My Father’s Paradise–Interview With Ariel Sabar

I have an admitted bias towards anything related to Aramaic. My dad studies modern Aramaic, and one of my best friends does research in the field. I have this weird knack for meeting Aramaic enthusiasts wherever I go, and I can go on for hours about how cool Aramaic is, both the Ancient and the modern dialects, and how cool Aramaicists are, which I really genuinely believe but which I recognize is not necessarily a universal truth.My Father's Paradise

Anyway, it’s no surprise that I loved My Father’s Paradise, a new book by Ariel Sabar about his father, Prof. Yona Sabar, who was born in Kurdish Iraq, emigrated to Israel, and wound up teaching Neo-Aramaic and the history of Kurdish Jews at UCLA. I was predisposed to like this book, but wow–it was way more interesting and complicated than I expected.

Besides telling the story of his father’s life, Ariel Sabar goes into his family’s history, the history of Kurdish Jews, and delves into the experiences that Kurds and other Oriental Jews had when they first arrived in Israel (hint: the streets were not paved with gold). The writing is amazing, and the stories that are woven together are fantastic and fascinating. If you’re looking for a good Hanukkah present for your dorky Jewish dad, this is an excellent contender (not for me, though–my dad has already been given three copies). Buy it here.
Ariel Sabar
I sent some questions to Ariel Sabar about his book, his father, and his research. Here’s what he had to say:

TF: You write a lot about how Jews in Zakho, the Kurdish town where your father grew up, lived in harmony with Muslims for many years before they fled to Israel when the Iraqi government made it difficult and dangerous to stay in the country. Did that peaceful past, and then the quick descent to hostility have any effect on how your father and the rest of his family view Muslims today? Are they any more or less inclined to look favorably on Muslims–Iraqi Muslims in particular–because of their past experiences?

AS: I can’t speak for the whole family, simply because I haven’t quizzed them all on this subject. But I can tell you that my father has never stopped believing in the world’s common humanity – the idea that whether Muslim, Jew, Christian or something else, there is more that unites than divides us. The sudden break in good relations didn’t sour his view of non-Jews. In many ways, it only strengthened his conviction that when left to their own devices, when free of interference from governments and ideologies and fanaticism, people of every stripe are pretty good at finding ways to get along. 

This may sound a little sappy. But my father loves the feature stories from Iraq you occasionally see on CNN, in which an American soldier falls in love with and marries an Iraqi civilian. The notion that love and brotherhood are possible across lines of religion, nationality and language is at the heart of his belief system.

TF: One of my favorite things about this book was how it really pushed at the borders of different forms. There are parts of the narrative that are essentially fictionalized accounts of your family’s history. You have some basic history of Iraq and Israel, and then a more personal memoir-like section towards the end of the book. How did you come up with this combination of formats? Was it something you had planned from the beginning or did it evolve as you were writing?

AS: A wise newspaper editor of mine once told me that people don’t curl up at night with a great set of facts. So first and foremost, I wanted the book to be a gripping story, with characters, scenes, dramatic tension, a narrative arc. All that said, when you’re writing about people as ancient and little-known as the Kurdish Jews, you owe it to readers to widen the lens, to show how their story ties into larger, more familiar currents of history. So I knew early on that I wanted to weave my family’s story into the wider saga of Jews in Islamic lands: what their lives were like in the diaspora, their struggles after arriving in Israel in early 1950s. And because Aramaic is so central to my father’s story, I knew I also wanted to tell the story of this onetime king of a language. I kept these passages bright but brief, because I wanted readers absorbed as much as possible with the family story.

I wanted to qualify your description of parts of the narrative as “essentially fictionalized.� I’m a journalist and put great store in the virtue of fact. I interviewed more than 100 people, dug through historical archives in America, the U.K., and Israel, read dozens of old family letters, listened to oral histories, and traveled across America, to Israel and Iraq to research the book. As I mention in an introductory note on method, I do allow myself to imagine how some scenes and dialogue would have been most likely to have unfolded. But those scenes are built on an edifice of fact, not fantasy.

