Winner of the National Book Critic Circle Award for Autobiography, 2008
It is only at the birth of his own son that the author thinks long and hard about generations and continuity and reaches out to his father in a gesture to patch a frayed relationship and to try to understand him. Out of that attempt at understanding comes this memoir. It involved many interviews with his father, trips back to his father’s home town of Zakho in Northern Iraq, trips to visit his father's friends and relatives in many places, especially in Israel where Yonah Sabar had immigrated with his family when he was thirteen.
In addition to conducting interviews, Ariel Sabar has done a lot of research to bring his father and the experiences that molded him to life. To give his father’s life context, he recreates Zakho in the early part of the 20th century where Muslim, Christians, and Jews intermingled. Zakho was so isolated it was as if time had stood still. The Jewish community spoke a version of Aramaic that scholars had assumed had died long ago. The author successfully weaves together his family story along with an informative history of Jews in Iraq, Kurdish Jews in Iraq, and a concise history of the Aramaic language.
The author’s father was the last Kurdish Jew to be a bar mitzvah in Zakho and the family fled with most other Kurdish Jews to Israel. To provide context for this phase of his father’s life, Sabar explains the relationship between the Ashkenazi founders of Israel and the Sephardi immigrants. He then goes on to describe the living conditions of immigrants in Israel in the 1950’s, his father’s education, his interest in languages, and how he was steered by professors to study the neo-Aramaic he grew up speaking.
His father’s background was certainly unusual. The contrast between the conditions into which he was born with its high rates of illiteracy and the status he attained in the scholarly world makes for an interesting story. But this memoir transcends its specifics: it has the universality of a story of the lives of many immigrants – of having to leave their homeland and make their way in a world that never really feels like home. Like these others, he feels he has been cast out of paradise.
To see a color picture of Ariel and Yonah Sabar in Zakho in 2005, click here.
People (Author's paternal grandparents were first cousins.)
Author’s father’s paternal grandfather’s side of family
Ephraim Beh Sabagha – married to Hazale (second wife); author’s great grandparents
Rachel – their daughter
Eliyahu*- their son
Israel* – their son; married Naima
Rahamim – their son; married to Miryam Beh Naze (his first cousin); author’s grandparents
Yonah – their son; author’s parents
Murdakh – cousin of Rahamim
Author’s father’s paternal grandmother’s side of family
Rifqa – married to Menashe; author’s great grandparents
Shmuel – their son
Yusef – their son
Miryam; their daughter; married to Rahamim Sabagha (her first cousin)
Rifqa – daughter of Miryam and Rahimim
Yonah – son of Miryam and Rahimim; married Stephanie Kruger; author’s parents
Ariel – son of Yonah and Stephanie; married Meg; the author
Seth and Phoebe – their children
Ilan – son of Yonah and Stephanie
Sarah – daughter of Miryam and Rahimim
Avram- son of Miryam and Rahimim
Shalom – son of Miryam and Rahimim; married to Rina
Noa and Nadav – their children
Uri – son of Miryam and Rahimim
Lee – his son
Ayala – daughter of Miryam and Rahimim
Saleh – cousin of Miryam
Aribe – Menashe’s second wife
Zaki, Yosef and Naim, Shoshana, Salim – children of Aribe and Menashe
Hazale – Menashe’s sister; married to Ephraim Beh Sabagha (see above)
Shmuel – his son
Rabbi Samuel Barzani
Asenath – his daughter
Rabbi Sassoon Kadoori
Menahem Salih Daniel
Yosef El Kabir
Tzion and Reuven – his sons
* The author states in his “Note on Method” that “he changed the names of people who were involved in a family controversy in Israel, because they are dead and did not have a chance to defend themselves.” It seems likely that Rahimim’s brothers were given the pseudonyms Israel and Elyahu.
Habur River, Iraq
Westwood area of Los Angeles
Katamonim section of Jerusalem
The Ben-Zvi Institute at Hebrew University
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
Department of Near Eastern Languages, University of California at Los Angeles