Ariel Sabar: My Father’s Paradise

Ariel Sabar, My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Family’s Past (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008)

Yona Sabar is one of those dear colleagues whose presence always put a smile on my face. Though some time has passed since I last met him at one of the linguistic conferences on Neo-Aramaic, he made a lasting impression as both a great scholar and a warm human being. The book written by his son Ariel Sabar, on his father, his family’s Aramaic, Jewish, and North-Iraqi heritage, brought back this smile many times by painting his father in such vivid colors that it seemed as if the years that had passed since I last saw him shrank to nothing.

I am certain that also for those who did not yet have the privilege to meet with Professor Sabar in person, this book will endear him to many readers – through the eyes of a son that took quite a number of years before acknowledging his father’s pursuit for the survival, if only on paper and on tape, of the Aramaic language of his forefathers in Jewish Kurdistan. In trying to understand the hopes and fears of his father after the birth of his own son, Ariel Sabar traces his family’s history in North-Iraq, creating a vivid image of the flourishing community in the early parts of the twentieth century and its quick demise in the second half. The family history so expands into a concise history of the Jews of North Iraq, of their migration to Israel, and their difficult assimilation to the then-Ashkenazy dominated young state – an assimilation that for Yona Sabar eventually led to emigration to the United States where Ariel grew up, a journey driven by the opportunity offered to the father to work on and for the Aramaic language, but that distanced him even further from the paradise of his youth. The book ends with two trips to Zakho, the town where Yona Sabar was born and lived until he was twelve. The trips, though helping the son to understand more of the realities of life in the Middle East of his father, leave important questions unanswered and thus contribute to the putting to light the unfinished business of the Jewish presence in the Muslim world – one of the book’s subthemes that are touched upon but not worked out in detail.

In addition to a son’s search for his father and his family’s history, the other major theme is that of the demise of the Aramaic language, especially in its Jewish form. The community of linguists, painted somewhat caricaturally via a conference in Cambridge, that attempt to reduce the language to an intricate grammatical system, the role of his father as a native speaker within that community, the role of his grandmother whose stories become part of the working texts of the scholars, and the disinterest of the ‘Kurdish’ community in Israel for the language that was lost in the process of integration into the Hebrew-speaking world of Israel, are all aspects of the story of that demise. While Ariel’s assessment of the prospect of Aramaic is unduly pessimistic (at least most of the Christian varieties will outlive those of us who study the language in the early twenty-first century), the fate of Aramaic is the fate of many languages in past and present: languages that have lost its speakers to more powerful languages that entice its speakers with promises of paradise, mostly of the earthly kind. And so it is also the story of men and women whose old worlds unraveled, who had to move in unfamiliar territory and had to change the language of the mind long before heart and soul could follow. And thus for their sons, it becomes a language of the past.

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