Monday, June 16, 2008
My Father's Paradise is Ariel Sabar's captivating account of the plight of the Kurdish Jews in Iraq, as well as the story of his family's history. The book shifts from the social and political aspects of the culture and it's struggles to maintain the legacy of it's heritage and language to the tale of how his father, Yona, and his family lived in Zakho, a small town in Kurdish Iraq, and their eventual departure. But instead of being a quaint saga of a family's lineage, it is rather a homage to his father and the accomplishments he has made in the preservation of a people that are fast disappearing. I learned to love Yona Sabar, just as his son and students did. He humbled and awed me with the diligence that kept his people's language alive.
I came to this book with little familiarity of the region and it's people, and felt that the author excelled at highlighting the reasons and ramifications of the Jews eventual emigration to Israel from Iraq, and the adversity that they faced in their new home. It was distressing to realize that this modest group of people were hated and marginalized in a place that they hoped would be a haven and sanctuary for them. Against all the odds, Yona Sabar achieved what most had never dreamed of: success and notoriety as a professor, author, and language consultant. Though, sadly, he could not accomplish this in Israel. After moving to America, his success came with struggles to assimilate with its culture. These passages were deeply affecting and stirring. I felt heavyhearted reading about his loneliness and isolation in a new country, so alien from his own.
The author's relationship with his father was portrayed with unflinching honesty and true feeling. It seemed it was not always easy to have a father who was so different from everyone else. But the very things that initially created distance between father and son later came to be the things that brought them together. It was a poignant reversal that closed the generational gap. As the author searched for meaning and understanding in his father's past, his father became the touchstone of his ethnic identity.
This book ran the gamut of emotions: there was pleasure in the tale of the aged storyteller of the village, who used his stories to enlighten his people as well as attain his own ends; there was sorrow in the story of a missing relative who was lost in the sands of time; and there was anger in the subjugation of a noble people who struggled with their new circumstances. Though there was much sadness, I ultimately found this story as one of hope.
Another thing I liked about this book was the conversational style in which it was written. The information was not dumbed down for the audience, and neither was it too complicated to be accessible. I felt as though I got to know the author as well as the subject through his use of a welcoming style of journalistic approach. The book includes black and white photographs as well as facsimiles of noteworthy documents. I found this extra detail very inviting. It was gratifying to be able to see some of the people who I was getting to know.
This was a very pleasing book. I learned a tremendous amount about a culture that was previously unknown to me, and the people inhabiting the pages were so detailed and their motivations were so amply described that I felt as though I could have been right there with them, comforting them when they cried, and sharing the sound of their laughter. Yona I found to be particularly enjoyable. He was funny and self-depreciating, as well as being intelligent and kind. His quest to save the Aramaic language was deeply impressive. I admired the skillful handling of these subjects by the author, and would definitely recommend this book to others.