TF: You write about growing up with a Kurdish father who is kind of a professional nostalgic, teaching about the history and language of his culture at UCLA, and about your own ignorance in most Kurdish matters. I know this is a pretty common theme in immigrant families, with first generation Americans moving away from their ethnic pasts–did you have any sense of that while you were growing up? Did you feel like there were others around you who were similarly distancing themselves from their families’ pasts? And now that you’ve gone back to embrace your own history, are you seeing any similar trends in your contemporaries? Do you have any thoughts on how to keep your children invested in their Kurdish history without suffering any kind of backlash?

AS: As a boy, I didn’t have any sense of how my rejection of my father might fit into any broader first-generation trope. I was young – and far too immature — to see it in any other than a completely self-absorbed way. I do remember a Persian-Jewish friend who took similar steps to distance himself from his parents. He replaced his Persian first name with an American-sounding one. He methodically purged his English of any traces of an accent. But I didn’t have enough perspective then to put any of that into context.

Yes, there is now a crop of descendents of Mizrahi Jews writing what one of them has called “reverse migration� memoirs, in an effort to reclaim their past. Because we were born here in America, we have a safe enough distance from the painful parts of that past to confront our history more openly that I think our parents might have.

I want to think that my own kids will see me as a lot cooler than I saw my dad. But I’ve been told not to get my hopes up. Still, I think that because I’m more American-seeming than my father, my kids may be more receptive to stories about their ancestry than I was. I’m “safe� in a way my immigrant father was not. The trick, I think, is to make the culture exciting and fun, and to let them pick up on my own – and their grandfather’s – enthusiasm for it. I’ve played Kurdish music for my son, cooked Kurdish food for him, talked to him about the part of the world his “Saba� has come from. It’s a work in progress, but he seems to be getting a lot of it.

TF: I thought one of the most alarming and surprising parts of the book was the section about the suffering of Jews in Iraq just before they emigrated, and for many years after they arrived in Israel. In Iraq they were arrested, tortured, and had property and money stolen from them. In Israel they were forced to live in slums, treated poorly, and were literally the punch line to many Israeli jokes. Did this come as a surprise to you when you began to research it? How have people reacted to this information when you tell them about it?

AS: Israel’s treatment of Mizrahi Jews in the new state’s early years surprised and dismayed me. Most readers of My Father’s Paradise who have talked to me about it say they felt the same way after reading those passages. Many said they felt that Jews, of all people, should have understood the consequences of ethnic hierarchy.

But a small minority of readers and folks at book talks have come to Israel’s unqualified defense. Often Israeli themselves, they say that everyone had it rough in the state’s chaotic early years. German Jews faced a certain kind of bigotry, they note. Yiddish was frowned on. Because the so-called “ingathering of exiles� was an experiment of unprecedented scope and logistics, they say, Israel should be forgiven a few mistakes.

Then there was the elderly gentleman at one East Coast book event, who said he had lived in Israel as a young man. He whispered to me afterwards that the stereotype of the violence-prone Kurdish yokel was rooted in truth. “We had to be careful when we walked through their neighborhoods,� he said to me.

TF: Storytelling is a big part of the Kurdish tradition. You write about your father transcribing stories from Zakho’s best storyteller, Mamo Yona Gabbay, and how that kick-started your father’s linguistic career. How do you see your book fitting into that tradition of telling stories?

AS: I see it as a 21st century Kurdish folktale, one that I hope resonates here in a new language and new land.

TF: I really enjoyed this book, not least because your father has been a legendary figure in my own family for many years. He was my mother’s undergraduate thesis advisor at UCLA thirty years ago (she wrote about Zakho) and he’s a colleague of my father, who’s also a linguist who focuses on recording Neo Aramaic dialects. So, I’ve heard stories about your dad since I was a little girl. You write a little about how popular your father is in a classroom, and how well-liked he is within the academic community (and, I’m sure, outside of it as well). What do you think makes him such a good professor?

AS: I think it’s his humility that endears him to students. He doesn’t strut around like some big-shot. He’s soft-spoken, unassuming, accessible, and seems to always want to see people in their best light. Also, despite his obvious achievements and his 70 years, he still sees himself as a student. He empathizes with the struggles of his undergrads in a way other teachers may not, because not all that long ago, he was one of them: a young person struggling to get his head around yet another new language.

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