Past Perfection (Extract)

Extract from a story in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The triumphant story about an attempt to recover a father's lost childhood world Ariel Sabar's "My Father's Paradise", is primarily an account of his father's story. Yona Sabar, who was born in a mud hut in Zakho, a remote village in the mountains of Jewish Kurdistan in Iraq, became, against all odds, a respected professor of Aramaic at UCLA. This narrative is a significant contribution to the much ignored history of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews. These scattered communities often peacefully coexisted with Muslims in places like Iran, Syria or Egypt until the birth of the State of Israel and the first stirrings of Pan-Arabism in the 1950s. Suddenly confronted with violent anti-Semitism, they were then abruptly expelled from countries where they had lived for centuries, forced to leave everything behind and to reinvent themselves - often painfully - in such places as Israel, France or America. The narrative starts with a meeting between Ariel, a journalist and staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor born in the early 1970s, with Zaki Levi, a Kurdish Jew now living in the Katamonim neighborhood, in the heart of Kurdish Jerusalem, who knew Ariel's great-grandfather Ephraim Beh Sabbagha well, back in Kurdistan in the 1930s. Levi is a picturesque character with an imperious bent and the encounter with him instantly sets the tone: The reader is taken on a voyage to the Orient, transported to the world of Arabian Nights. An Orientalist atmosphere sets in with mention of the food (kubbeh, kabobs and pita) and drink (arak, an anise-flavored liquor often enjoyed in the Middle East), but also with an enchanted ambiance where people appear seemingly out of nowhere. With his authoritarian manners, Levi is both a Sultan from Baghdad and a male Shahrazad of sorts, as he holds the keys to the myriad stories of Ariel's family, deciding where and when to start: "Please, Mr. Levi, […], what else do you remember," begs Sabar, like a child imploring for more tales before bedtime. Vivid descriptions, lively dialogues and an oral style all emphasize the preeminence of storytelling as one of the main themes of this narrative. Like Levi, Sabar conjures up life in Jewish Kurdistan with the colorful storytelling skills worthy of A Thousand and One Nights and a fable-like atmosphere. There are, for instance, the delightful adventures of Yona Beh Sabbagha, Ariel's father, who loved jumping from roof to roof, often finding unexpected surprises, such as a fat naked woman bathing. Then there were his dealings with Yimid Maya, the frightening spirit of the Habur River surrounding Zakho, and his intimidating first visit to Baghdad and the exquisitely refined home there of Ezra, his father's business partner. These are motifs of a coming-of-age story (the discovery of gender and sexuality, the confrontation with a hostile environment, the encounter with social class) and Ariel revisits them through a child's eye with a vivacious sense of wonder. For Zakho, with its initial mysterious letter Z, is like Oz or Brobdingnag, a faraway land and a magical place, a kind of last stop before stepping off into space. Running parallel to the Arabian Nights motif in Sabar's book is the Biblical vein, surfacing especially with the poignant story of Miryam Beh Nazé, Ariel's grandmother. Unable to breastfeed the baby girl she has just had with Rahamim, her husband and Ariel's grandfather, she gives it to a Muslim wet-nurse called Gamra for a few months, invoking the Miriam and Moses story of the Bible. Gamra, though, kidnaps baby Rifqa, and Myriam never sees her firstborn again. The story is told with the understated eloquence of biblical narrative and Sabar's prose retains a freshness and candor that renders it all the more powerful. The story of the Jews of Zakho, who claim to be descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, and their language, Aramaic, preserved and spoken by them for 2,700 years in spite of the Arab conquest and the diffusion of Arabic to the Middle East, is an enthralling one. Sabar quotes Abraham Ibn Ezra, the 12th-century commentator and linguist, as saying: "I searched to discover which was the first of all languages. Many said that the Aramaic is most ancient, and that it is in the nature of man to speak it without being taught by anyone. Further, that if a newborn child were placed in the desert with no one but a mute wet nurse, he would speak Aramaic." The success of Aramaic, whose first appearance dates back to the 10th century BCE, was due to the fact that it could be written on papyrus while Akkadian, the then dominant language of the Middle East, was etched in cuneiform, wedge-shaped characters shaped into clay, and therefore much harder to use by administrators. While half of the languages now spoken on the planet may vanish in the next century, the longevity of Aramaic attests to its assured place in the Pantheon of great tongues, and the author pays it a well-deserved tribute. While Sabar's voice rings true in the realm of the seemingly magical, the mythical and the enchanted, it is equally gripping when the narrative turns to the only too real story of the forced emigration of the Beh Sabbagha family in 1951, the year in which 120,000 Iraqi Jews were airlifted to Israel. Sabar, who was born in Los Angeles about 20 years later, analyzes the violent stripping of their identity in precise, unforgiving prose. We read, for instance, about the traumatic experience of the Beh Sabbagha at the border upon their departure from Iraq: Allowed to take with them only 50 dinars, they are searched by a policeman: "No money, no jewelry, no precious metals?" he asks. Yona says he has nothing, but the officer finds in his pockets "three postage stamps bearing a portrait of Iraq's handsome boy king, Faisal II. Each one was worth 1 fil, a single penny. "What are these?" the officer growled, his face reddening." "Sir, it was an accident. I…I forgot I even had them." "Lying Jew. How dare you try to steal property from the Kingdom of Iraq?" The officer slapped Yona's face three times. "One smack," he said, "for each stamp." Life in Israel will be as unforgiving as those slaps. Imagined and built by Western immigrants who infused it with Western ideals, the young Jewish state both called for and resisted the absorption of thousands of Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jews, often seen as backward and lacking in "a suitable level of civilization." Israel, then, is no Promised Land for Kurdish Jews - at the bottom of the social ladder after Moroccans and Yemenites - but rather purgatory, where the Beh Sabbagha slowly lose the social status they had enjoyed in Zakho. Surprised by what they find, the Beh Sabbagha change their name to Sabbag when they arrive in Israel, but they never recover. Sabbag when they arrive in Israel, never recover. Ephraim, Ariel Sabar's great-grandfather and a pious man, master dyer during the day and mystic at night, dies of sorrow. Yaëlle Azagury, PhD, teaches French and Humanities at Purchase College (SUNY) and writes on French and Francophone literature, primarily for Lilith Magazine. Extract from a story in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.