Book Review: My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq

David Shasha

Posted Oct 7, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Book Review: My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq

by David Shasha

Dreaming Fevered Dreams of the Past in Aramaic

Ariel Sabar, My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008

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.

In describing this aspect of our history as it related to the author’s father Yona Sabar, we read about the importance of names:

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.

The internal problematic of the Arab Jewish community is one of self-loathing; of dreams that have been shattered and left inert.  It struck me as I was reading this extraordinary book that its author lacks the “normal” Sephardic trajectory.  He has abandoned Jewish praxis and is not a part of the organic Jewish community.  His profession as a journalist is not one that is common to the members of our communities.  But these two anomalies – his lack of formal Jewish identity and his training as a reporter – both serve him well in this case.  It is sad to have to say it, but My Father’s Paradise is itself an anomaly among books written about the Middle Eastern Jewish experience.

While it is indeed true that in recent years we have been blessed to have excellent memoirs written by truly gifted people like Nissim Rejwan and Sasson Somekh and a more recent addition from Violette Shamash that was edited as a labor of love by her daughter and son-in-law, we almost completely lack third-party narratives from the children and grandchildren of the protagonists.  The recent work of Lucette Lagnado tells the commonplace story of a bourgeois Arab Jew with all the attendant attention paid to the sort of details that speak of the intimate lives of people, but does not really provide for us the intimate struggle with history and culture that the memoirs give us.

My Father’s Paradise is a breakthrough work that provides the reader with a well-researched history of Kurdish Jewry intertwined with an intimate family saga, laid out in episodic fashion, overlaid with a critical eye towards the erosion of history and the ways in which history shapes who we are as human beings.

It is a work that could not have been written by someone who is now a part of the Sephardic community for reasons that I have continually discussed in my own writing.  The disdain for our history and culture has reached a point of no return.  The ways in which history has been wrenched out of its context and distorted has served to suppress the truths of a past that is increasingly distant and out of reach.

By working contrapuntally and in defiance of the norms of the Sephardic world, Ariel Sabar brings back to mind the Hasidic tale that is retold at the very close of Gershom Scholem’s magisterial study Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, the subject itself retrofitting nicely back into the spiritual world of the author’s great-grandfather Ephraim Beh Sabagha:

When the Baal Shem had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer – and what he had set out to perform was done.  When a generation later the “Maggid” of Meseritz was faced with the same task he would go to the same place in the woods and say: We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers – and what he wanted done became reality.  Again a generation later Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task.  And he too went into the woods and said: We can no longer light the fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs – and that must be sufficient: and sufficient it was.  But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done.  And, the story-teller adds, the story which he had told had the same effect as the actions of the other three. (p. 350)

Here we have the devotion of the rawi, the story-teller whose very life-blood is the tale:

Now, though, I was handing my father what I thought was a gift: the chance to make Zakho real.  We could repair our relationship over cups of cardamom tea at cafés by the Habur River.  We could walk together through streets of the old Jewish neighborhood, summoning the spirits of our ancestors.  (p. 267)

This passion for telling stories is not merely some vain concern, but cuts to the very heart of the author’s belief system:

What was real were the stories of my father’s boyhood in Kurdistan.  What gripped the rabbi and the worshippers that day were his ties to the Jews exiled to Assyria some three thousand years earlier.  This was the original Judaism.  This was flesh-and-blood history.  This, I felt, was the covenant.  (p. 257)

Under the “Field of Dreams”-like overlay that Sabar sets out here is a rather complex web of emotional, intellectual and psychological elements that make My Father’s Paradise a singular work of Middle Eastern Jewish history.

