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My Father's Paradise

A journalist learns to embrace the ancient roots of his past in Iraqi Kurdistan's Jewish community.

By Chuck Leddy / September 15, 2008



“Ours was a clash of civilizations, writ small,” writes Ariel Sabar of his relationship with his father. “He was ancient Kurdistan. I was 1980s L.A.”Sabar, who until recently covered the 2008 US presidential campaign for The Christian Science Monitor, is the son of an Iraqi Jew from Kurdistan, a gentle scholar forced from his homeland by politics, a man who grew up in a corner of the world so isolated that he was raised speaking the ancient Aramaic of Jesus.

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If this sounds exotic or thrilling to the rest of us, it was nothing but mortifying to the youthful Sabar who was raised in Los Angeles.

“Mostly ... I kept my distance,” he writes of his father. “He lived in his world, I in mine.... [A]t some point, as a teenager, I even stopped calling him Abba or Dad. He was just ‘Yona’ ... the odd-looking, funny-talking man with strange grooming habits who lived with us and who may or may not have been my father, depending on who was asking.”

My Father’s Paradise is Sabar’s quest to reconcile an ancient past with his own life today – and to knit his father’s story to his own. It was when Sabar began his own career as a journalist and then became a father himself that the formidable challenges his father had faced began to earn his respect.

Using his journalistic skills, Sabar began to delve deeper into his father’s past. As he did, the value of his father’s uniqueness became clearer to him.

Eventually, in full pursuit of family knowledge, Sabar proposes to his father that they travel together to Zakho, in Iraqi Kurdistan, to see his father’s native village.

Not too surprisingly, Yona resists. “The height of the Iraqi insurgency against the American occupation wasn’t necessarily the ideal time for a sentimental journey by two American Jews,” he points out to his son.

Yet Yona finally relents and in 2005, the two visit Zakho, now a booming metropolis of new housing developments, factories, and Internet cafes. The trip overwhelms Yona with nostalgia and paternal pride.

But Sabar begins his story in the remote Zakho of his father’s past, where a large, Jewish, Aramaic-speaking enclave had lived in isolation and relative harmony for centuries.

This tightly knit community seemed the entire universe to Yona, who was born  in 1938. But world events soon changed everything. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948, coupled with Arab hostility to its founding, forced Yona out of his paradise for good.

After Iraq and its Arab allies lost a war to Israel, virulent anti-Semitism spread all over the region. “Muslim Iraqis started eyeing their Jewish neighbors and friends with suspicion,” writes Sabar, “[and] the Iraqi parliament made Zionism a crime.” Prominent Iraqi Jews were rounded up, imprisoned, and sometimes executed. Faced with increasing persecution, Zakho’s ancient Jewish community fled Iraq for Israel.

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