On sale September 16, 2008
“My Father’s Paradise” was my May LibraryThing Early Reviewers book and it ranks with “The 19th Wife” as one of the most outstanding books I’ve gotten from the program. This is a refreshingly honest and candid book that focuses in on a story many people have never heard.
Until the middle of the 20th century, there was an enclave of Jews in Kurdistan. Isolated even from the Jews of Baghdad, they were among the last people in the world speaking Aramaic, a language with a 2,000 year history. It was in the small village of Zakho in Iraqi Kurdistan that Yona Sabagha was born.
“My Father’s Paradise” is truly two stories. It is the story of the Sabagha family and their transition from Zakho in Kurdistan to the new nation state of Israel, and eventually to the United States of America, with a particular focus on Yona, the man who changed their name from Sabagha to Sabar. In addition, this is the story of Ariel Sabar: a journalist, a not-too-religious Jew married to a Gentile woman, the son of an immigrant, a boy who could not understand why his father could not just fit in. “My Father’s Paradise” began as Ariel’s attempt to reconnect with his family’s past and mend his relationship with his father.
The outcome of Ariel Sabar’s fence-mending is somewhat of a cross between a simple memoir (or family memoir) and an epic novel. Sabar dives deep into the culture and the history first of Iraqi Kurdistan then of the Kurdish Jewish immigrants to Israel. I finally understand the reverse diaspora that transported Jews from all over the Middle East, people who had lived in their respective countries for millennia, back to Israel – a process that both resulted from and fed into the Arab hatred of this new country. Even this hatred was treated even-handedly, with background about the anti-colonial sentiment engulfing the Arab world as people finally gained freedom from British and French overlords…only for the UN to carve out a piece of ‘their’ land to house Jews who did not feel welcome or safe in Europe after WWII.
Because all of this history was told through the story of the Sabagha family, the book never felt like a history lesson, yet it taught me even more than I expected to learn. I knew that I was ignorant of the lives of Jews in Kurdistan, but I never imagined just how ignorant I was of the early days of life in Israel. Sabar succeeded in writing a fantastic book that both informs and moves, and that I would be happy to read over and over again. Whether you’re a fan of history, cultural studies, linguistics (Yona devotes his career to the study of Aramaic), memoir, if you like to learn about the Middle East or Israel, or if you just want a well-written book, this is one you shouldn’t miss.