The book is structured in neat blocks that stack up through the breaks of history, what Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi has discussed in the final lecture of his classic work Zakhor:

Perhaps the time has come to look more closely at the ruptures, breaches, breaks, to identify them more precisely, to see how Jews endured them, to understand that not everything of value that existed before a break was either salvaged or metamorphosed, but was lost, and that often some of what fell by the wayside can become, through our retrieval, meaningful to us.  (p. 101)

While it is clear that Yerushalmi writes from within a hyper-modern Eurocentric perspective which valorizes the very mechanisms that ghettoized and stigmatized the family history of the Beh Sabaghas, we can appropriate his idea and see in it a way to subvert and undermine the standard Jewish narrative and deconstruct its assumptions in ways that defy the exoticization of the Oriental.  And it is here that Ariel Sabar’s outsider status in the Jewish world is most valuable.

In reconstructing the colorful and kaleidoscopic world of the Kurdish Jews at the time of Ephraim Beh Sabbagh, Sabar utilizes the values of the historical community:

The Beh Sabaghas were not nobodies.  Their reputation, if you could call it that, was for spirituality.  Not piety, mind you.  But spirituality, a self-styled mysticism that derived from Ephraim’s overnight prayer vigils at the synagogue.  Some townspeople claimed to overhear him conversing with angels.  Others – Rahamim laughed when he thought about it – just shook their heads at the blue smudges on the pages of the prayer books and wondered why the man didn’t scrub his hands harder after his long days in the dye shop.  His father was perhaps the only merchant in Kurdistan who stuffed books into his donkey’s saddlebags on peddling trips through the mountain villages. (p. 29)

The portrait of Ephraim Beh Sabagha is one of majesty and an awesome grandeur.  This is a post-Zionist assessment of a man who would later be a shameful reminder of a world that would be best forgotten.  Even today, young Jews would seek to dissect the person of such a man, a humble textile dyer and pious mystic, and determine what kind of Jew he was and what kind of human being he was.  Rather than letting the traditional culture of the region determine such things, we are all too quick to act in a judgmental fashion about our progenitors by trying to impose our values and our way of seeing things on them.

And our own pitiful shame is that in being cynical about our progenitors we miss the moral genius and the human brilliance of who they were.  Ephraim was a man who stood for the highest devotion to the principles of Religious Humanism: he was a firm believer in the ways of God and the laws of our tradition.  He was a very special man who was beloved in his society who never relinquished his deep and abiding love and concern for his fellow human beings.

Tellingly, this was a culture where humanity was prized:

In the mountains, hundreds of miles from the religious fanaticism and nationalist movements of the big cities, the Kurdish Jews faced almost none of the virulent anti-Semitism that hounded Jews in Europe or even, to a far, lesser extent, in Baghdad.  They went to work, prayed to a Jewish God, and spoke their own language without major disruption for some twenty-seven hundred years.

Seclusion bred fraternity.  Muslim, Jew, and Christian suffered alike through the region’s cruel cycles of flood, famine and Kurdish tribal bloodshed.  They prospered alike when the soil yielded bumper crops of wheat, gall nuts, and fragrant tobacco.  In important ways, they were Kurds first and Muslims, Christians, or Jews second.  Muslims sent Jews bread and milk after Passover.  They ate matzoh, which they called “holiday bread,” as a delicacy.  They sent their Jewish neighbors hot tea during the Sabbath, when Jews were forbidden to light fires.  Some Muslims even asked the synagogue keeper to wake them early in the days before Yom Kippur: They viewed early rising on Jewish days of penitence as bringing good luck.  And the Jews paid back the respect, forgoing cigarettes, for instance, during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims may not smoke. (p. 69)

Zakho in Kurdistan was a place where people acted as civilized human beings and where the rhythms of life were infused into a society that respected the person of the individual.  Ephraim was a holy man and a towering figure in his society.

But the times would change – for the worse.  After the violence of the 1941 Farhud in Baghdad, the climate for the Jews of the region would deteriorate.  The young people began to think of emigration while their elders tried to hang onto to what was left after Iraqi society turned against the Jews.  As this complex turn of events was happening, there was little sense that Israel would not become a welcoming home to the immigrants. 

