Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, Migration & Refugees, North America, Religion

BOOKS-IRAQ: Kurdish Jews Recall a Paradise Lost

Aaron Glantz

SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 10 2008 (IPS) - It’s become popular, when talking about ongoing violence in U.S.-occupied Iraq, for officials in Washington and the media to paint the Iraqi people as savages who can’t help but keep killing each other.

In last Thursday’s Vice Presidential debate, Democrat Joe Biden said “the history of the last 700 years” showed the Iraqi people could never get along with each other.

But is that really true?

A different, more accurate version of history comes in a beautifully-written new book by Kurdish-American journalist Ariel Sabar: “My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Northern Iraq.”

In it, Sabar tells the story of his father Yona, who grew up in 1940s Zakho, a small northern Iraqi city where Jews, Muslims, and Christians mixed relatively seamlessly. Though their community was small, Jews like Yona Sabar “went to work, prayed to a Jewish God, and spoke their own language without major disruption” just as they had “without major disruption for some twenty-seven hundred years”.

Ariel Sabar’s description of his father’s younger days is touching. “The little boy liked roofs,” Sabar wrote. “And from the rooftop of his town in Iraqi Kurdistan, the eight-year-old with dark hair – his name was Yona – could look down on the whole world.”

“Down there was the store where his father sold the bolts of wool. Over there was the market stall where his grandfather dipped sherwals and shalla u-shappiksas into drums of dye, brightening the pants and jackets with new colors. And there, doddering in the courtyard of the house by the main road, was one of Yona’s favorite men: the story-teller with his pitchfork beard, who lit the boys imagination with fables of ghosts and beggars and heroes.”

After World War I, one-third of Baghdad was Jewish. After World War II, Jews served in the Iraqi cabinet, its Parliament, and on its High Court of Appeal.

“That speaks to a culture, that despite the images that dominate the headlines, was really quite civilised, sophisticated and cosmopolitan and multicultural well before that was a term that university professors and liberals like to use,” Sabar author told IPS.

Ironically, it was ethnic killing in Europe that would bring Iraq’s social mixing to a halt. The deaths of six million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust brought international urgency to the Zionist quest for a Jewish State. When the State of Israel was created in 1948, neighbouring countries went to war to stop the creation of a new country which was being settled by large numbers of European refugees.

As Iraqi soldiers began coming home in body-bags from the battle with Israel, anti-Jewish sentiment inside Iraq grew. Prominent Iraqi Jews were executed and others were imprisoned and tortured for collaborating with the “enemy” – even though in most cases their only association with Israel was a shared religion. In 1951, state repression and violent mobs made it impossible for the Jews of Zahko to stay and they fled in one mass exodus.

Yona Sabar was 12 years old when his family arrived in Israel, a country which failed to deliver as a Promised Land. Generally well off in Iraq, the family was forced to cram into a small apartment in Jerusalem’s slums. Family members who owned businesses in Iraq were forced into menial labour. The entire family faced discrimination and racial epithets simply because they were Kurdish.

As a teenager, Yona was pushed into work cleaning cement bags in a factory and had to attend school at night. Perhaps it was not surprising then, that after attending college, he would leave Israel behind to attend graduate school at Yale University in the United States, where he would become a leading scholar of Aramaic, the language he spoke growing up in Zakho.

Eventually, Yona would move to California, where he has worked for three decades as a professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In “My Father’s Paradise” the whole journey is told with moving tenderness and a literary panache. The two of them, father and son, make a trip to Kurdistan together in 2005 – Ariel’s first ever and Yona’s second since fleeing the country in 2005. When Ariel returns again to dig up more family details in 2006, the writings raise key questions about the nature of ancestry, displacement, and the forward march of history.

Reached by phone in Los Angeles, Yona Sabar told IPS the 2005 trip back to Kurdistan convinced him the world of his youth is lost forever.

“There are only one or two people left who remembered, but all the past was really past,” he said. “Even one of our hosts who invited us to his house – he told his wife to prepare us some Jewish food and she didn’t have any idea what he meant. So she had to ask from all the ladies and finally found someone who remembered what sort of food the Jews ate all those years ago.”

Yona Sabar told me he likes the book’s title, “My Father’s Paradise” even though he now sees the visions of the past as “nostalgia” more than anything else. “Paradise,” he said, “is where we put all our dreams, all our wishes, where we feel most spiritually fulfilled, that’s what a paradise is.”

Speaking of his journey from Kurdistan to Israel to the United States, Yona Sabar said “When I was in one place, I was always thinking of the previous place, idealising it. Now I realise that is just a fantasy. I’m very happy right here.”

His son Ariel says he can see his father still looks for little bits of Kurdistan every day even as he lives in Los Angeles. “These parallels sometimes strike me as fanciful, even laughable,” the younger Sabar wrote. “But I have come to see how real they are for him, how necessary for a man displaced.”

“The other day,” at the Century City food court in a Los Angeles mall, Ariel wrote, his father “set his ice blended mocha on an outdoor table and settled into the industrial metal chair as though it were a jeweled throne.”

“He had somehow turned out the whine of eight lanes of traffic below us on Santa Monica Boulevard. He had blotted out the neon glare of the faux-1950s hamburger joint and the blank wall of the 14-plex movie theater. For him, the Century City food court was an Elysium of swaying palm trees.” “I feel like it’s some little Zakho,” the father said.

Republish | | Print |