Rating: 3 & 1/2 Stars
There is a point of origin for all immigrant stories; it could be language, culture, or faith. It doesn’t really matter which. Anyone could serve as a lynchpin for the others. Ask immigrant families why they drag their children willy-nilly to classes in their native language, arts, and religion. The answer in a nutshell would be: it doesn’t matter where we are, as long as we don’t forget who we are.
In Ariel Sabar’s memoir, ‘My Father’s Paradise’, the author’s father, Yona Sabar is an immigrant twice over. At the age of twelve, he left his native village of Zakho in Kurdish Iraq for the newly founded state of Israel. It was to prove a mass exodus for the entire Jewish community of Zakho, with disillusionment following in its wake.
To Yona and his family, the Land of Israel doesn’t quite deliver on its Promise. The Kurds were by and large of unsophisticated peasant stock, and find themselves disparaged and sidelined in their new homeland, where the affluent and well-educated Ashkenazi Jews predominate. Yona finds deliverance where he least expects it; in the study and research of Aramaic, the ancient Semitic language that features in parts of the Bible, and is reputed to be the mother tongue of Christ. Today, there are estimated to be about 500,000 speakers of Aramaic, including the Kurds of Zakho.
Yona leaves Israel to pursue his doctorate in the United States. His scholarship and humility earn him the esteem and affection of colleagues and students alike; but this quiet man seems to be eternally longing for the simple village he left behind. He feels at home neither in the social hierarchy of Israel, nor the spiritual wasteland of America. The author, as an adolescent found himself growing increasingly estranged from a father who seemed an embarrassing oddity. It is only on reaching adulthood, and in looking into the eyes of his infant son, that he sees staring back at him the potential perils of turning one’s back on the past.
Aramaic has a strong oral tradition, one that was kept alive by its village story-tellers. Sabar stays true to those Kurdish credentials. One of the arresting features of this book is its intensity. The other is the warm humor. The narrative draws us in early and doesn’t ease its hold. The author travelled widely to research his story, interviewing witnesses and scouring family archives. He candidly admits to reimagining certain scenes where no reliable first hand testimony was available.
Zakho in present-day Iraq is very different from the one of Yona’s childhood. Though under American aegis it is re-emerging as a Kurdish stronghold, the Jews have gone, remaining only in the memories of those old enough to remember. Those who remember, mourn their loss. For well over two millennia, the Jews of Zakho had lived in brotherhood with their other Kurdish neighbors – Muslims and Christians alike, unmolested by the waves of inquisitions, pogroms, and ethnic cleansing that decimated the Jewish population in Europe. True civilization, apparently, can be found in the most surprising places.