BOOK REVIEW: The Immigrant Experience – September 2019

My Father’s Paradise by Ariel Sabar

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

    An odd thing about the current uproar over immigration is its monumental lack of self-consciousness. For, unless you’re a full-blooded Native American, or a descendant of slaves, you are an immigrant to this country, or the direct descendant of immigrants, and so, to be against immigration is, at some level, to be against who you yourself are. Another thing people don’t stop to realize is that immigrants rarely leave their homes because they want to; nine times out of ten, they are forced by war, pestilence, famine, violence, or governmental order. Of course you can argue that since your ancestors got here, things have changed, and we don’t need newcomers any more, or at least not as much as we used to. But the bottom line is that, Native Americans and slaves  excepted, we are all immigrants, like it not, and therefore ought to know a lot more than we do about what it means to be one.

Ariel Sabar’s book My Father’s Paradise, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, is ideal for educating oneself about immigration. Though published in 2001, it couldn’t be more timely. Reading it, I felt for the first time that I understood at a granular level what it means to go from one kind of culture, language, set of traditions, physical and social environment, occupation, status, manners, and dress to another that is radically different.  Sabar chronicles this tremendous upheaval not once but twice, detailing the movement of a family of Kurdish Jews, among them his father, Yona, age twelve, from the small city of Zhako in northern Iraq, first to Israel, and then to the United States.

The book reads like a novel, only it’s not a novel but a fascinating piece of non-fiction: Ariel Sabar’s attempt to heal his relationship with his father, Yona Beh Sabagha, by telling his story. In his rush to become a real American and succeed at something, as a young person, Sabar (a substitute for the original Sabagha) had rejected everything about his father—his accent, his funny-looking clothes, his ancient Toyota Tercel, his profession (linguistics).  Fortunately for us, the profession Sabar chose was investigative reporting, so that when he had a change of heart and decided to write his father’s story, he possessed the necessary research skills and writerly ability. The book’s readability quotient is off the charts.

Sabar begins with his father’s parentage, birth, and upbringing in Zakho, where Kurdish Jews  had lived for 2,700 years. After they are expelled from their country by the Iraqi government, he follows them to Jerusalem, dramatizing his grandparents’ painful loss of identity and social status in their struggle to survive. When Yona as a young man distinguishes himself in the study of Near Eastern languages and wins a fellowship to Yale, his parents, grandmother, and siblings, who value family solidarity over individual success, beg him not to go. Ultimately, their prediction, that if he does go he will never return to live among them, proves true. He goes to the United States, marries a Jewish girl, receives his Ph.D. from Yale, secures a position at UCLA, and remains there for the rest of his life, one of the most distinguished figures in his field.

That field is Neo-Aramaic. It so happens that the people of Zakho and their neighbors are the last people in the world who speak Aramaic, the ancient lingua franca of the Middle East, the language Christ spoke. Studying it is Yona’s way of reconstituting his heritage in a strange land. Sabar’s illuminating discussion of ancient languages is only one of the several windows on the world his narrative opens up. There’s a telescopic history of the Jews of Kurdistan, brilliantly recounted. And the more recent history of the Near Eastern Jews who came to Israel. They had mixed feelings about Zionism, since it turned the governments of their own countries against them, forcing them to emigrate from places their people had inhabited for thousands of years. It reveals that in post-holocaust Israel, when Jews were arriving by the thousands from all over,  not all were equal. Western Europeans, who had spearheaded the Zionist movement, were on top, then came Eastern Europeans, then the Jews from the Middle East, and at the bottom of that hierarchy, the Kurds, whom all the rest regarded as backward, uncivilized peasants. The very culture and way of life that the Israeli Jews held in contempt is the one Sabar is trying to recreate here: Zakho, the paradise of his father’s childhood. Late in the story, father and son visit Zakho together; it’s a bittersweet experience, since there are no Jews left and only a few people who remember Yona. Still, we get a strong sense of life lived in a tightly knit community, isolated but at peace with itself—Jews, Christians and the majority Muslims lived contentedly side by side—a place that contrasts starkly with the atomistic, materially oriented, success-driven world of West Los Angeles where Sabar was raised.

In the final chapter Sabar reflects poignantly on his attempts to show his father that he honors and respects him and his Kurdish background, and wonders whether or not he has achieved his goal. Just as his father had retrieved and built on his past by making the study of Aramaic his life’s work, so the son, who quit his job working for a major newspaper to write this book, has unearthed the precious legacy of his cultural heritage in recreating his father’s life. It seems to me that the son should have no doubts of his success. The book, which is an education in itself, as well as a tribute, is clearly an act of love.~