July 14 2008
Ariel Sabar’s father, Yona, was from an Armenian-speaking Jewish
community in remote Kurdistan. Yona immigrated to California and had
a son who felt alienated from Yona’s antiquated ways. In My Father’s
Paradise (Reviews, June 23), Sabar journeys to Kurdistan to bridge
What is the most surprising thing you learned?
How central Iraq was to the history of the Jewish Diaspora. This was
Babylon, where most Jews were exiled when they were booted out of
ancient Israel. This is where synagogue Judaism got its start and
where the Babylonian Talmud was written. Iraq allowed Judaism to
succeed and flourish in exile. In Kurdistan, it mattered more what
your contributions were to the community than whether or not you
were Muslim, Jewish or Christian. The terrain itself, the towering
mountains that bred this community, kept out the ideologies and
intolerance that have led to so much bloodshed in recent history.
What was your father’s reaction when you told him you wanted to write
about him, and did your relationship change as a result?
Initially, I think he humored me. He was supportive, but thought I was
a little crazy when I told him I wanted us to go to Iraq together. We
talk more now and a lot of the old tensions that were there when I was
younger have faded. I now see and appreciate the cultural inheritance
he’s passed on to me.
The book is about your father, but what did your mother think?
She thought I captured him fairly well, but wondered, a little
jealously I think, why I wasn’t also writing about her family. I
told her that the story of the Ashkenazi Jews had been written many
times, but my father’s story hadn’t. I wanted to bring the story of
the Kurdish Jews to a wider audience.
Is there a message you hope people will take away from the book?
For much of its history, Iraq looked nothing like the place we
read about in the headlines today. It was a country where Jews and
Christians lived harmoniously with their Muslim neighbors. There were
occasional rough times for religious minorities, but nothing on the
scale of the Holocaust. What’s happening now is not representative of
Iraq’s larger history. I hope people can come away thinking of Iraq
in a more hopeful time, that some of the values that sustained that
multicultural worldview are still there somewhere and can perhaps