Wednesday, November 11, 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. If you need to catch up, you can read my first post about this book here.

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 so far:

This second section of the book finds Yona and his family in Israel, which cannot live up to the dreams they have built for their homeland. While it is a much more melancholy read than the first part, I found myself connecting even more with this remarkable family.

While Yona's father and grandfather are each disappointed in their new country, Yona finds creative ways to make himself at home. While still in high school he gets a job to help support his family, and goes to school in the evenings. He quickly forms fast friendships with a group of boys at the high school - all feeling like outcasts because of their family situation and status as Kurdish refugees. I found the discrimination by Jews of European descent against Jews of Middle Eastern descent startling - as, I'm sure, did the families who were being discriminated against.

While Yona makes his way in the world, finishing high school and enrolling in college, he encourages his siblings to do the same. In a way, it was an interesting parallel to many of the stories of immigrant families to the United States - the kids assimilate fairly quickly, while the parents struggle to fit in. Yona's father was never able to replicate the success he had enjoyed in business, and his mother was virtually homebound. I felt sad for these two vibrant people who just couldn't seem to find their place in the new land.

Yona truly comes alive in college, and finds himself immersed in the world of linguistics. I love the way the author describes language:

"Language lives. It inhales culture and history. It sprouts new limbs, sloughs off old ones. It goes through cycles of rapid growth, unremarkable periods of stable maturity, decay, and sometimes, as with Hebrew, miraculous rebirth."

It is because of Yona's knowledge of a language that is almost unknown to the scholars of his day - Aramaic, the language of his youth - that he is finally able to go to America, which is where this section of the books ends. I feel so excited for him, to go on this great adventure, and yet worried as he leaves his family behind. I've become very invested in these lives - this is great storytelling!

Also participating in The Nonfiction Files is Jehara - stop by and visit! (p.s. she just got married this weekend, so you should really go congratulate her!!)


Connie said...

This book sounds like the perfect Christmas present for my sister, a former international relations major! I really think it would be up her alley.

Going to check out Jehara, now...

jehara said...

thanks! i just started a new book, and hopefully will get my post up later this evening. :)

Zibilee said...

I think this was one of the best sections of the book for me, and am glad that you are having such a good experience with it! I will be interested in your final thoughts on this book!

Zibilee said...

I really had a strong reaction to this section of the book, and am glad that you are liking it too. I felt really sad for Yona and all the disappointments he faced. I will be interested in hearing your final thoughts on the book!