The work has its exhilarating days, though, and few moved Khan more than his 2008 trip to the former Soviet republic of Georgia. He was in the capital of Tbilisi in search of Aramaic speakers from Salamas, a city in northwestern Iran. One wave of Assyrians fled Salamas after a Kurdish chieftain murdered a Church of the East patriarch there in 1918; another, after an earthquake a dozen years later.
In Tbilisi, people told Khan that all but three of the dialect’s “pure” speakers had died. At the first house, the man’s daughter apologized: Her father had recently suffered a stroke and was mute. At the second, an older woman lived with a quartet of energetic Rottweilers. “I took out my microphone and they just started howling and barking,” Khan recalled. “It was impossible.”
Finally, a local Assyrian escorted Khan one night into an imposing Soviet-era apartment block. At the top of a dark flight of stairs was a one-room apartment. A frail woman in her mid-90s answered the door.
Khan looked at her brittle physique and wondered how much she could handle. He told himself he would stay for just a few minutes. But when he got up to leave, the woman stretched a bony hand across the table and clasped his wrist.
“Biqir, Biqir,” she pleaded, in a small voice. (“Ask, ask.”)
“She literally grabbed onto me,” he said. “It was as if this was her last breath and she wanted to tell me everything.”
For two hours she hung on his wrist as his recorder filled with the sounds of a language in twilight.