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 the barrier.
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 be recovered.