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

Yona Sabar, a professor at UCLA, is an eminent scholar of Neo-Aramaic, the heroic rescuer of a language near extinction, and the sort of mensch who prompts rapturous reviews and fierce admiration from his students. But to his son Ariel, growing up among the privileged offspring of Los Angeles’s moneyed set, Yona — a Kurdish Jew born in Zakho, Iraq, who emigrated to Israel and, ultimately, the United States — was a source of shame and an object of ridicule, an immigrant with funny hair, a funny accent, and funny habits. In a flashy world of fast cars, rock ‘n’ roll, and Hollywood glitz, Yona drove a dented Chevette, cut his own hair, wore ugly discount clothing, and further mortified his son by, say, bringing his own travel shampoo bottle of Manischewitz Cream White Concord into restaurants because paying $3 for a glass of wine off the menu was “out of the question.”

“Ours was a clash of civilizations, writ small,” Ariel Sabar writes in the delicately calibrated, determinedly reported and unflinchingly candid My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq. “He was ancient Kurdistan. I was 1980s L.A. He grew up in a dusty town in northern Iraq, in a crowded mud-brick shack without electricity or plumbing. I grew up in a white stucco ranch house in West Los Angeles, on a leafy street made safe by private police cruisers marked BEL-AIR PATROL.”

Yet when Sabar’s own son, Seth, was born, in 2002, and focused on him a look that seemed to ask, “Who are you?” Sabar, who is currently covering the U.S. presidential campaigns for the Christian Science Monitor, did what any journalist would do: He picked up his reporter’s notebook and started asking questions.

Speaking with his father’s relatives and friends, listening to his father’s stories with an attention that was genuinely avid and completely new, digging deep and reading up, Sabar reconstructs his father’s roots and traces his life. In doing so, Sabar begins to understand not only where he comes from but who he is and who he hopes to be. He also finds that he and his father have more in common than he ever imagined. And opens his readers’ eyes to a culture that they may never have known existed.

“His people, the Jews of Kurdistan, were the world’s oldest Jewish diaspora,” Sabar writes of his father’s family. “Earthy, hardworking, and deeply superstitious, they had lived in isolated mountain villages alongside Muslim Kurds for nearly 2,700 years but never abandoned their ancient tongue: Aramaic. Aramaic had been the lingua franca, or common language, of the Near East for two thousand years. Jesus spoke it. Parts of the Bible were inked in it. Three Mesopotamian empires used it as their official language. But by the time of my father’s birth, in 1938, it was all but dead. After Islamic armies conquered the region in the seventh century, Middle Eastern Jews switched to the Arabic of their Muslim neighbors. Aramaic clung to life in just one place: on the lips of Jews, and some Christians, in Kurdistan.”

The fate of the Jews of Kurdistan themselves was equally precarious: The geographic isolation that had for centuries preserved an ancient language could not, ultimately, protect Kurdistan’s 25,000 Jews, “who saw themselves as the direct descendents of the Lost Tribes of Israel,” from the world — or from change.

In the book’s opening chapters, Sabar vividly evokes life in Zakho circa 1930 — with its narrow, zigzagging unpaved roads; clustered flat-roof mud-brick houses; cramped open-air market; river banks speckled with scampering children and tea-sipping men; Jews, Muslims and Christians peacefully coexisting. There, in Zakho’s Jewish quarter, we meet Sabar’s grandmother, Miryam, whose childhood hardships (a mother’s early death, a stepmother’s cruelty) and difficulties thereafter are recounted quite movingly. Particularly affecting is Sabar’s retelling of the disappearance of his grandmother’s firstborn, a “little thumb girl” named Rifqa, a sickly baby who was handed over to a Muslim wet nurse to regain her health and was never seen again.

It’s hard not to feel, as Sabar clearly does, that a more dedicated search could have been made for the baby. Was she dead or kidnapped? And as Miryam rejoices in the birth of her baby son, Yona, and in her subsequent offspring, the mystery surrounding Rifqa’s disappearance never quite leaves the reader’s mind. True, it is Yona’s book — and so we follow his journey from Zakho to Israel to America with fond interest. We marvel at his progress from ghetto to university and his efforts to save his mother tongue. We nod in recognition at Sabar’s candid confessions about his own poor treatment of his father, a gentle, caring soul who clearly deserved better. And we delight in their father-son bonding trip to Zakho, a city that is now moving rapidly into the 21st century.

But when Sabar takes it upon himself to return to Iraq to try to track down his aunt, whom he has become obsessed with finding, we feel grateful — and we share his disappointment when all the promising leads prove false. Yet, with him, we learn a lesson.

“In the search for my past, I had made a wrong turn with the hunt for my lost aunt,” Sabar concludes. “I had wanted an Oprah moment, in which relatives separated at birth embrace through tears and order is restored to the world. I see now that if I want to repair my ties to the past, to my forefathers and father, it will take more than a ‘get.’ It will be a work of days and months and years.”

By attending the stories of his father’s past, by listening and walking step-by-step through his father’s journey, Ariel Sabar has arrived at a clearer sense of who his father is, how alike they are — and how finally to answer his own son’s silent demand: “Who are you?”