Book Review

My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq

Ariel Sabar

Summer 2010, Volume XVII, Number 2

This book makes new interdisciplinary inroads into the social sciences even though it is partly fiction and partly history. It succeeds at many levels of analysis in blending scholarly research with narrative analysis that is both original and riveting. The author, a former journalist turned novelist, overcame the challenge of having to write a highly personalized biography (his father was a Kurdish Jew originally from Zakho in northern Iraq) while remaining a detached observer of historical events and political developments related to the establishment of the State of Israel. The father attended Yale University and received a doctorate in neo-Aramaic languages, becoming the world’s foremost authority on the language that Jesus spoke and the language of the Jewish Talmud, written between 200 and 500 AD.

Conceptually, the book is divided into several components. The historical part focuses on the evolution of the Kurdish Jews in northern Iraq, who for centuries managed to cling to their spiritual traditions and Aramaic mother tongue while coexisting with Muslim and Christian communities, finally being forced off the land they love, due to the changing regional political climate after the establishment of the State of Israel. The next component of the book centers on the survivability of Aramaic. This ancient language, whose predecessor is Akkadian, survives today in small isolated Christian communities in Lebanon, Israel, Syria and Iraq. Among the Kurdish Jews of Iraq, Aramaic survived in its modern twentieth-century version only because the Kurdish Jews who spoke it in Zakho passed it on to succeeding generations through verbal communications, ritualistic symbols and storytelling over many centuries. However, its survival as a living language owes a great deal to the geographical isolation of the community of tribes and clans that adopted it as a mechanism for political, economic and religious communication. This process took place within the context of the advent of Islam, which ultimately replaced the commonly spoken languages in the Near East with Arabic. Thanks to the work of scholars such as the author’s father, neo-Aramaic is today a recognized field of classical study, although it is indeed vanishing as a spoken language (p. 317). The third part of the book is a biographical account of the author’s parents and grandparents, who grew up in Zakho, where they struggled to maintain their cultural heritage and their interfaith dialogue and discourse with neighboring Muslims. Some Muslims protected Jews living in their midst in northern Iraq and had commercial and social ties to them. For example, a local Muslim Sunni tribal chief personally escorted bus convoys of Iraqi Kurdish Jews departing for Israel from the Zakho area to Mosul “to assure their safe arrival,” according to the author (p. 307). The book’s central thesis, however, is that twentieth-century politics following the demise of the Ottoman Empire after World War I weakened the bonds that kept these communities together and dependent on one another, resulting in the current distrust and political violence that have become so common in the Middle East and North Africa today.

The social-science significance of this book lies in its riveting autobiographical account of the tribulations of the author’s forebears. It is also a sociopolitical overview of Kurdish life in Iraq and later in Israel, where they experienced rich Judaic traditions but also great hardships. To be a Kurd in either society meant being in the lowest social stratum, politically and economically. The result was a continuous effort to survive in the face of fierce national (Arab in Iraq, Ashkenazi in Israel) competition and rivalries. The first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, recognized the immense challenge of integrating educated and more technically trained and secular European immigrants to the new state of Israel, where they controlled the levers of political and economic power, with their “backward” brethren from Iraq, Yemen and Morocco. Thus, the book is also about overcoming the challenges of nation-building and about creating both national consciousness and identity in the face of persisting sectarian loyalties and traditions.

Finally, the book is about the generational gap and struggles between fathers and sons. The author’s father came to America on a scholarship and ended up settling down in fast-moving, materialistic Los Angeles with his new Jewish bride from New York City. Herein lies the clash of cultures, between the father and his newly acquired land of sun and stars, on the one hand, and his offspring (particularly the author), on the other. Ariel grew up in West Los Angeles with a totally different set of attitudes, beliefs and values than his frugal father. The two would clash on almost everything, ranging from choice of music to cars and girls. The significance of this clash, however, rests in a broader tension between tradition and modernity evident in Israel, and the challenges of assimilation and acceptance in the New World.

This book is a must read for specialists on political culture, change and continuity. It reflects a deep historical understanding but, more important, it is a book about political survival through culture, language and other forms of interpersonal communications across several divides.