Paradise in Aramaic: review of Ariel Sabar’s book

Ariel Sabar and his father Yona on a return visit to Yona’s birthplace of Zakho

When some 25,000 Kurdish Jews were driven out of Iraq and Iran, a unique story and culture came to an end. Poet and author Moris Farhi reviews one of the few Kurdish-Jewish memoirs in English, ‘My father’s paradise’ by Ariel Sabar (now in paperback) for the Jewish Chronicle:   

In this memoir by Ariel Sabar, the “paradise” of the author’s father,
Yona, is Zakho, a town on an island of the Habur river, close to the
Turkish border in Kurdish Iraq.

In the 1930s, when Yona’s story begins, Zakho had a population of
27,000. Inhabited predominantly by Muslim Kurds, it boasted a Jewish
minority assumed to be the progenies of Nebuchadnezzar’s captives
banished to Babylon.

Remarkably, these Jews, mostly illiterate, spoke neither Kurdish nor
Arabic, but Aramaic, a language, some three millennia old, which served
the Middle East as lingua franca for much of that time-span and which
still has two prayers, the Kaddish and the Kol Nidrei, in the Hebrew
liturgy.

Life was never easy for Kurdish Jews. But it had its paradisal
aspects. Ensconced for centuries in a harsh region where good luck
and/or misfortune struck people indiscriminately, Muslims, Jews and
Christians, while maintaining their faith and social standings, had
developed an enviable coexistence.

Equally importantly, the Jews treasured a compelling spiritual world,
an oral tradition of countless narratives distilled both from the Old
Testament and a cornucopia of cultures.

This “paradise” was lost when Arab nationalism erupted. Upon the
establishment of the state of Israel, Iraq expelled all the Jews from
the country.

The fledgling State of Israel opened its gates to these exiles. While
his family had difficulties settling down, Yona Sabar found salvation
in education.

As a “literate” Kurdish Jew who spoke Aramaic, he soon drew the
attention of academia. He became a dedicated scholar of Aramaic, first
in Israel, then in the United States. Given the better resources for
research in the US, he settled there. Producing seminal works over the
years, he became one of the greatest authorities in that ancient but
dying language.

The latter part of My Father’s Paradise narrates the growing interest
of Yona’s son — the author, Ariel — in his father’s roots. Eventually,
father and son travel to Zakho. Despite the warm welcome they receive
from the Kurds, some of whom still remember the family, Yona realises
that the present can accommodate the past only as a nostalgic
“paradise”. Later, after another emotive trip to Zakho, Ariel attains a
better understanding of the effects of lost paradises.

An eye-opener on the diaspora’s cultural breadth which we often under-estimate, My Father’s Paradise is an outstanding memoir.

Read article in full 

Sephardi Bulletin review

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