But the reality of immigration to Israel from the Arab world was fraught with contradictions and complications:

Not surprisingly, the crusaders for a Jewish state were European intellectuals embittered by failed dreams of assimilation.  Budapest-born Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, wrote his manifesto Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) after covering the Dreyfus trial as a correspondent…

Of the 480,000 Jews who immigrated to Palestine during the twenty-eight year British Mandate, some 90 percent were European.  Herzl envisioned the future state of Israel as a kind of Vienna on the Jordan, complete with circuses, theaters, opera houses, and café-lined boulevards.  The ideas of these early leaders, however resonant in Eastern Europe, would have struck the Jews of Zakho as outright bizarre.

The wider welcome mat for European Jews was not simply the result of fraternity among countrymen.  Behind it lurked the belief that the Mizrahi Jews, the ones from Islamic lands, detracted from the dreams of a Viennese-style Paradise.  What to do with them was debated at the highest levels of academia and politics.  (p. 100)

So in spite of the complex feelings of hope for young men like Yona Beh Sabagha, the future of life in a Jewish state was not what it was cracked up to be.

And in swift fashion, the Kurdish Jews were relegated to the bottom of the Israeli ladder:

The Israeli absorption agency had settled the Sabaghs in Talpiot, a sprawling ma’abara, or immigrant shanty town, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The ma’abarot were Israel’s solution to its immigrant housing crisis and would soon become an embarrassing symbol of the state’s lack of preparation for its heavily trumpeted “ingathering of exiles.” Row after unrelieved row of tents — and later, corrugated tin sheds — was erected atop bare ground on more than one hundred hardscrabble tracts from the Galilee region in the north to the Negev desert in the south. The teeming settlements were often at a remove from the town and city centers where the new immigrants might actually find jobs, integrate into neighborhoods, or even catch a regularly scheduled bus. Isolated in wastelands of flimsy housing far from the institutions that had lured the immigrants to Israel in the first place, the ma’abarot became fertile ground for sudden epidemics, vermin, illicit markets for stolen goods, and sometimes explosive tensions among groups of immigrants with differing customs and languages. (p. 112)

It would not be long before many of the older immigrants – including the patriarch Ephraim – would lose all hope of their future and just give up and die.

But in this new world we see Yona and his siblings succeed where their parents and grandparents could not:

Yona’s siblings had lived up to his expectations in almost every way.  Sara had graduated from high school and was eager to leave the strictures of home.  She was soon off to a teachers’ college and an army hitch teaching immigrant school kids in Kiryat Gat, an hour and a half from Jerusalem.  Avram was blossoming into the strapping young man who would one day join the Israeli Army’s elite paratroopers.  Shalom won a citywide academic contest and, as his reward, a Hebrew translation of Louis E. Lomax’s The Negro Revolt.  (p. 173)

Thus began the process that would eat away at the engine of the past.  Like many other immigrants from the Arab-Muslim world, the now-rechristened Sabars held their progenitors at bay while acclimating and adapting to the new Zionist realities.  It is important to keep this in mind when considering the future of Yona Sabar whose entry into the upper levels of Israeli society was achieved through the paradox of his Aramaic proficiency.  Indeed, it was the intellectual and academic classes that ushered Yona into an exclusively European world where a language little-known and in its death-throes would become his meal-ticket.

After having won a prestigious prize named after former Israel president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, himself an eccentric devotee of Arab Jewish culture, Yona begins on the path to academic prominence.  He applies to and is accepted into Yale’s Near Eastern Studies department as a doctoral candidate.  He succeeds there and eventually marries an American Jewish girl and gets a teaching position at UCLA.

