27 September 2008

Book: Jews in Kurdistan

"I am the keeper of my family’s stories. I am the guardian of its honor. I am the defender of its traditions. As the first-born son of a Kurdish father, these, they tell me, are my duties. And yet even before my birth I resisted."

Thus begins the introduction to journalist Ariel Sabar's book, "In My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq," (Algonquin Books, New York; August 2008).

Sabar attempts to answer these questions and more as he journeys to the small northern Iraqi town of Zakho near the Turkish border.

"Who is my father? How did he wind up so far from home? I wrote this book in part to answer those questions. I wanted to conjure the gulfs of geography and language he crossed on his way from the hills of Kurdistan to the highways of Los Angeles. But I also had other, bigger questions: What is the value of our past? When we carry our languages and stories from one generation to the next, from one country to another, what exactly do we gain?"

Sabar's quotes - and his book - resonate with genealogists, as well as the children and grandchildren of immigrants.

In addition to the family history for which we all search, Sabar addresses the embarrassment of the younger generations at how their parents looked to others, the strange languages they spoke, the cultural symbols that made them different and, in general, how the elders just didn't fit in with the American society in which the youngsters were living.

The birth of Ariel Sabar's own son takes him on a family history journey to the northern Iraq town of Zakho where his father - Yona Beh Sabagha - grew up as a member of the small Jewish minority. He also hunts for information on his great-grandfather, Ephraim, the town's only fabric dyer, learns from Zakho old-timers in Jerusalem that Ephraim spoke to the "angels," and searches for other family stories.

In 1951, following the establishment of the state of israel and anti-Semitic sentiments against the Jewish minority, some 120,000 Iraqi Jews resettled in Israel, even as others went to Iran, the US and other countries. Yona was the last bar mitzvah in the town. In Israel, the family name became Sabar.

Amazingly, on his return to Zakho, Sabar learns that the town's Muslim Kurds still call the district where his father lived "the Jewish neighborhood," even though no Jews have lived there for 50 years.

Yona Sabar is a world expert on neo-Aramaic - a language nearly dead as its native speakers disappear. Resettlement wasn't easy, but being a speaker of neo-Aramaic helped, relates his son. His father received a scholarship to the Yale University Department of Near Eastern Languages and became a UCLA professor.

Publishers' Weekly (September 16) wrote:
For his first 31 years Sabar considered his father, Yona, an embarrassing anachronism. Ours was a clash of civilizations, writ small. He was ancient Kurdistan. I was 1980s L.A. Yona was a UCLA professor whose passion was his native language, Aramaic. Ariel was an aspiring rock-and-roll drummer. The birth of Sabar's own son in 2002 was a turning point, prompting Sabar to try to understand his father on his own terms.

Readers can only be grateful to him for unearthing the history of a family, a people and a very different image of Iraq. Sabar vividly depicts daily life in the remote village of Zahko, where Muslims, Jews and Christians banded together to ensure prosperity and survival, and in Israel (after the Jews' 1951 expulsion from Iraq), where Kurdish Jews were stereotyped as backward and simple.

Sabar's career as an investigative reporter at the Baltimore Sun and elsewhere serves him well, particularly in his attempt to track down his father's oldest sister, who was kidnapped as an infant. Sabar offers something rare and precious—a tale of hope and continuity that can be passed on for generations. Photos.

For more, see the author's site, http://www.arielsabar.com/. There is also a Q&A with the author here (this takes some time to load, be patient).

The author has a full book tour arranged and he will be at most major Jewish book fairs and many book stores in coming months. It might be worthwhile to try to arrange for Ariel Sabar to speak; contact Carolyn Hessel.

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