Monday, November 3, 2008

My Father's Paradise--Ariel Sabar (Book review)

My Father's Paradise started out as one of those books I knew I wanted to read but, for weeks, didn't actually crack open. It seemed like a serious subject . . . I was ready for something lighter . . . I'd gotten a little memoired out. . . .

Finally, the day came. I opened the book and began to read, and immediately wondered what I'd been stalling for. This wasn't the dense read I'd been prepared myself to dive into. For one thing, instead of starting the story with his ancestors in Kurdistan, like I expected, Sabar begins with himself as a typical LA teen, desperate to fit in with the cool crowd, resenting his father Yona for being a little too . . . foreign.

Ours was a clash of civilizations, writ small. He was ancient Kurdistan. I was 1980s L.A. He grew up in a dusty town in northern Iraq, in a crowded mud-brick shack without electricity or plumbing. I grew up in a white stucco ranch house in West Los Angeles, on a leafy street guarded by private police cruisers marked BEL-AIR PATROL.

Sabar alludes to Yona's work as a world-reknowned professor in his field, his side job translating the Aramaic Jesus spoke, for the movie Oh, God and for an episode of The X-Files. He describes how the birth of his son gave him second thoughts about his own abrupt departure from the nest. All this in the first eight pages. By page nine I was ready to travel with young Mr. Sabar wherever he wanted to take me. Kurdistan? Sure, let's go. Here's some Kurdish Jewish wedding music to get us in the mood:

But wait! These Kurdish Jews aren't in Kurdistan anymore. In fact, when Ariel and Yona returned to Zhako together late in the book, there were no Jews left in the village where Yona spent the first ten years of his life. In order to learn about the deceased great grandfather he never met, Ariel Sabar has to go to Jerusalem to interview the Kurdish Jews there who still remember him.

By the time he introduces the history of his father's ethnic subculture, it comes across less like a history lecture than like the answers to burning questions I never knew I had. Hidden in the mountains of Kurdistan, cohabiting peacefully with the local Muslims, the Jews quietly continued speaking Aramaic for twelve hundred years after it was replaced by Arabic as the dominant language of the middle east . . . until 1950-51, when they left, practically en masse, for Israel.

Rarely have I read a book in which such a frame has been used so effectively. Honestly, I'm usually distracted and annoyed when a book starts at point B and then spends a couple hundred pages getting back to B from point A where the story really begins. But in My Father's Paradise, the story of Yona's journey from the tiny village of Zakho to the slums of Jerusalem to a PhD program at Yale University is doubly meaningful because the reader simultaneously sees not only the journey of the father, but that of the son uncovering his father's history.

Want to know more? Visit Ariel Sabar's website at, read an excerpt, or check out more reviews at:
Bookworm's Dinner
Bermuda Onion's Weblog
(Have you reviewed My Father's Paradise? Post the link in the comments and I'll add it here)


  1. This book was fantastic! It's so sad that Iraq has been torn apart like that. I would love to meet both Ariel and Yona.

  2. Me, too! (You didn't ask, but I'm adding the link to your review.)

  3. Great review! I want to read this.

  4. Thanks for the link, Ali!

  5. I have *My Father's Paradise* on my bookshelf, and feel terrible that I haven't had the time to read it yet!

    Thank you for this review ... it will push me to move that book up in the stack!

  6. Dawn, I started it later than I intended to, too. So many books, so little time! But this one is definitely worth sticking near the top of the pile.

  7. I'm here by way of the Carnival link. I've never heard of this book, but I've always wanted to get a personal perspective on the histories of Kurdish Jews. This sounds like a great book to curl up with soon. Adding it to the TBR list! :)

  8. Looks like this will be the perfect read for you, Bookloversdiary! And thanks for stopping by. :-)

  9. Awesome review!
    Thanks for mentioning my review.
    I real flipped over this book. It really touched me on so many levels.
    I'm glad you liked it as well.

    Bookworm's Dinner