It is here that we first meet Ariel as a teenager, one who could care less about his father’s work:

Looking back on it now, I see it was a cold war.  I never hit my father.  I never ran away from home or told him I hated him.  I never said I blame you for my olive skin, my hair, my name.  I never said, directly, I am embarrassed by your bad haircuts and the funny way you speak English.  I didn’t know how to confront my feelings that directly.  So instead, I swore horribly in front of him, ridiculed him behind his back, and took pains to avoid him, to be nothing like him. (p. 234)

So we see two lives – Ariel and Yona’s – that are lived in separate tracks.  Yona becomes an esteemed authority on a language that is little known either inside or outside the academy.  In many ways the project that Yona Sabar took on was to restore not only the linguistic traditions of Zakho, but to bring the human civilization of Kurdish Jews back to the world.  From his earliest interviews at the Hebrew University recording a storyteller named Mamo Yona Gabbay to his participation in an episode of the TV show “The X Files,” Yona carried the torch for this culture in a way that is unique and admirable.

Like any great yarn, Ariel returns to his father’s Kurdish world by proposing a trip back to Zakho and even to attempt to find Yona’s long-lost sister who as an infant was given to a Muslim wet-nurse who absconded without returning the baby.

We must keep in mind not only the sea-change in Ariel’s own consciousness, but the massive changes that were taking place in Iraq at the very time a few years ago when he proposed the book project and began to work on it.

From the past history of Zakho to the immigration to Israel and on to Yona’s move to America, we now square the circle and are returned to the proverbial scene of the crime.  The idea of returning to a now war-torn land is something that gives the book’s final section a sense of drama that becomes tied to the existential complexity that has occasioned the book in the first place.

My Father’s Paradise thus closes on a note of deep conflict and the ways in which that conflict plays itself out and is to some extent resolved.  As I said earlier, Ariel Sabar as a young man was deeply ashamed of his immigrant father and the cacophony of his Aramaic language.  In this sense there are parallels between Ariel, his own father Yona and to a lesser extent his grandfather Rahamim.  Each member of the three generations sought to break from their immediate past(s) and strike out on their own.  But it was in the figure of Yona that the past reared its ugly head most pronouncedly. 

The academic work of Yona Sabar has manifested itself in a book-lengthy study of Kurdish Jewish folklore culled from the many hours of interviews that he did over many years of arduous work and in a dictionary of the language published in 2002.  It would not be an understatement to say that Yona Sabar – the hero of his son’s brilliant book – is a monumental figure in the contemporary intellectual history of the Middle Eastern Jews.  He has almost single-handedly brought his community’s culture to the public square and has been a tireless champion of its civilization.

It is thus gratifying that after many years of cynicism, apathy and disdain – the standard lament of the contemporary Sephardim – Ariel Sabar has sought to lionize his father by elevating Yona’s often obscure academic work and presenting it in a deftly readable and emotionally rewarding book.

My Father’s Paradise is that rarest of things: A book written out of a sense of pure devotion and love of tradition that serves the average reader with a rich smorgasbord of memorable characters and stories.  It will enchant and enlighten the reader at the same time.  It is a book that is to be cherished and savored for its wonderful portrayal of a community whose history has been largely forgotten; a community that is part of the natural landscape of our Middle Eastern world. 

In a marvelously fluid prose style, Sabar details the history and the culture of a society that is most definitely worth knowing.  It is not merely another Middle Eastern Jewish memoir/history that recounts what we already know in a straightforward fashion.  It is a work where fragments are indeed made whole.

Because Sabar is not himself a primary player in the history of Zakho’s Jewish community, he is able to look back at the past with both a loving and a critical eye and make the past not only come alive for us, but shows us the ways in which that past can still have meaning for us, as it has for him.  His is not merely the dispassionate voice of the historian or the incestuous voice of the family chronicler showing off his relations like some tiresome and maddening tourist dusting off their holiday photos.

My Father’s Paradise is equally a work of cultural reclamation and historical investigation.  It is in this sense a very rare and precious commodity: In a world of Sephardic exotic ephemera lost in a sea of Ashkenazi-centrism, the book plays the role of a primary source of information that is as lively as it is informative. 

We should applaud such an achievement and hope that it is able to find a wide readership.  Given its reader-friendly style and the critical information that it imparts, My Father’s Paradise is a masterwork that should be added to all our libraries.