Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Nonfiction Files

The Nonfiction Files is a weekly journal of my adventures reading my toppling piles of nonfiction books. I won't be posting reviews, but rather my thoughts about what I'm reading, while I'm reading it.

My current read: My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar

Synopsis from publisher:

In a remote and dusty corner of the world, forgotten for nearly three thousand years, lived an ancient community of Kurdish Jews so isolated that they still spoke Aramaic--the language of Jesus. Mostly illiterate, they were self-made mystics and gifted storytellers, humble peddlers and rugged loggers who dwelt in harmony with their Muslim and Christian neighbors in the mountains of northern Iraq. To these descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, Yona Sabar was born.

In the 1950s, after the founding of the state of Israel, Yona and his family emigrated there with the mass exodus of 120,000 Jews from Iraq--one of the world's largest and least-known diasporas. Almost overnight, the Kurdish Jews' exotic culture and language were doomed to extinction. Yona, who became an esteemed professor at UCLA, dedicated his career to preserving his people's traditions. But to his first-generation American son Ariel, Yona was a reminder of a strange immigrant heritage on which he had turned his back--until he had a son of his own.

My Father's Paradise is Ariel Sabar's quest to reconcile present and past. As father and son travel together to today's postwar Iraq to find what's left of Yona's birthplace, Ariel brings to life the ancient town of Zakho, telling his family's story and discovering his own role in this sweeping saga. What he finds in the Sephardic Jews' millennia-long survival in Islamic lands is an improbable story of tolerance and hope.

Populated by Kurdish chieftains, trailblazing linguists, Arab nomads, devout believers--marvelous characters all-- this intimate yet powerful book uncovers the vanished history of a place that is now at the very center of the world's attention.

My thoughts:

I am completely fascinated with this book. (I think I say this every time, don't I?? But then, there are so many fascinating stories to be told, that I never seem to have a problem finding another one.)

Sabar is not only telling the story of his family, but also of a region rich with its own history and contradictions. The Sabars are from Zakho in Iraqi Kurdistan - a city on an island surrounded by a river, where Jewish-Muslim relations are so central to the city's identity that they have a creation myth to explain it. The two religions and their adherants flourished side by side in this unique area, so much so that when Jews and Muslims began to kill each other, the people of Zakho didn't believe it. It wasn't until the late 1940s that relations began to feel a strain, and when the majority of the Jewish residents left for Israel after the denaturalization laws went into effect in the 1950s, their Muslim neighbors gathered in the streets to mourn their passing and wish them well.

Along with the history of the region, we learn the story of Sabar's family. His great-grandfather, the mystic; his grandmother who, abused by her stepmother, was not told of her marriage until she arrived at her new in-law's house; his grandfather, a brilliant businessman, who resisted leaving for Israel until the last moments. These people literally come alive, and I feel an emotional attachment to them.

We also start to learn the story of Ariel and his father, and their strained relationship. To Ariel, his father was a relic from the old country, someone to ignore whenever possible, and confront when necessary. The realization that he wanted to understand his father came with the birth of his own son, and gave him the motivation to embark on this journey. We haven't been given a lot of insight into Ariel yet, but his care for the people he is writing about, and his love for the country they live in, is evident by the way he writes about them. I'm not an adventurous person, but he makes me want to go visit this land and meet its people.

I tend to enjoy family history - other families as well as my own - so this book is naturally of interest to me. Early on, the author says he wants to answer two bigger questions: "What is the value of our past?" and "When we carry our languages and stories from one generation to the next, from one country to another, what exactly do we gain?" I hope he shares his answers to those questions.

Stop back next week for part 2 of My Father's Paradise, and also be sure to visit Jehara, who is also participating in The Nonfiction Files. I think she's starting a new book - can't wait to see what she picks!


Meghan said...

I really enjoyed this book. I just found both Ariel's story and his father's to be so compelling and interesting and unfamiliar. Hope you continue to enjoy it!

bermudaonion said...

This is a fascinating book! My mother and I talked about it for ages after we read it.

Violet said...

I simply loved this book, I'm so glad you're enjoying it. It gets even better later on :)

It will be fun to read this every week and re-live the book in a way :)

Kailana said...

This book looks really good!

Zibilee said...

Oh, I am so glad you are reading this one! It is indeed a great book, and I really had quite a nerdy crush on Ariel's father by the end of the story. He is a really amazing man. I just know you are going to end up loving this one. Great review!