Writing eloquently in Moment magazine (September/October 2008), Ariel Sabar charts his journey back to his Kurdish roots at the height of the Iraqi insurgency - a journey described in his new book, My Father's Paradise.
"I was a son of Los Angeles, a skateboarder in Bermuda shorts and sun-glasses. He was a son of Zakho, Iraq, raised in a mud shack in one of the world’s oldest and most isolated corners of the diaspora. We quarreled. I lied to friends about his heritage, mortified that he was from a part of the world many associated with hostage crises and fanatical ayatollahs. At some point, as a teenager, I even stopped calling him abba [dad]. He was just “Yona.” He was the odd-looking, funny-talking man with strange grooming habits who lived with us and who may or may not have been my father, depending on who was asking.
"After the birth of my own son in 2002, though, I began to consider my debts to history. I saw that I didn’t spring into existence fully formed but had come from somewhere, and from someone, just as my son Seth had. I began to feel the past’s tug—its gravity—more forcefully than ever before.
"If I wanted to understand my father, I knew I had to travel with him to his childhood home. I had to see the place that had made him: the house where he grew up, the market stall where his grandfather dyed clothes, the roaring river where he swam races with the other Jewish boys, the synagogue where he was bar mitzvahed, the cool, pure water of the Habur River he still dreamed about.
"But my father saw my proposal to travel to Iraq as frighteningly detached from reality.
"For a year, he had tried to talk me out of it. First, he insisted, the Zakho of his day—the houses, the people—was long gone. Second, I could get a fine picture of the city from interviews with Kurdish Jews who had left a half century ago and were now living in Israel. And third, the height of the insurgency wasn’t the ideal time for a sentimental journey to Iraq by two American Jews, one of whose names sounded a good deal like Ariel Sharon’s.
"He had me on the last one. The summer of 2005 was one of the Iraqi insurgency’s bloodiest stretches, with 400 people killed over a single two-week period. True, life was quieter in northern Iraq. The world’s 25 million Kurds live in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria, and have long dreamed of an independent state of Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurds suffered terribly under Saddam Hussein, most notorously in 1988, when 5,000 were gassed in the town of Halabja. But, under an American-imposed no-fly zone since the first Persian Gulf War, the Kurds prospered, and they escaped much of the violence that bedeviled the rest of Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Still, tensions were high at the Iraqi-Turkish border. Turkish guards were on alert for Kurdish separatists, and to reach Zakho, we would have to drive through an area where rebels and Turkish troops had recently clashed.
"I was aware of the risks. But with my father’s advancing age, I thought that if we didn’t go that summer, we never would.
"I knew that my father saw Zakho as a kind of paradise of religious pluralism, where for hundreds of years Muslims, Jews and Christians had lived together in peace. “What do we have to fear?” I asked, playing to his nostalgia. But in the end, it was something else that moved him.
“I can’t let you go alone,” he said. “God forbid anything should happen to you.”
"Yona Sabar was born into a community that defied every Jewish stereotype. The Jews of Kurdistan lived not in cities but in remote mountains. They were not primarily merchants and shopkeepers but lumberjacks, farmers and muleteers. They spoke neither Yiddish nor the local tongue, but Aramaic. While their brethren in Europe suffered centuries of persecution and the Holocaust, they were largely unmolested.
“Such Jews!” the Jewish-American professor Walter Fischel wrote after visiting Kurdistan in the 1940s. “Men virile and wild-looking; women wearing embroidered turbans, earrings, bracelets, even nose-rings, and with symbols tattooed into their faces—our brethren and sisters!”
Contrary to popular belief, Kurdistan—not Babylonia—was the birthplace of the Jewish diaspora. According to the Second Book of Kings, the Assyrian king who banished Jews from northern Israel, or Samaria, in the 8th century B.C.E. marched them across the desert to “Halah, in Gozan on the Habor River and in the towns of the Medes.”
"Translation: He deported the Israelites to Kurdistan. Scholars generally agree that the Habor River of the Bible is none other than the Habur that rings Zakho, my father’s hometown, before flowing into Syria. Gozan is modern-day Tell-Halaf, Syria, a prehistoric pottery-making city 150 miles to Zakho’s west. The Medes lived in northwestern Iran. And Halah, some believe, is Nineveh, just across the Tigris River from Mosul.
