November 20, 2019

Book details journey to a father’s distant land — Kurdish ‘Jerusalem’

“My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq,” by Ariel Sabar (Algonquin Books).

There are no more Jews in Zakho. Once the center of Jewish activity in Kurdish Iraq, the isolated town, a dusty vision of biblical landscape, was known as the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan.” Residents spoke the ancient Aramaic language, which they kept alive, along with their faith and distinctive culture, for almost 3,000 years. In the 1950s, after the Iraqi government turned against the Jews, the entire community moved to Israel, as part of Operations Ezra and Nehemiah. More than 120,000 Jews were airlifted from Iraq, including 18,000 Kurdish Jews; other Kurdish Jews arrived from Syria and Iran.

Yona Sabar was born in Zakho, and was the last boy to have his bar mitzvah there. He lived in a mud home, whose roof his family sometimes slept on in the heat, and he enjoyed meeting his grandfather in shul, where the old man sat up every night, conversing with the angels.

In Israel, his once-successful merchant family was impoverished; while the Muslims and Christians in Zakho had respected them, the Kurds were looked down on as the very lowest class in the new State of Israel. Sabar, unlike most of his fellow villagers, graduated from high school in Israel (while working full time to help support his family) and Hebrew University, where he studied language with a special interest in Aramaic. He received his doctorate in Near East Languages and Literature from Yale, and now is a distinguished professor at University of California Los Angeles. His ranch-style house in Los Angeles bears no resemblance to his childhood home, where hens and customers crisscrossed the dirt floor at all hours.

The remarkable arc of Sabar’s life is at the center of his son, Ariel Sabar’s, outstanding book, “My Father’s Paradise.” In telling his father’s story intertwined with the family’s tales, journalist Sabar reconstructs the little-known history of the Kurdish Jews, who lived in harmony with their non-Jewish neighbors. In Zakho, Muslims would bring tea to their Jewish neighbors on Shabbat, when the Jews weren’t able to cook. Jewish men wore the same baggy trousers and embroidered shirts as Muslims, “even if a few strands of tzitzit poked out from beneath their shirts.”

“My father had staked his life on the notion that the past mattered more than anything,” the younger Sabar writes, adding, “He sublimated homesickness into a career.”

“My Father’s Paradise” is also a deeply personal story of a distant father and son who were ultimately reconciled. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, Ariel Sabar found his father embarrassing, regarding him as the uncoolest person he knew, with his unstylish clothing and beat-up car, and his passion for ancient languages rather than popular culture.

But, after moving across the country to attend college, falling in love with and marrying a non-Jewish woman and working hard in his first reporting jobs, Sabar was drawn to write about his father after the scholar consulted on the television series, “The X-Files,” about the language Jesus might have used. For the first time Sabar asked his father, as he might have questioned any source, about his life in Zakho. His story in the Providence Journal, “Scholar Dad Goes Showbiz: ‘I Am the Walrus’ in Aramaic,” brought him a greater response than all of his previous articles combined. He then thought that he had said everything he had to say about his father.

Several years later, after he and his wife had their first child, a son, Sabar began seriously thinking about “fathers and sons,ALTTEXT and what is it we inherit,” he said in an interview. “Would [his son] feel the way I did about my father? That this guy had nothing to teach me, that I didn’t care where he came from, that I was my own person? It took me back to some long-neglected questions.” Now, looking back, he’s not proud of the way he treated his father.

Aware that his potential sources — Kurdish Jews like his father who remembered life in Iraq — were aging, Sabar felt a sense of duty to preserve their past. And, as a journalist, he sensed he was onto a great story. He quit his newspaper job and moved to Maine, where his wife returned to work as a physician; he began researching and traveling, tracking down relatives and family friends. His father still had the Kurdish sensibility, where people survived by keeping their heads down, so he wasn’t altogether comfortable about being the subject of a book.

Collecting an impressive amount of detail, Sabar created a compelling narrative. The Jews of Zakho had little in common with the Jews of Baghdad, who spoke Arabic, built huge synagogues and yeshivas, ran large businesses and held government jobs. In the 1940s, the remote Jews of Zakho had no idea of what was happening to the Jews of Europe, nor did they know of a deadly pogrom in Baghdad in 1941.

Sabar conveys the life of Zakho, with its storytellers, beggars, traders, smugglers, loggers, Arab tribesmen, cheese makers, and the one dyer of fabrics, his great-grandfather the mystic. Girls didn’t go to school, but instead learned to do heavy chores and to cook specialties whose descriptions may send readers in search of a Kurdish kosher cookbook. His grandmother Miryam’s life was full of loss, including having her firstborn, a daughter, never returned by a tribeswoman who agreed to be her nursemaid when Miryam was ill. She had lost her own mother at a young age and was married at 13 to a cousin, who proved to be kind.

In Israel, Miryam was lost, never learning Hebrew, and even though her neighbors would sit around and speak of children, she wouldn’t mention that two of her sons were university professors, her two daughters teachers, another son a vice principal of a school and another a bank officer, for fear that boasting tempts the evil eye. The author knew her as the grandmother who coaxed him in Aramaic, “You didn’t eat anything” and ate only after everyone else finished. He learned the full and vivid story of her life through transcribed and translated interviews he did with her as a student, while studying her language.

In 2005, father and son traveled to Zakho together — a dangerous time for Americans and Jews in Iraq — and were greeted with kindness; many people remembered Sabar’s grandfather and could tick off the names of the Jewish families they did business with, and some spoke of missing the Jewish presence. The Jewish neighborhood was now the poorest section of town, and the shuls had become private homes. The Sabars realized that the generation that recalled Jews fondly, remembering the brotherhood they experienced, wouldn’t be around much longer.

“Journalism can be pretty cynical. But to cross the border and see the sign, ‘Welcome to Kurdistan of Iraq’ — I was euphoric” the author says. Zakho is grittier than he expected, and it’s also fast-growing, with traffic, construction and Internet cafés, not like the sleepy mountain town his father left. While there, they attempted to track down Yona’s long-lost sister.

Ariel Sabar explains that for his father, the idea of paradise is not only Zakho, but also the Israel he had dreamed of, and even California, where he finds much tolerance of difference and is able to preserve his mother tongue. In the unlikely setting of an upscale L.A. mall, drinking iced coffee under the palm trees, he also experiences a kind of paradise, where he’s able to negotiate past and present.

Today, the younger Sabar, 37, is covering the presidential elections for The Christian Science Monitor. He and his wife raise their two children as Jews, playing Kurdish music at home, teaching them the Hebrew alphabet and prayers.

When asked how his father feels about the book, Sabar said, “He saw that I had gone on a journey not unlike his own, to preserve those parts of the past we can take with us. He has a measure of pride that his son, in his own way, would follow in his footsteps.”

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.