I’m not sure if this book would classify as memoir, biography, or history, but regardless it was the perfect ending to this year’s Non-Fiction Five Challenge. I received this ARC from Algonquin Books and at first I was a little reluctant to read it because I was afraid it would be heavy–definitely not what I’m looking for right now! This book, though, was a perfect blend of history and personal narrative.
My Father’s Paradise is perfectly summed in the subtitle of the book: “A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq.” Ariel was a self-centered youth growing up in Los Angeles. All he really wanted was to be able to fit in with his friends, but he felt that his father’s strangeness prevented that. He grew up resenting the fact that his father, who immigrated to the US in the 1960s, didn’t ever fit the mold of The American Dad. One day, though, he realized how special and unique his heritage is and so he embarked on the journey to learn about his past–a journey which became this book–and a journey that Ariel recognizes is no where close to being finished.
The book is basically comprised of three different parts that are all woven together to create this narrative (I call these sections but it isn’t defined this way in the book). First, Sabar gives the history of where his father, Yona, was born–the history of Kurdish Iraq. This section was a little dense and it took me longer to read, but it is a history that I am not very familiar with and it is absolutely fascinating. I really want to give tidbits about the history and what makes this part of the world so unique, but then this review would go on and on and on… :) Second, Sabar discusses the mass exodus of Jews from Iraq to Israel in the 1940s and 50s. Yona, then just 12 years old, went with his family to Israel to start a new life. The bulk of the book explains Yona’s transition into adulthood and the trials he faced both in Israel and then in the US where he attended college. Finally, the last section is Ariel’s own personal narrative of growing up with an immigrant father and also his journey to learn about his father, his culture, and his family.
This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. I learned so much about the Jewish culture and faith, Zionism, Iraq, Israel, and linguistics (Yona is an Aramaic scholar–the language of Jesus that is almost extinct). Not only did I learn a lot from this book, but the story Sabar tells is deeply touching and one that perhaps many of us can relate to as we learn about our own personal histories. The characters that come along the way are endearing, funny, poignant, and best of all real. The narrative, while very detailed, never felt weighed down and I was always eager to learn what happened next. I think my only complaint is that at the beginning Sabar oscillates heavily between his father’s story and the history of Kurdish Iraq and it was hard to keep track of everything. I finally began jotting down brief notes in the margins (I know…no no!) to help me remember key dates and facts. The latter half of the book, though, doesn’t contain quite as much history and the story flows much more smoothly. If you haven’t already–pick this book up! I hope you’ll be glad you did.
I’ll leave you with Sabar’s own words and perhaps what he is trying to accomplish with this book:
“Who is my father? How did he wind up so far from home? I wrote this book in part to answer those questions. I wanted to conjure the gulfs of geography and language he crossed on his life’s journey from the hills of Kurdistan to the highways of Los Angeles. But I also had other, bigger questions: What is the value of our past? When we carry our languages and stories from one generation to the next, from one country to another, what exactly do we gain?” (5).