My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq

My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq

by Ariel Sabar
     
 


In a remote corner of the world, forgotten for nearly three thousand years, lived an enclave of Kurdish Jews so isolated that they still spoke Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Mostly illiterate, they were self-made mystics and gifted storytellers and humble peddlers who dwelt in harmony with their Muslim and Christian neighbors in the mountains of northern Iraq. To… See more details below

Overview


In a remote corner of the world, forgotten for nearly three thousand years, lived an enclave of Kurdish Jews so isolated that they still spoke Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Mostly illiterate, they were self-made mystics and gifted storytellers and humble peddlers who dwelt in harmony with their Muslim and Christian neighbors in the mountains of northern Iraq. To these descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, Yona Sabar was born. 

Yona's son Ariel grew up in Los Angeles, where Yona had become an esteemed professor, dedicating his career to preserving his people’s traditions. Ariel wanted nothing to do with his father’s strange immigrant heritage—until he had a son of his own.

Ariel Sabar brings to life the ancient town of Zakho, discovering his family’s place in the sweeping saga of Middle-Eastern history. This powerful book is an improbable story of tolerance and hope set in what today is the very center of the world’s attention.

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Editorial Reviews

The Providence (RI) Journal
"Excellent…A compelling read…Told with novelistic attention to narrative and detail, but its heart is Ariel's heart, that of a son searching with love for the meaning of his relationship with his father.” —The Providence (RI) Journal

San Francisco Chronicle
"A powerful story of the meaning of family and tradition inside a little-known culture." —San Francisco Chronicle

The Washington Post Book World

"If Ariel Sabar's My Father's Paradise were only about his father's life, it would be a remarkable enough story about the psychic costs of immigration. But Sabar's family history turns out to be more than the chronicle of one man's efforts to retain something of his homeland in new surroundings. It's also a moving story about the near-death of an ancient language and the tiny flicker of life that remains in it. . . . The chapters describing Yona's budding success as a linguist are thrilling."– Washington Post Book World

From the Publisher

"Excellent…A compelling read…Told with novelistic attention to narrative and detail, but its heart is Ariel's heart, that of a son searching with love for the meaning of his relationship with his father.” —The Providence (RI) Journal

"A powerful story of the meaning of family and tradition inside a little-known culture." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Remarkable...A moving story about the near-death of an ancient language and the tiny flicker of life that remains in it." —The Washington Post Book World

"Voices like Susan Hand Shetterly's are soothing . . . Shetterly puts a hand on your forearm and says, come walk along the Maine coast. Let's consider other species, eels and hummingbirds." –The Los Angeles Times

New York Times Book Review

"Graceful and resonant . . . A personal undertaking for a son who admits he never understood his unassuming, penny-pinching immigrant father, a man who spent three decades obsessively cataloging the words of his moribund mother tongue. Sabar once looked at his father with shame, scornful of the alien who still bore scars on his back from childhood bloodlettings. This book, he writes, is a chance to make amends"– New York Times Sunday Book Review
Washington Post Book World
"If Ariel Sabar's My Father's Paradise were only about his father's life, it would be a remarkable enough story about the psychic costs of immigration. But Sabar's family history turns out to be more than the chronicle of one man's efforts to retain something of his homeland in new surroundings. It's also a moving story about the near-death of an ancient language and the tiny flicker of life that remains in it. . . . The chapters describing Yona's budding success as a linguist are thrilling."– Washington Post Book World

Christian Science Monitor

"A wonderful, enlightening journey, a voyage with the power to move readers deeply even as it stretches across differences of culture, family, and memory." – Christian Science Monitor
Philadelphia Inquirer

A "remarkable new memoir" – Philadelphia Inquirer
Roanoke Times
"Be forewarned: you will lose sleep over this book. . . . [Sabar] mesmerizes with the very first sentences. . . . Unlike many memoirs flooding the book market these days, My Father’s Paradise is both unique and universal.” – Roanoke (Va.) Times
Elle Magazine

A "thoughtful, touching book. . . . A never-ending parade of colorful characters . . .I could not read quickly enough as the Sabars worked to resurrect the past." – Elle magazine, Readers' Prize selection, October 2008
BookPage

