My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar was a fascinating read. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting into when I chose this book by its cover from a list of books on Amazon (part of the new Vine program where you can get review copies of new and pre-release books); but the title was intriguing. In fact, the book is much more captivating than I expected.
Ariel Sabar’s story begins like that of many children of immigrants, alienated from his father and caring not at all about his family’s past until he became a father himself. Then suddenly he wanted to connect. In his quest to understand his father and himself he goes a little further than most, however. He “interviewed nearly one hundred relatives, family friends and acquaintances, scholars, and others… conducted research at libraries, special collections, and government archives… traveled to Iraq, Israel, and cities across the United States…. collected family letters, diaries, photographs and official documents.” The result is a gripping story of a family told against the back drop of a part of recent history that I didn’t know much about: the formation of the state of Israel and the exodus of 120,000 Jews from Iraq.
I’ve said before that I don’t really like reading history and biography. They tend to be to dry, cluttered with facts and frequently lack a strong narrative that will pull me in and maintain my interest. I do, however like memoir and historical fiction and this is much more along those lines. Sabar writes:
But while this book is by and large a work of nonfiction, it is not a formal history or biography. Nor is it journalism. In parts of this story where key sources had died or where memories had faded, I built on the framework of known facts and let myself imagine how the particulars of a scene or dialogue would be likely to have unfolded.
A book on one’s family is by its nature a subjective exercise. But I have tried in every instance to keep faith with the larger emotional truth of my family’s saga.
The book also tells the story of a language, Aramaic. We know it as the language that Jesus spoke. It also was the language that continued to be spoken by the Jewish population of Kurdistan. After the family’s emigration to Israel, Ariel Sabar’s father, Yona, went on to become a scholar, a linguist and a crusader for the preservation of Neo-Aramaic, the language of his boyhood that he realized was hovering on the brink of extinction as the second generation of Kurdish Jews in Israel abandoned their native tongue in favor of Hebrew, the official language of Israel.
One of the funniest moments in the book is when his father is asked to do a voice over in Aramaic for The X-Files.
Inside the big sound studio, a producer asked him to read, in Aramaic, the words with which Christ raises the dead man from his grave. This was easy. The part that threw him was when the producer asked him to say “I am the Walrus” in Aramaic. The writers, it seemed, wanted to have a little fun at the expense of Beatles fans. Better acquainted with Israeli folk albums than he was with the Magical Mystery Tour, my father didn’t get any of this.
“Em, may I ask,“My father said, timidly, “what is the connection between this ‘I am a walrus,’ and Lazarus?”
The producer replied with a curt, “Don’t worry.”
The trouble, my father explained, was that walruses were not native to Aramaic-speaking lands, which were mainly mountainous.
My father thought for a moment. Then, as the tapes rolled, he delivered a line perhaps never before spoken in Aramaic history, “Ana kalbid maya,” he said. I am the dog of the sea.
The experience grew even more disorienting when the producer asked him to say “goo goo g’joob,” from the same psychedelic Beatles song, Typical Hollywood, my father thought. This must be its bastardized idea of a levitation chant. Not wanting to embarrass the producer, he politely offered to improvise something a little more biblical-sounding.
“Best, I think, to stick to the script,” the producer told my father.
Almost as funny is the follow-up story in which the author, whose television gets bad reception, checks into a motel that allows him to pay by the hour and that has cable access to watch the show. His wife meets him there, driving her own car. He wants to explain to the clerk when he checks out an hour later; but just can’t.