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A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq

by Ariel Sabar

Pub Date: Sept. 16th, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-56512-490-5
Publisher: Algonquin

In a filial salute and show of contrition, D.C.-based journalist Sabar recounts his family’s unusual history, reaching back to times before the Bible.

The author’s remarkable father, Yona, was born in remote Zakho, a dusty, isolated village not far from Mosul. The Jews of Kurdish Iraq, believed to be descended from one of the lost tribes of the Babylonian exile, were the last people to speak a form of Aramaic, the language of Jesus and lingua franca of much of the ancient world. In the 1950s, they emigrated en masse to Israel, where Yona and his family, with their strange costumes, customs and language, found themselves at the bottom of the ethnic and economic hierarchy. Unfolding the tale of their assimilation with the novelistic skill of a Levantine storyteller, Sabar traces his father’s journey from poverty to professorship. Yona’s diaspora story began with the end of Iraq Jewry, continued through scholarship in Jerusalem to a teaching post at Yale and reached fulfillment in a distinguished academic career at UCLA and the compilation of an Aramaic dictionary. A generational and cultural gap divided the immigrant father from the cool son who cared little for his heritage. Then, prompted by the birth of his own son, Sabar began to investigate his family’s past. Eventually he and Yona visited a vastly altered Zakho, a town without Jews that now boasts a cybercafé. Describing their pilgrimage and the history that preceded it, the author spins a colorful tale inhabited by wonderful characters in billowing trousers and turbans. The distance between father and son is bridged as Sabar explores the conflicting demands of love and tradition, the burdens and blessings of an ancient culture encountering the 21st century.

A well-researched text falling somewhere between journalism and memoir, sustained by Mesopotamian imagination.