"It was not until some 140 years later that Judeans, from southern Israel, were exiled to Babylonia, an area that today is central Iraq. At the crossroads of Mesopotamian civilization, these Jews would leave a well-known legacy: They would write the Talmud, create a worldwide hub of rabbinical activity and erect major synagogues and yeshivas. They would eventually trade Aramaic for the Arabic of their Muslim neighbors and rise to the highest circles of Iraqi business and government.
"The Samarian Israelites, by contrast, settled in villages scattered across remote Kurdish mountains, largely cut off from one another and from the crosswinds of civilization. The Bible reserves no poetry for their exile. The Israelites, says Isaiah 27:13, were simply “lost” in Assyria. In some translations, the word “lost” is rendered, more darkly, as “perished.” The Babylonian Talmud, drafted just a few hundred miles to the south, makes scant mention of the Kurdish Jews. So little was heard from them in Palestine, where a few Jews had returned from exile, and in Babylonia, that they were dubbed the “Lost Tribes” and consigned to the realm of fable.
"They did not reappear to the world until the rise of Arab nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s made Jewish life increasingly precarious in once tolerant Islamic lands. From 1948 to 1951, virtually all 25,000 Kurdish Jews—some 18,000 from Iraq, the rest from Iran, Syria and Turkey—joined the mass exodus of Middle Eastern Jews to the new state of Israel.
"Israel’s second president, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, cast the Kurdish Jews as living relics, time travelers from the ancient past. In his writings in the 1950s, he rhapsodized about a “forlorn Jewish tribe” of “hardy mountaineers,” who “may well be regarded as a faint shadow of the Jewish people as it was at the end of the period of the First Temple.”
"Moreover, they were beefy and ready to work—just the sort of immigrants the young state needed to throw up new buildings and till the land. No nebbishes, these Jews. “There is no justification for keeping them in immigrant or even transit camps at a time when the barren hills of western Galilee...and the expanses of the Negev await eager hands,” Ben-Zvi pronounced.
"But most Israelis didn’t share Ben-Zvi’s romantic vision. At the bottom of Israel’s ethnic totem pole, Kurds were warehoused in cheaply built housing projects in the Katamonim section of Jerusalem, where they struggled against poverty and discrimination. In the minds of many of Israel’s European-born leaders, they were hillbillies, uneducated and unwashed.
"The Kurdish Jews watched their culture and language slip into near oblivion. “A Jew from Eastern Europe is worth twice as much as a Jew from Kurdistan,” proclaimed Nahum Goldmann, a Lithuanian who rose in the 1950s to the presidency of the World Zionist Organization and chairman’s seat at the Jewish Agency. In Israel, then as now, the word “Kurd” is as much a putdown as an ethnic label. To call someone a “Kurd” is to brand him a halfwit.
"My father was the eldest of six children and the last bar mitzvah in Zakho before the exodus. Israel was not easy for my father’s parents. My grandfather had been a successful shopkeeper in northern Iraq but lost nearly all his status and wealth in Jerusalem. My grandmother, whose native tongue was Aramaic, never had formal schooling. Flummoxed by price tags and Hebrew product labels, she scarcely left the family’s overcrowded apartment. When she did, it was usually to clean the homes of professors in the city’s wealthy Rehavia neighborhood. My father went to a night high school so he could work during the day at a cement factory.
"But while many Kurds of his generation came to see their past as a millstone, my father never stopped longing for the lost paradise of his childhood. While cleaning old bags at his job, he let the sounds of Aramaic swirl in his head. He inscribed words—as best as he could remember—on scraps of paper."
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Ariel Sabar will be signing his book at Kepler's Books on October 7 at 7:30 pm at 1010 El Camino Real Melo Park, CA 94025, and at Readers Books on October 6 at 7:30 pm at 130 E. Napa St, Sonoma, CA 95476.
Son's memoir recalls father's life in Kurdistan
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