My Father’s Paradise is perhaps the first book I’ve read that provides a good argument for changing the term “memoir” to the more trendy “narrative non-fiction.” And it’s a strong argument, for this is much more than a nostalgic look at one man’s past. It is an excavation into a corner of civilization itself.
Ariel Sabar looks for his own roots by searching for his father’s, and his search takes him back nearly three millennia.
After a short introduction of himself as a teen-age L.A. hellion, he novelizes his family’s Kurdish past, not in the manner of Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner or A Thousand Splendid Suns but more like Michener, except the characters are his own forebears. He brings alive in historical context his father’s native Iraqui Kurdish village of Zakhor, a ways north from Mosul (we all know that name now, don’t we?) But Zakhor isn’t just any little Iraqui village.
Here is some of the history: When the ancient (700 b.c,) Assyrians scattered the Jews hither and yon, two main groups ended up in Assyria (now Iraq, more or less). The northern Judeans (or the southern, I forget which) ended up around Baghdad, where they wrote wonderful poetry (“By the waters of Babylon . . .How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” the singer in the famous Psalm 137 writes.). They built cities and businesses, wrote the Talmud, and generally maintained a peaceful, sometimes loving and friendly, coexistence with their their Arab neighbors. The southern Judeans (or northern, see above) ended up in said village of Zakhor. They, too, integrated well with their neighbors, but they were humble tradespeople, generally illiterate. Neither group knew of the other’s existence except by rumor. In fact, some believe the Jews of Zakhor are truly the lost tribe of Israel. They did, however, in their isolation, do us all an enormous, albeit inadvertent, favor. They kept alive the Aramaic language. The language of Jesus. The language that was the lingua franca of the middle east for centuries. For millenia, through all the conquests of Alexander, Rome, and Greece.
All this fell apart during the 1940’s when the UN established Israel and the presence and very existence of Jews suddenly became abhorrent to every government in the Arab world (though not by any means to all Arabs, who mourned the loss of their neighbors, who had been truly family.) So the Jewish-Arab love affair that had lasted for twenty-seven hundred years, years during which they sang each other’s songs, danced at each other’s weddings, shared far more of themselves than they held back, a love affair that survived all those conquests, the rise of Islam and four hundred years of the Ottoman Empire, the affair that lasted so long you would have thought it would never end went through that sudden and incredibly violent divorce. And you might say that we children of the divorce live with its pain today.
On the other hand, it was that divorce that brought Ariel Sabar’s father first to Israel, then to America. It’s quite a story. In the Israeli pecking order, Kurds were (are?) at the very bottom. Even lower than the Morrocans. As Sabar puts it, Israel was a European solution to a European problem, and there was little thought or consideration given originally to those who still lived in the Holy Land. These unruly, Arabized, peasants threatened the grand vision of European zealot Zionists like David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, and they took them in only when they had no other choice. And they did not treat them well.
So, for Sabar’s father, Yona, to claw his way from a slum-dwelling despised minority through Hebrew University to a Yale scholarship to a distinguished UCLA professorship is equivalent, say, to an east L.A. cholo with illiterate, Spanish-speaking immigrant parents, wrangling his way to a position on the Harvard faculty.
Then comes the standard memoir part, the author’s own story. That of an L.A. 60’s American kid wanting desperately to fit in and be popular. He’s held back, he believes, by a nerdy father with a funny accent (His mother is American.) He defies, disrespects, denies, and rejects his father at every turn. All the while, his father’s life work–analyzing and preserving his rapidly disappearing boyhood Aramaic language, is gaining him global renown. But what does the kid care about that? He’s all grown up, a hotshot reporter on an eastern newspaper with a shiksa wife.
Then a door opens. A Hollywood door. X-Files wants to raise Lazarus in one episode, and a producer calls his father for some genuine Aramaic to accomplish the deed. Ariel’s reporter’s instinct tells him there’s a story here, so he calls his father, and their relationship takes off from there. Their collaboration creates investigations, searches, interviews, trips into dangerous territory (Would you have chanced being a Jewish-American journalist on the streets of Mosul in 2005?) So amid the moving father-son-and-the-rest-of-the-family drama, there’s lots of adventure. Don’t depend on my summary, though. It’s like looking at a street map of Paris compared to strolling the Left Bank. You’ve got to be inside the book to get the experience.
What I took away from this compelling and expertly written work more than anything else if this: For those of us who have lived through the last sixty or seventy years of Arab-Israeli strife, who like to compare Islam-Christian atrocity stories dating back to the seventh century, who sometimes think that it has always been thus and always thus shall be, remember that there was once a sort of middle eastern Camelot, and it prospered, and it lasted much longer than the contemporary blood feuds we’re wringing our hands over. Al Quaeda and Hamas and Hezbollah and Saddam Hussein and Benjamin Netenyahu will last only a blink compared to the enduring wonders of Zakhor and the Assyrian Jews and the brotherhood they shared with their Arab neighbors. That’s the past we should hearken to, and My Father’s Paradise makes you think it just might be possible.