Couple of weekends ago I went to Los Angeles for a family event. It’s a five hundred miles drive, so bit of a trek. It happened to be there that I started to read Ariel Sabar‘s My father’s paradise, a son’s search for his Jewish past in Kurdish Iraq.” The first chapters of the book are set in Los Angeles (where the author grew up), while most of it is thousands of miles away, in the mountains of Iraq, where his ancestors, including his grandparents grew up and In Israel, where his father grew up after the age of 12. I liked this kind of coincidence, me being in Los Angeles, because it helped me immerse myself into the book.
If the objective of reading is being transferred with the help of imagination to distant places, one would never go then this book reached its goal. I have a vivid picture now how life in the town of Zakho in the Kurdish part of Iraq, at the beginning of the 20th century might have been. That picture includes the peaceful coexistence and respect of Jews and Muslim and the few Christians. It also includes the use of Neo-Aramaic, a main focus of the book. That’s the language of the Jews, who lived there since exiled from Eretz Yisrael two thousand years ago. That’s also the language that the author’s father became the researcher, professor and preserver of. We learn a great deal about the language as that’s one of the central features that kept the Kurdish Jews unique during their long exile. Since they were lifted an masse to Israel in the early 1950’s the younger generations lost the language, just like most of second and third generations immigrants n any country. Thus Yona Sabar, the linguist father, is fighting against time to save as much of it as possible.
The book is usually described as part history, part biography and part memoir. These are all true, although the opinions are divided about the value and quality of the latter. The New York times suggest that the “obsessively self-analyzing his dissonant relationship with his father” is a drawback. I thought it was an important element of the book as the guilt derived from this tension rove the author to write the book the first place. It’s true that this was not the most exciting part, because others worked through this kind of distrait already, in a more literally valuable way, but it didn’t disturb me.
Reading the book made me think that I might the person who is distant yet close enough to my own father’s generation to write his (hi)story. It is a different story, but worth preserving.