “passions” originate from the ancient Babylonian cult of mourning for the god Tamuz. “As Iraqis, we are altogether influenced by the spirit of mourning,” Farman told me.

Midway through the Chaldean mass, Farman pressed his palms together and offered a sign of peace to his deacons. He approached each of them and gently embraced their clasped hands within his own. The deacons then stepped into the nave, walked to the person at the end of each pew and offered him or her the same brief caress. The parishioners turned and passed the offering, hand to hand, down the row. The Chaldean “peace offering” has a different intimacy than the handshakes of Roman Catholics, but peace is a more elusive and fragile notion for these Iraqi Christians. It is little wonder they grasp it tenderly.

By the time Farman was ordained, the Hussein regime had fallen, the battle against the US-led invasion had degraded into a civil war and the country was on fire. With Saddam’s predominantly secular dictatorship gone, sectarian militias emerged and clawed at each other for power. Farman blames much of this violence on the US policy that supported the formation of sectarian parties that divided Iraqis along religious lines. The strategy of the US, Farman believes, was to avoid terrorism against Americans by giving the jihadist militias local enemies to slaughter. “They encouraged the instinct to kill. The instinct to avenge. The instinct to dominate,” Farman said.

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Iraq’s Christians, who had enjoyed relative peace under Saddam and good relations with their Muslim neighbours, were suddenly perceived as infidels. Extremists threatened Christians with kidnappings, robbery and murder. A few months before Farman was ordained, terrorists launched a coordinated bombing attack on five Iraqi churches. Eleven people were killed. That autumn, 30,000 Iraqi Christians fled Iraq, but the pogroms continued. Militias kidnapped and beheaded priests, forced female university students to wear the hijab and declared that Christians must convert to Islam or leave town. Fearing for his family, Farman sought an appointment to a parish outside of Iraq. Church leaders told him about opportunities in Canada. Farman’s family waited for their visa applications to be processed while trying to remain safe and inconspicuous. By the time Farman arrived in Saskatchewan in 2006, more than half of Iraq’s one million Christians had already fled.

A priest of Farman’s credentials turned out to be in high demand on the Canadian prairies. Calgary’s 110 Chaldean families needed a priest, as did the Chaldean community in Saskatoon, and La Paroisse Sainte-Famille, Calgary’s francophone Roman Catholic parish, also required a pastor. Farman decided to serve them all. He and his family moved into the Sainte-Famille presbytery and for eight months Farman celebrated mass in French on Sunday mornings at Sainte-Famille, in Aramaic on Sunday evenings at St. James and flew to Saskatoon every other Sunday to serve the Chaldean congregation there.

“It was a miracle for me,” he said. “I ask myself, ‘How was I able to do all that service at one time?’” Farman arrived late only once—and by less than an hour—when WestJet cancelled his flight and he had to rush to find a seat on Air Canada. The Chaldean archbishop found another priest for Farman’s Saskatoon parish in 2009, thus lightening the clerical load, but Farman continues to celebrate two masses, with different languages and liturgies, every Sunday. The congregation at Saint Famille refer to Farman as Abbé rather than the customary Père lest he be confused with Santa Claus—though Farman does wear his red vestments at Christmas and hands out presents after mass.

Farman and his family became Canadian citizens in 2010. “Canada is the best country for me,” he said. “I notice it frankly, and with proudness as a Canadian, that Canada is the country most open to other cultures.” He admires the Canadian commitment to religious tolerance and cultural pluralism.

He hopes to contribute to this richness through his command of language. As a native speaker of the dialect of Christ, Farman reveals to his congregations the linguistic poetry of their scripture. He teaches his parishioners that the Aramaic word for “Peter” and “rock” are the same, and so when Jesus asked Peter to be the rock upon which to build his church, he was making a pun. Farman teaches that his own name, Noël, is not merely “Christmas” in French, but an abbreviation of the Aramaic word “Emmanuel,” meaning “god with us.” He teaches that “alleluia” was not a word at all—at least not originally—but the sound joyful Arab women make when they ululate. And each year on Holy Thursday, the observance of the first “Last Supper,” Farman sings the words of consecration in ancient Aramaic, “in the very words of Jesus Christ.” The sacred whispers of an ancient Passover meal are the gifts Farman bestows on his congregation.

Farman stepped forward with his CIBORIUM of holy wafers. As the congregation filed forward, I slipped out of the Communion line to watch from the back of the church. For the first time during the mass, no songs were sung. The sanctuary was silent aside from the shuffle of parishioners and the amen—from the Aramaic word for “indeed”—whispered by each as they received the Eucharist.

Months earlier, in Baghdad, gunfire and screams shattered this consecrated silence. Members of an al-Qaeda affiliate stormed Our Lady of Salvation church in October 2010. The terrorists massacred nearly 60 people, most of them Chaldean worshippers, with gunfire, grenades and, ultimately, suicide vests. In the months that followed, the group responsible for the bloodbath declared all Iraqi Christians “legitimate targets,” Kirkuk’s Chaldean archbishop cancelled Christmas celebrations—and in Calgary two Muslim women contacted St. James church to seek an audience with Noël Farman.

The three transplanted Iraqis would finally meet the following spring. The women, a mother and her university-aged daughter, joined Farman one morning at the Sainte-Famille presbytery. “They came to express their condolences regarding the massacre,” Farman told me. Both women were devout Muslims and both wore the veil, but the daughter sang in a Christian church choir because she loved to sing. “They are open,” Farman told me. They sat and talked together for two hours. “There was nothing different between us,” he said. “We spoke about traditions. About food. About having an everyday life in common.”

Farman and the women shared language in common too, and not just the colloquial Arabic they spoke in Iraq. All three spoke the Mesopotamian dialect of sorrow and loss. And they spoke sincerely. This was no act of starched diplomacy. There was no photo op or camera crew or stiff handshakes for the evening news. It was, instead, an intimate passing of peace from hand to hand. A conflict between armies and militias, sects and politics, was distilled at Farman’s dining room table into an expression of the sadness of three people who refuse to grant victory to men with guns. And it occurred quietly on a spring morning while the rest of the city carried on oblivious to the grace blossoming at its centre.

Marcello Di Cintio is the author of three books, including In the Shadow of the Wall (Goose Lane, 2012). He lives in Calgary.

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