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Ariel Sabar explores his dad's past

The result is the National Book Critics Circle Award winner 'My Father's Paradise.'

October 30, 2009|Reed Johnson

For much of their lives, Yona Sabar and his son Ariel were like warring countries with radically different customs, languages and concerns.

In those days, Ariel was, he says, "a very bratty, 1980s L.A. kid" who "bought into many of the superficial values of that era." His father, a professor of Aramaic at UCLA since 1972, was a Jewish immigrant from Kurdish Iraq, a gentle, modest man grounded in Old World courtesies and academic formalities.

"Ours was a clash of civilizations," Ariel writes in his memoir "My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Family's Past," which won a 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award and has just been reissued in paperback. "When we collided, it wasn't pretty."

Yet as Ariel, 38, grew up, he developed a curiosity about his father's past. Over time, he would probe Yona's upbringing in the town of Zahko in Iraq, near the Turkish border. He would learn about the tenacious faith of his ancestors, the Jews of Kurdistan, who had lived among Muslims for centuries, tending their religious beliefs in one of the Middle East's toughest neighborhoods.

He would listen to his father relate how, at age 13, he had immigrated to the new state of Israel, part of a mass exodus triggered by growing Arab-Israeli hostilities. And he would delve into the foundations of Aramaic, the nearly extinct 3,000-year-old language to which his father's career had been devoted, the mother tongue of Jesus and the second-most sacred language of the Jewish Kurds after Hebrew.

"I didn't give him the chance to tell me any of these stories," says Ariel, a former staff writer for the Baltimore Sun and the Providence Journal. "I just didn't give him the time."

Yona's odyssey, and the larger story it embodies, forms the heart of "My Father's Paradise." Actually, the book offers several narratives: a biography, a memoir, a meticulously reconstructed history of a largely vanished people and place, and a meditation on one of the world's oldest languages. Transcending mere reportage, it acquires a novel-like warp and weft.

Weaving it all together are Ariel's unflinching reflections about the border wall of misunderstanding that once stood between his father and him. Watching the rapport between father and son in Yona's book-strewn study in the family's Brentwood home, it's hard to imagine that they once were divided by everything from musical tastes (Red Hot Chili Peppers versus "Kurdish dirges" played on an old tape recorder) to speech (Ariel's surfer-dude cadences versus Yona's "five-car pileup of malapropisms and mispronunciations").

"I'd wake up in the morning," Ariel recalls, "I'd have Led Zeppelin posters on the wall, and I had surfboarding stickers on the wall. My drum set was in the corner. He'd be here in his bathrobe. I had no idea what he was working on, and it seemed like this lost world that was forever beyond my reach and beyond my interest. He might've been studying Klingon. Zahko was a world out of a fairy tale."

Father and son also clashed over money and materialism. Ariel had a friend whose father owned one of the first DeLoreans, and another with an elevator in his home.

By contrast, Yona "bought suits off the bargain rack at J.C. Penney, in pastel plaids that designers had intended for the golf course, then wore them cluelessly to campus faculty meetings," Ariel writes.

"There is a kind of mind-set of poverty that one probably never outgrows," explains Yona, 70. "Not probably -- for sure."

Still, he says, he felt similar chagrin about his own father after the family immigrated to Israel. "When we were in Iraq he was Superman. He was our hero. Then when he came to Israel, unfortunately it didn't work for him."

Occasionally, Ariel and Yona's jumbled cultural reference points produced unique bonding experiences. In the playful manner of parents, Yona taught his young son a few dozen words of Aramaic, including zingila (penis).

"He'd go to the IHOP," Ariel remembers, "and put the name down as 'Zingila,' so they'd call out 'Zingila, party of four!'" The family would break up while other customers looked on.

Ariel's perspective began to shift when the Iranian hostage crisis started in November 1979. A wave of anti-Iranian and anti-Middle Eastern sentiment swept the United States, and Ariel saw the handwriting on the wall, literally, in the form of hostile graffiti. "I felt that a lot of people who wrote that on a wall about Iranians would also feel the same way about me."

In 1992, Ariel accompanied his father when he revisited Zahko for the first time in about 40 years. Saddam Hussein was in power, and what Yona calls the "Arabization" of Kurdistan -- part of Hussein's aggressive promotion of pan-Arabic nationalism, with himself as its champion -- was in full throttle. "When Saddam was there he didn't want to hear anything about the Jewish or the Kurdish past," Yona says. "He wanted one big Iraq."

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