My Father’s Paradise: a Son’s Search for his his Family’s Past By Ariel Sabar, Reviewed by Luay Abdul-Ilah ,Algonquin Books, 2009. £9.99
American author Ariel Sabar traces his father’s life from its beginnings in an isolated Jewish community in Iraqi Kurdistan, through to his immigration to Israel and eventual settlement in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. It was here that his father, born Yona Sabagha, worked as a professor at UCLA and made a name for himself as a leading authority on New Aramaic. Growing up as a child of LA, Sabar was often embarrassed by his father’s foreign accent, frugality and lack of style – not to mention his obsession with a nearly dead language. With this book, the author finally embraces his father’s legacy and comes to terms with what it means to be a new parent himself. He writes: ‘A turning point was a chilly night in December 2002, when my wife gave birth to our first child, a boy with fi ne dark hair and eyes like softly burning lanterns. Would Seth break with me as I had with my own father? Would he, too, think he had nothing to learn and his father, nothing to teach?’ In order to unlock his father’s stories and place them in a wider sociopolitical context, Sabar interviewed relatives, family friends, scholars and anyone else who could shed light on the past. He researched extensively and visited significant settings in Iraq, Israel and across the US. In this way, Sabar combines history with fi ctional narrative, guiding the reader through 2000 years of Kurdish history. Beginning around 600 AD, the fi rst leg of this historical journey concludes in the 1950s, when 18,000 Jewish Kurds – including a 13-year-old Sabagha (the author’s father, Sabar was a name given to him by the Israeli register) – emigrated from their Iraqi homeland to the newly established Israel. Sabar recounts how life was for them, the oldest Jewish community in the Middle East, for thousands of years before the mass migration. ‘In the mountains, hundreds of miles from the religious fanaticism and nationalist movements of big cities, the Kurdish Jews faced almost none of the virulent anti Semitism that hounded Jews in Europe or even, to a far less extent, Baghdad. They went to work, prayed to a Jewish God, and spoke their own language without major disruption for some twenty- seven hundred years.’ He also points out that a spirit of religious tolerance existed across the entire region. ‘In Kurdistan, religions from Islam, Christianity, and Judaism to Sufi mysticism, Bahaism, and Yezidism flourished alongside one another, and extremism was rare.’ The second leg of the book’s journey follows Sabagha to his new home in Israel, where he worked temporary jobs and studied in the evening, while also watching the status of his family decline. After being awarded a scholarship to Yale, he moved first to New Haven where he met his now wife, and then to Los Angeles, where he worked as an academic and compiled a comprehensive dictionary of New Aramaic. The author attributes his father’s attachment to New Aramaic to the deep sense of loss he felt after leaving his hometown of Zakho for Israel. For his Kurdish peers, forgetting Aramaic and learning Hebrew was a way to survive in their new home, but for Sabagha, survival depended on staying connected to tradition and the past. As Sabar puts it: ‘[My father] sublimated homesickness into career.’ As he grows older, Sabar starts to make sense of his father’s ways and begins to appreciate him as many of his students and colleagues have done for so long. By preserving the language that was spoken by Jesus and the lingua franca of the Middle East for centuries, Sabagha built a bridge between the past and the present. In a similar way, his son has embarked on a journey to preserve the past by bringing it to life on the page, and in the imaginations of many in this captivating book.
Luay Abdulilah is an Iraqi novelist and short story writer. His latest novel, Comedy of Divine Love, was published in Damascus in 2008