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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 44.
- Review Date: 2008-06-23
- Reviewer: Staff
For his first 31 years Sabar considered his father, Yona, an embarrassing anachronism. “Ours was a clash of civilizations, writ small. He was ancient Kurdistan. I was 1980s L.A.” Yona was a UCLA professor whose passion was his native language, Aramaic. Ariel was an aspiring rock-and-roll drummer. The birth of Sabar’s own son in 2002 was a turning point, prompting Sabar to try to understand his father on his own terms. Readers can only be grateful to him for unearthing the history of a family, a people and a very different image of Iraq. Sabar vividly depicts daily life in the remote village of Zahko, where Muslims, Jews and Christians banded together to ensure prosperity and survival, and in Israel (after the Jews’ 1951 expulsion from Iraq), where Kurdish Jews were stereotyped as backward and simple. Sabar’s career as an investigative reporter at the Baltimore Sun and elsewhere serves him well, particularly in his attempt to track down his father’s oldest sister, who was kidnapped as an infant. Sabar offers something rare and precious—a tale of hope and continuity that can be passed on for generations. Photos. (Sept. 16)
Dreams from his father
Children think their world is the only world. As they try to fit in, they look to their parents for guidanceor for examples of what not to do. An immigrant parent can seem like an embarrassing oddball. Yona Sabar, a Kurdish Jew, is a respected, beloved linguistics professor at UCLA, but to his young son Ariel, he was a total geekcheap, ill-dressed, clueless. As a child, Ariel was disrespectful to Yona, and uninterested in his field of expertise, the study of the fading Middle Eastern language Aramaic.
Happily, most children grow into adults who appreciate their parents. Ariel, now a journalist, demonstrates his own love and newfound understanding in My Father's Paradise, a sensitive exploration of his father's migration from an isolated Kurdish village in northern Iraq to Israel and the U.S., countries where he has flourished materially but never really felt at home.
The book is part memoir, part journalism and part imaginative re-creation of the lost world of Kurdish Jews. In Ariel's telling, it was a kind of "Fiddler on the Roof" culture where everyone spoke Aramaic instead of Yiddish. The local Muslim tribal chief protected the Jews, and all was well. But all was not well elsewhere. The Iraqi government reacted to the creation of Israel by persecuting its own Jewish citizens, and Yona and his family were among thousands forced to emigrate. The Zionist homeland turned out to be anything but hospitable. In Israel's early days, Kurdish Jews were despised by many in the dominant European Jewish community. Yona moved on to the U.S. and has devoted his professional life to studying his boyhood language.
Ariel bases the first two-thirds of the book on his relatives' memories, most notably those of his grandmother, who emerges as a quiet heroine. The last third recounts a recent trip that Ariel and Yona made together back to Yona's boyhood village. The journey allows Ariel to see Yona for the first time in his natural contextand ultimately to realize how wise his father can be.
Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.