Wednesday, November 18, 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 posts about this book here and 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 final thoughts:

This final section was all about the Sabars' life in America - Yona's first impressions of his new country ("They would tell you things which would never occur to me to mention to someone I just met, if ever..."); meeting the woman who would become his wife ("She sees the image of God in human beings even when they are not at their best..."); his work as a professor, and struggles with his increasingly rebellious son.

Sabar doesn't try to sugar-coat his relationship to his father. He was full of teenaged frustration, and treated his father cruelly. His adult insight into the motivations behind that behavior were interesting, and I could relate to them. Although I don't think I was ever that purposefully cruel to my parents, I know what he means when he says his father probably would have understood the feelings he wasn't mature enough to put words to.

Eventually, Sabar grows up and realizes that he might be able to learn something from his father. His attempts to connect with his father's past, and the trip they take back to Zahko, wrap up this book, and I admit I found this section the least compelling. I was much more interested in the relationship between the two men, and felt the pages of Sabar running around fruitlessly looking for his lost aunt lost some of the strong sense of personal history that I had so enjoyed until that point.

Despite that, I still recommend this book strongly. It's cast of characters is impossible not to fall in love with, and I predict you will start to think of them as members of your own family, like I did. Sabar has a wonderfully engaging storytelling style, and the pages fly past - you will be amazed at how quickly you are done, and how much you miss this fascinating, quirky, remarkable family.

Finished: 11/14/09
Source: the publisher - thank you!
Rating: 8/10

One of the reasons I started The Nonfiction Files as a weekly feature was to reinforce the idea that nonfiction isn't scary - there are so many wonderful stories to discover! If you have read a great piece of nonfiction lately, let me know, and I will link to your post on my next weekly Nonfiction Files!

I'm joined in The Nonfiction files by Jehara. If you would like to play along with us, let me know!


Carolynn said...

here's another review too!


Kristen said...

This one sounds like a fascinating read. Thanks for highlighting it.

Zibilee said...

Glad you liked the book. I also was a bit surprised at how Ariel treated his father at times. He seemed like such a sweet man, even if he was a little out of touch!