Reviewed by David Shasha
Towards the end of Ariel Sabar's extraordinarily compelling retelling of his family's history in Iraqi Kurdistan, he makes a brilliant observation that encapsulates his tale and is emblematic of the broken stories of so many Middle Eastern Jews. Recalling his father's feverish memories of his fractured past-a past of rich traditions that were destroyed over the course of successive exiles-he states:
Dreams, I recalled now, had long been a refuge from his life's incongruities. During his first year in the United States, he once told me, he dreamed he was in New York, all alone in Grand Central Station. All at once, the train doors swept open and all of Zakho's Kurds poured out onto the platform. Dreams were a place where fragments could be made whole. (pp. 278-279)
These are the dreams, lost and found and then lost once again, that haunt our people. Having abandoned our ancestral homes in the Middle East, we were caught between the hate of an Arab world that treated us in our final years as unwelcome interlopers in a place where we had lived for centuries and the European racism of an Israel which insisted that we were mindless illiterates who had no culture or breeding.
The net effect of this double exile—the exile from the Arab world and the exile from our Israeli "homeland"—has de-centered us from the traditions and stories of the past and led to a lamentable internalization of that corrosive racism. Young Sephardim from the earliest stages of the exile—from the early part of the 20th century until today—have turned their backs on their stories, their names and their human realities.
When a Kurdish family went out for a stroll, they didn't walk in a bunch. They sorted themselves into a single-file line, a moving, horizontal totem pole. The eldest male led, followed by the eldest son, then the wife and the younger children. With Sara ahead of her mother and Yona behind with the youngest siblings, the column had fallen out of alignment. It was not a complete accident. Yona had dreaded joining his father at the front of the line that night. But something about this foolish clapping at cars deepened his feeling that he had to tell his father now, that he had good reason for his plan of action. He had grown tired of the Ana Kurdi jokes that tarred people from Zakho as bumpkins. But there was a grain of truth in them, wasn't there? Walk through Katamonim and you could see for yourself. All you had to do was watch children applauding some jalopy as though it were a rocket to the moon.
He had gone over the talk many times in is head, softening the edges so it would do the least damage when it slid into his father's heart. I love and honor my family very much, especially you and Saba Ephraim. But I am finishing the army now and preparing for college. I have to think about the future. Many of my friends have wanted to become real Israelis. And the way they have done that is with a new last name, an Israeli name. (p. 143)
The name-changing is a sign of a much larger problematic that Ariel Sabar has to deal with in his book: It is cowardice that has served to eviscerate an entire culture; a culture that is not, as we see so clearly in this rich work of reclamation, a monolingual entity, but a broad tapestry of interwoven languages and cultures that represented the larger Middle Eastern civilization.
You see, the main theme of My Father's Paradise is the way in which the author's father reclaimed his native Aramaic language and presented it in the face of an uncaring and largely apathetic world.
Unlike the vast majority of Arab Jewish communities from the onset of Islam many centuries ago, the Kurdish Jews clung tenaciously to a language that once served as the lingua franca of the region. After the near-universal adoption of Arabic as the language of civilization, those who lived in the mountainous region that is joined by the modern states of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq continued to speak and write and think in the language of Jesus and of the Talmud.
But I am getting ahead of myself.