Here's another take on My father’s Paradise: a son’s search for his family’s past by Ariel Sabar (Paperback £8.99, McGonquin) - this time reviewed in The Sephardi Bulletin by Lyn Julius.
For years, Ariel Sabar took no interest in his father. Although a professor of Aramaic at a Californian university, Yona Sabar was everything his all-American son Ariel was not. “ Ours was a clash of civilisations,” Ariel writes in ”My father’s Paradise”. Yona was decidely ‘uncool’ - he wore cheap clothes and scribbled cryptic notations, while his son skateboarded in his bermuda shorts and flirted with ‘shiksas’. The father was a modest compromiser, the son an arrogant go-getter.
It was only when Ariel’s own son was born that the realisation dawned on Ariel– he was but a link in a millennial chain of Kurdish Jews, with a special responsibliity to pass on a unique identity and heritage to subsequent generations.
The book is the story of Yona Sabar from his humble beginnings in Zakho, a nondescript town in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, not far from the Turkish border. There the Jews comprised less than half of one percent of the population. They engaged in un-Jewish occupations like lumberjacking and rafting. They were pious, but until Yona’s generation, illiterate and poor. They were also different from the Jews further south: they still spoke the ancient tongue of Aramaic, not Arabic.
In this ‘paradise’ Ariel admits that the local Jews had to do the bidding of the aghas of warring tribes. They had to pay a fee for marriage and volunteer their labour. (The author seems to believe that which others would call extortion and slave-labour were ‘not too high a price to pay for freedom of trade and religion.’)
Following harassment and persecution in 1948 when Israel was born, Yona and his entire community were uprooted along with the 18,000 other Iraqi Kurdish Jews – 25,000 if you include Kurdish Jews from Turkey and Iran – and transplanted to Israel.
The welcome was gruff and the Kurdish Jews were despised twice over – once by their more sophisticated brethren from Baghdad, who thought of Kurds and stupid and backward – and again by European Jews in Israel. Kurds in Israel were shamed into hiding their origins.
In spite of his trendy Israel-bashing, however, Ariel admits that the next generation seized the opportunities that Israel offered to better themselves. These “opportunities were won”, he writes almost wistfully,” while cultures were lost”.
Yet it was the European scholars of the Hebrew University who gave Yona his lucky break and, ultimately, his livelihood: encouraging him to become an academic specialist in the dying language of neo-Aramaic by recording the vocabulary and speech patterns of his own family.
Israel’s Ben Zvi institute awarded Yona a research grant. He took his specialism to Yale and then to UCLA. There, incongruously, he was a consultant in Aramaic for Hollywood producers making films about the life of Jesus. Thus, he ‘sublimated homesickness into a career’.
This prize-winning book is stylishly written and well researched – Ariel cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter. The reader is spellbound when father and son decide to return to Zakho after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. But Ariel irritates with his cloying nostalgia for Zakho ‘where cultures could braid without blurring.’ Yona appears to have done a better job of coming to terms with a vanished Zakho than his own son.
A past ‘ where Muslims, Christians and Jews looked after one another’ might have been a cruel delusion to Yona’s mother Miriam, whose eldest baby Rifka was abducted by her Muslim wetnurse, never to be seen again. Ariel’s Californian enthusiasm for a mythical multicultural past survives undimmed in spite of his feverish and risky attempts to look for his lost aunt. If the choice is between retaining an exotic culture and a safe and predictable future, I would choose safety and predictablity any day.
Jewish Chronicle review