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Ariel Sabar explores his dad's past

FamilyJudaismIraqIsraelCultureSurfing

For much of their lives, Yona Sabar and his son Ariel were like warring countries with radically different customs, languages and concerns.

In those days, Ariel was, he says, "a very bratty, 1980s L.A. kid" who "bought into many of the superficial values of that era." His father, a professor of Aramaic at UCLA since 1972, was a Jewish immigrant from Kurdish Iraq, a gentle, modest man grounded in Old World courtesies and academic formalities.

"Ours was a clash of civilizations," Ariel writes in his memoir "My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Family's Past," which won a 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award and has just been reissued in paperback. "When we collided, it wasn't pretty."

Yet as Ariel, 38, grew up, he developed a curiosity about his father's past. Over time, he would probe Yona's upbringing in the town of Zahko in Iraq, near the Turkish border. He would learn about the tenacious faith of his ancestors, the Jews of Kurdistan, who had lived among Muslims for centuries, tending their religious beliefs in one of the Middle East's toughest neighborhoods.

He would listen to his father relate how, at age 13, he had immigrated to the new state of Israel, part of a mass exodus triggered by growing Arab-Israeli hostilities. And he would delve into the foundations of Aramaic, the nearly extinct 3,000-year-old language to which his father's career had been devoted, the mother tongue of Jesus and the second-most sacred language of the Jewish Kurds after Hebrew.

"I didn't give him the chance to tell me any of these stories," says Ariel, a former staff writer for the Baltimore Sun and the Providence Journal. "I just didn't give him the time."

Yona's odyssey, and the larger story it embodies, forms the heart of "My Father's Paradise." Actually, the book offers several narratives: a biography, a memoir, a meticulously reconstructed history of a largely vanished people and place, and a meditation on one of the world's oldest languages. Transcending mere reportage, it acquires a novel-like warp and weft.

Weaving it all together are Ariel's unflinching reflections about the border wall of misunderstanding that once stood between his father and him. Watching the rapport between father and son in Yona's book-strewn study in the family's Brentwood home, it's hard to imagine that they once were divided by everything from musical tastes (Red Hot Chili Peppers versus "Kurdish dirges" played on an old tape recorder) to speech (Ariel's surfer-dude cadences versus Yona's "five-car pileup of malapropisms and mispronunciations").

"I'd wake up in the morning," Ariel recalls, "I'd have Led Zeppelin posters on the wall, and I had surfboarding stickers on the wall. My drum set was in the corner. He'd be here in his bathrobe. I had no idea what he was working on, and it seemed like this lost world that was forever beyond my reach and beyond my interest. He might've been studying Klingon. Zahko was a world out of a fairy tale."

Father and son also clashed over money and materialism. Ariel had a friend whose father owned one of the first DeLoreans, and another with an elevator in his home.

By contrast, Yona "bought suits off the bargain rack at J.C. Penney, in pastel plaids that designers had intended for the golf course, then wore them cluelessly to campus faculty meetings," Ariel writes.

"There is a kind of mind-set of poverty that one probably never outgrows," explains Yona, 70. "Not probably -- for sure."

Still, he says, he felt similar chagrin about his own father after the family immigrated to Israel. "When we were in Iraq he was Superman. He was our hero. Then when he came to Israel, unfortunately it didn't work for him."

Occasionally, Ariel and Yona's jumbled cultural reference points produced unique bonding experiences. In the playful manner of parents, Yona taught his young son a few dozen words of Aramaic, including zingila (penis).

"He'd go to the IHOP," Ariel remembers, "and put the name down as 'Zingila,' so they'd call out 'Zingila, party of four!'" The family would break up while other customers looked on.

Ariel's perspective began to shift when the Iranian hostage crisis started in November 1979. A wave of anti-Iranian and anti-Middle Eastern sentiment swept the United States, and Ariel saw the handwriting on the wall, literally, in the form of hostile graffiti. "I felt that a lot of people who wrote that on a wall about Iranians would also feel the same way about me."

In 1992, Ariel accompanied his father when he revisited Zahko for the first time in about 40 years. Saddam Hussein was in power, and what Yona calls the "Arabization" of Kurdistan -- part of Hussein's aggressive promotion of pan-Arabic nationalism, with himself as its champion -- was in full throttle. "When Saddam was there he didn't want to hear anything about the Jewish or the Kurdish past," Yona says. "He wanted one big Iraq."

His hometown's rapidly receding Kurdish-Jewish character was even more evident when Yona and Ariel returned to Zahko a few years ago. That made Ariel resolve to tell his father's story. "I realized that the landscape and the physical place was going to be gone," he says. "I was aware of this sense of time getting ahead of me."

Something else pushed him to tell the story: becoming a father himself. "People come before you, people come after you," Ariel summarizes. "What are you going to do as the middleman?"

Asked to assess the future of the culture that has consumed him, Yona shakes his head. "I felt I was an undertaker, because I felt this was the last stage of the language," he says. "So I felt what I can do to salvage this heritage is by documenting it in books for scholars who are interested. Ariel's book in a way is a monument to that lost life. Because you cannot restore it physically."

What neither man could have anticipated is how the book's success has spurred interest in Aramaic and the Jewish Kurds and helped reconnect those who were raised in that culture.

Yona now hears regularly from friends, colleagues and former students with whom he had lost touch over the decades. He fields inquiries from screenwriters asking for assistance in translating snatches of Aramaic. He gets e-mails from prisoners who've found religion and want to learn Christ's language. He does his best to accommodate them all.

Not only that, but "My Father's Paradise" has given comfort to relatives who have wondered how they would be able to pass on the old family stories to future generations.

"Now," they tell Yona, "I can give my children a book to read."

reed.johnson@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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