This seems to be my summer for reading books written by Israelis or at least about Jews from the Middle East. Keeping with that theme are two books I recently finished, namely My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar and Out of Egypt: A Memoir by Andre Aciman. I’m happy to report I was pleased with both books
Sabar, a former journalist for the Baltimore Sun, portrays the forgotten world of the Jews of Kurdistan, a world of religious mystics, illiterate storytellers and villagers who casually converse in the ancient tongue of Aramaic. Sabar also chronicles the community’s migration the Israel and the difficult time it had assimilating in the more European-oriented state of Israel. He goes on to tell of his father Yona’s rise to eventually become an internationally recognized expert in “Neo-Aramaic”- even earning him the occasional call from Hollywood to translate dialog for Biblical epics, (as well as one episode of the X-Files, translating “I am the walrus” into ancient Aramaic).
This is an enjoyable book. I found it readable, interesting and provided great insight into a world long forgotten. Considering the book’s focus on Sabar’s relationship with his father, it would undoubtably make a nice Fathers Day gift.
If Sabar’s book is an account of a vanished world told with the voice of a modern American journalist, then the voice of Andre Aciman’s in Out of Egypt is perhaps representative of the world it portrays, cultured and sophisticated but above all else Levantine with a slight Continental flair. Aciman shows us a world with family grandmothers who gossip in six languages, womanizing husbands and their long suffering wives, quasi-legal business dealings and likable figures such as Costa, a black jacket wearing, motorcycle riding Greek expat trapped in the throes of a passionless marriage. Much like the world portrayed in Sabar’s book, it also is a forgotten one, swept away by the rise of Pan-Arabism in the wake of the first Arab-Israeli war and the Suez debacle of 1956.
One wonders how the political landscape of the Middle East would look if Sabar and Aciman’s respective worlds had not been swept away by more powerful forces. Would the Arab-Israeli conflict exist and if so, in what form ? Or considering Faulkner’s words that the past is never really past, are the worlds portrayed in these two fine books still there in some form or another, perhaps buried under the sands like some ancient civilization, found all too often in that part of the world.