Nostalgic and Aramaic

Professor Yona Sabar is one of a small remnant of native Aramaic speakers. His son explores his roots

By Moris Farhi, November 16, 2012

My Father's Paradise/ By Ariel Sabar/ Algonquin Books, £9.99

The Sabars, father and son, on a visit back to Zakho, the erstwhile paradise

The Sabars, father and son, on a visit back to Zakho, the erstwhile paradise

For the displaced — despite the Torah’s commandments, we seldom love the stranger — “paradise” has a distinctive meaning. It portrays their old country and everything they left behind. Thus, memories of its people, of the goodness or hostility of its rulers, its climate and the texture of its soil, the smells, foods, traditions, the joys and sorrows shared with communities and the handshakes that expressed the inexpressible, are quite palpable.

As, lotus-fed and disregarding our humanity, we ride the runaway juggernaut of geopolitics and pursue the extermination of “other” races, nations, religions, cultures, languages and habitats, this “paradise” of bygone times becomes a vital refuge for the outsider. But it is a sorrowful refuge, heavy with longing, despair and lamentation.

In this memoir by Ariel Sabar, the “paradise” of the author’s father, Yona, is Zakho, a town on an island of the Habur river, close to the Turkish border in Kurdish Iraq.

In the 1930s, when Yona’s story begins, Zakho had a population of 27,000. Inhabited predominantly by Muslim Kurds, it boasted a Jewish minority assumed to be the progenies of Nebuchadnezzar’s captives banished to Babylon.

Remarkably, these Jews, mostly illiterate, spoke neither Kurdish nor Arabic, but Aramaic, a language, some three millennia old, which served the Middle East as lingua franca for much of that time-span and which still has two prayers, the Kaddish and the Kol Nidrei, in the Hebrew liturgy.

Life was never easy for Kurdish Jews. But it had its paradisal aspects. Ensconced for centuries in a harsh region where good luck and/or misfortune struck people indiscriminately, Muslims, Jews and Christians, while maintaining their faith and social standings, had developed an enviable coexistence.

Equally importantly, the Jews treasured a compelling spiritual world, an oral tradition of countless narratives distilled both from the Old Testament and a cornucopia of cultures.

This “paradise” was lost when Arab nationalism erupted. Upon the establishment of the state of Israel, Iraq expelled all the Jews from the country.

The fledgling State of Israel opened its gates to these exiles. While his family had difficulties settling down, Yona Sabar found salvation in education.

As a “literate” Kurdish Jew who spoke Aramaic, he soon drew the attention of academia. He became a dedicated scholar of Aramaic, first in Israel, then in the United States. Given the better resources for research in the US, he settled there. Producing seminal works over the years, he became one of the greatest authorities in that ancient but dying language.

The latter part of My Father’s Paradise narrates the growing interest of Yona’s son — the author, Ariel — in his father’s roots. Eventually, father and son travel to Zakho. Despite the warm welcome they receive from the Kurds, some of whom still remember the family, Yona realises that the present can accommodate the past only as a nostalgic “paradise”. Later, after another emotive trip to Zakho, Ariel attains a better understanding of the effects of lost paradises.

An eye-opener on the diaspora’s cultural breadth which we often under-estimate, My Father’s Paradise is an outstanding memoir.

Moris Farhi’s latest poetry collection is ‘Songs From Two Continents’ (Saqi, £10)

Last updated: 12:32pm, November 16 2012