My Father's Paradise, by Ariel Sabar. Published 2008 by Algonquin Books. Nonfiction.
It's hard to know how to begin a review of a book like My Father's Paradise, because a book like this doesn't come around very often. It's very special.
My Father's Paradise is the story of two men, Yona and Ariel Sabar, father and son. It's the story of Yona's family, among the last generation of Jews to live in the mountains of Kurdistan and speak Aramaic as a native language. It's the story of Yona's life in Iraq, and his journey to and life in Israel and the United States. It's also the story of his son's journey to bridge and close the generational and cultural divides separating him from his father, and ultimately from his own heritage.
Ariel Sabar is frank about how, growing up, he wanted to be the consummate California guy and was embarrassed by his nerdy, misfit dad, who drove a cheap car and dressed funny, not like the other dads. Like many kids, he needed a little maturity to appreciate his family, and in order to develop the curiosity leading him to take time away from his career as a journalist and immerse himself in his family's story. He does so beautifully.
The first few chapters of My Father's Paradise, in which he speculates on the story of his grandmother Miryam's girlhood and married life, read like accomplished historical fiction, rich in detail and human feeling. Later chapters are less speculative but retain all the charm of the early chapters. As he goes along, Sabar mixes in social and political history to help situate the reader and explain why Yona Sabar and his family had to leave everything behind in Iraq and start again in Israel, where being a Middle Eastern Jew with funny clothes and a language no one else spoke were hurdles to overcome. Eventually Yona moves to the United States, enrolls at Yale and his life takes off- he gets married and begins a wildly successful career teaching, researching and writing about the language, folk tales and culture of Kurdistani Jews. His diverse accomplishments include writing a Neo-Aramaic dictionary and providing Aramaic dialogue for "The X-Files."
Sabar's writing is wonderful throughout. Fluid and rich, his writing is sometimes serious and dense with facts, sometimes deeply emotional, and sometimes even humorous, but it's always punchy and full of verve. He's refreshingly honest about his behavior and the unflattering light in which he saw his father for many years, and the ways in which maturity has mellowed him and changed his perspective. He divides the book into quick little chapters, which I always believe is very helpful in a history book for laypeople. This structure allows the reader to stop and start and take the book in bite-size portions- no long, interminable chapters to wade through, no unscalable mountains of names and dates. He creates vivid characters- real, complicated people the reader can feel for and understand.
As much a biography and a story of a family as a history, My Father's Paradise is also a story about change- changing communities, changing cultures and changing relationships. It's a story about taking something you believe is a liability- in this case, belonging to an isolated ethnic group speaking a near-dead language- and turning into the very thing that saves you and helps you make a life. It's a book about nostalgia and the surprises that await when you try to go home again. It's about a father and a son, and how the two may be more alike than different, more alike than either might think at first.
Everybody should read My Father's Paradise even if you think you have no interest in Kurdistani Jews. It's a book about a very specific culture that's filled with universal themes that anyone can appreciate. And it's so well-crafted that it's an absolute pleasure to read- a really beautiful, special book. I hope everyone reads it.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.