2008 Autobiography Finalist My Father’s Paradise, by Ariel Sabar

by admin | Mar-02-2009

Each day leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2008 NBCC awards, we highlight one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Ellen Heltzel discusses Ariel Sabar’s My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq (Algonquin Books)

When Ariel Sabar was growing up in California during the 1980s, the generational divide between he and his immigrant father was strained to the breaking point. As Ariel writes in My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, his teen-age self could find no sympathy for a dad who had “sublimated homesickness into a career.”

Truly, Yona Sabar was no ordinary father. Born into a community that for nearly three millennia co-existed peacefully with its neighbors in northern Iraq, he was part of a minority within a minority—Jews among Kurds in an Arab country. Its members were so isolated that they were ignorant of the Holocaust and still spoke Aramaic, the language Jesus is thought to have spoken, when they were uprooted and sent to Israel.

There, the young Yona almost succumbed to the discrimination against Kurdish Jews and “the way one’s own culture could slap down hands that reached too high.” But after receiving a full ride to Yale, he came to America, where he married and found his life’s work. As a scholar and professor at UCLA, he became the self-appointed guardian of his native language and literature.

As for the son, Ariel, his field is journalism. After his own son was born in 2002, his perspective about his own heritage changed, and he began the quest to understand his father’s life and the culture Yona Sabar was struggling to preserve. The upshot is an book that operates on several levels: as the story of the relationship between father and son, as testimony to a man with a mission, and as the portrait of a nearly forgotten people. It offers an award-worthy, alternate view of Iraq and its history.




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