From the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Dot-com crash, George Kiraz has consecrated his life to the promotion of the Syriac culture. With ecumenical repercussions

Posted on Oct 9, 2019

Interview by Martino Diez | OASIS, Christians and Muslims in the Modern World 

Image: Martino Diez and George Kiraz

Martino Diez and George Kiraz

Martino Diez – In the introduction to your New Syriac Primer you write that “Syriac can be a passion (or madness!), not just a language” (p. xx). Where does this passion come from?

George Kiraz – When I was a little child in Bethlehem, my father used to send my sisters and me to study Syriac with the local priest. And of course, kids don’t like to do extra-work in the summer… My father used to give us 2,5 qurūsh (piasters) as a weekly allowance for studying Syriac, with that sum you could just buy an ice cream! Later, however, my father told me that the priest had asked if I could join the gudo, the liturgical choir. This implied to learn more Syriac and that’s where the passion began. Of course everybody in the church was saying to me “good boy”, shātir, maybe this had also its weight at the beginning. Then the passion turned into madness.

MD – A madness which was to fully manifest itself in the US… 

GK – I finished high school in Beit Jala in 1983. Immediately after, I moved to Los Angeles with my mom, reaching my sister who was already living in the US. I attended college there: electrical engineering, so typical of Middle Eastern boys!

In 1984 I took my first computer programming course and I told my professor that I wanted to create a program to write Syriac. “It’s difficult,” he answered me, but two years later I eventually succeeded in developing a font with Multi-lingual scholar, a DOS-based program. We used to go to the Society of Biblical Literature to show the software and sell it to scholars, because it worked with Syriac, Arabic and Hebrew. And on one of these occasions I was invited to present the program to the Symposium Syriacum in Louvain, in Belgium. It was 1988 and I gave a talk at the conference. But more importantly, I met Sebastian Brock: I remember talking to him, explaining that I had been working on Syriac for the Church and the preservation of heritage, but I wanted to do it on an academic level. He invited me to apply to a program in Oxford and I got accepted. There was actually a misunderstanding about the timing, because I wanted to finish my bachelor first, but in the end I moved to Oxford in 1990 and I did the Master’s degree. My plan was to take just one year off, do my master’s degree, and then return back to the US and get a job as an engineer. But after a week I realized that I was going to stay, I liked it. And that was the point where everything flipped.

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