"A sensitive exploration . . . [Sabar's grandmother] emerges as a quiet heroine." – BookPage
The Los Angeles Times

"Be forewarned: you will lose sleep over this book. . . . [Sabar] mesmerizes with the very first sentences. . . . Unlike many memoirs flooding the book market these days, My Father’s Paradise is both unique and universal.” – Roanoke (Va.) Times
Gal Beckerman
My Father's Paradise is a personal undertaking for a son who admits he never understood his unassuming, penny-pinching immigrant father, a man who spent three decades obsessively cataloging the words of his moribund mother tongue. Sabar once looked at his father with shame, scornful of the alien who still bore scars on his back from childhood bloodlettings. This book, he writes, is a chance to make amends.
—The New York Times
Donna Rifkind
If Ariel Sabar's My Father's Paradise were only about his father's life, it would be a remarkable enough story about the psychic costs of immigration. But Sabar's family history turns out to be more than the chronicle of one man's efforts to retain something of his homeland in new surroundings. It's also a moving story about the near-death of an ancient language and the tiny flicker of life that remains in it…The chapters describing Yona's budding success as a linguist are thrilling, as both he and his professors recognized that as a speaker of Aramaic he was a living repository of an endangered tongue.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

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)

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Library Journal

Sabar, a former political reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, grew up as a typical California kid. His father, a Kurdish Jew, is the foremost scholar of Aramaic, the language of Jesus, which most people think is extinct. The disconnect between his present and his past launched Sabar on a quest to understand the history of Kurdish Jews, who spent 2000 years in northern Iraq until the 1950s, when most of them emigrated to Israel. Interweaving the community's history with his family's stories, Sabar tells of his visits to Iraq and Israel to trace his father's journey from an isolated Kurdish village to UCLA, where at one point he provides Aramaic dialog for The X-Files. Although Sabar ultimately fails to discover the fate of his father's sister, who was kidnapped from their village in the 1930s, he does begin to understand his responsibility to his ancestry. Throughout the narrative, he focuses on identity and community and this central question: "When we carry our languages and stories from one generation to the next, from one country to another, what exactly do we gain?" Written with a reporter's flair for people and places, this is recommended for public libraries.
—Diane Harvey

Kirkus Reviews
In a filial salute and show of contrition, D.C.-based journalist Sabar recounts his family's unusual history, reaching back to times before the Bible. The author's remarkable father, Yona, was born in remote Zakho, a dusty, isolated village not far from Mosul. The Jews of Kurdish Iraq, believed to be descended from one of the lost tribes of the Babylonian exile, were the last people to speak a form of Aramaic, the language of Jesus and lingua franca of much of the ancient world. In the 1950s, they emigrated en masse to Israel, where Yona and his family, with their strange costumes, customs and language, found themselves at the bottom of the ethnic and economic hierarchy. Unfolding the tale of their assimilation with the novelistic skill of a Levantine storyteller, Sabar traces his father's journey from poverty to professorship. Yona's diaspora story began with the end of Iraq Jewry, continued through scholarship in Jerusalem to a teaching post at Yale and reached fulfillment in a distinguished academic career at UCLA and the compilation of an Aramaic dictionary. A generational and cultural gap divided the immigrant father from the cool son who cared little for his heritage. Then, prompted by the birth of his own son, Sabar began to investigate his family's past. Eventually he and Yona visited a vastly altered Zakho, a town without Jews that now boasts a cybercafe. Describing their pilgrimage and the history that preceded it, the author spins a colorful tale inhabited by wonderful characters in billowing trousers and turbans. The distance between father and son is bridged as Sabar explores the conflicting demands of love and tradition, the burdens and blessings of an ancient cultureencountering the 21st century. A well-researched text falling somewhere between journalism and memoir, sustained by Mesopotamian imagination. Agent: Andrew Blauner/Blauner Books Literary Agency

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781565124905
Publisher:
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
09/16/2008
Pages:
325
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Taut and extravagant. A sweeping saga with the cadence of a Biblical tale."– Daniel Asa Rose, author of Hiding Places: A Father and his Sons Retrace Their Family's Escape from the Holocaust

"An enchanting combination of history, family and discovery – Ariel Sabar's chronicle of his journey is flat out wonderful." –Rabbi David Wolpe, author of Why Faith Matters

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