Michael L. Chyet, 46, has studied more than 30 languages, delving into the marvels of cultural and oral histories with the zeal of an explorer marching into uncharted territory. For the past 18 years, he has labored quietly but passionately to produce the most comprehensive Kurdish-English dictionary ever written.
In his 847-page volume, words are written in Roman and Arabic scripts but explained in English and illustrated with sentences from literary texts. The work, recently published by Yale University Press, will help diplomats, soldiers, relief workers and businessmen venturing into Iraq, Turkey, Iran and other parts of the world where Kurds have wandered and settled.
“My work has nothing to do with politics or governments,” he said. “I am worried about the future of this language, and I am hoping to help standardize it.
“I had a vision for Kurdish. Kurds are people who have internalized all the hatred against them for years. This is what drew me to the Kurds. As a Jew and a gay man, I identified. I love the language and I don’t want it to die. Kurdish is not dead, but it needs to be modernized. For many decades Turks failed to kill the language. Now we are at the point where Kurds will be responsible if it dies out.”
When Chyet was a child, he complained that school was boring, and his father, the late Stanley F. Chyet, a poet, historian and rabbi, became concerned. A psychologist suggested that the 6-year-old boy attend a private school where classes were taught in English and Hebrew.
When he was 12, he spent six weeks on vacation in Israel. When he returned home to Cincinnati, Chyet stumbled across a variety of books written in other languages in his attic. The books had once belonged to his grandfather and great uncles, who had immigrated to Boston from western Ukraine at the turn of the century. Within a year, he was reading German, Spanish, Yiddish and French and figuring out Russian. He then attended an Anglican church school to study Arabic.
Chyet returned to Israel and spent time on a kibbutz in 1976. He also visited Palestinian Christian villages.
At age 18, he read a description of a Kurdish folk dance, which opened up a new vista for him of a people and culture he had never known existed, he said.
In 1980, upon returning home, Chyet received a bachelor’s degree in Arabic from UCLA.
From 1980 to ’82 he lived in a Palestinian area as part of an intercultural project called Buds for Peace in which school principals, teachers and children interacted. During that time, over endless cups of coffee and tea, Chyet learned new Arabic expressions such as “your mother-in-law loves you,” a saying used to welcome a guest when fresh bread was just being ripped off the walls of an oven or a pungent stew was ready to serve, or just to point out a lucky coincidence.
For recreation, he went to a kibbutz to pursue his other hobby, folk dancing. There, he befriended Kurdish Jews who had emigrated from Iran. They spoke neo-Aramaic, which is neither Arabic nor Hebrew but has borrowings from Turkish and Kurdish. Aramaic is the language Jesus spoke.
In 1985, Chyet earned a master’s degree in Near Eastern Studies and Folklore from the University of California at Berkeley. His father and a professor encouraged him to pursue his interest in the Kurdish language: “My boy, this is virgin territory. You be the one to discover and explore the Kurdish language,” Chyet said he was told by Alan Dundes, a professor of anthropology and folklore at Berkeley.
“This has been the result,” Chyet said, pointing to his dictionary.
Sounds like what Ludo from The Last Samurai might have grown up to be, doesn’t he? Many thanks to Richard Buchholz for sending me the link. (And here’s hoping Yale puts out a paperback edition.)