Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ariel Sabar's "My Father’s Paradise"

Ariel Sabar covered the 2008 U.S. presidential campaigns for the Christian Science Monitor and is an award-winning former staff writer for the Baltimore Sun and the Providence (RI) Journal. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Monthly, Mother Jones, Moment, Christianity Today and other publications.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, and reported the following:
When you’re writing about people as ancient and mysterious as the Kurdish Jews, you owe it to readers to widen the lens, to show how their story – my family’s story – ties into some larger current of history. Page 99 of my book, My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, tries to set my family’s immigrant saga inside that broader history. It throws light on the sometimes condescending attitudes of the State of Israel’s early leaders and intellectuals, most of them European, toward Jews from Iraq and other Muslim lands.

The page’s first two words – “drunkenness and prostitution” – do grab the eye. But they are actually just the continuation of a quote from the previous page. In the quote, an Israeli journalist in the state’s early years describes what he sees as the perils posed by Jews from Arab lands. For the quote to make any sense, I have to cheat here, reaching back to a single line on p. 98 before leaping to p. 99:

As with Africans you will find among [Jews from Arab countries] gambling, drunkenness and prostitution … chronic laziness and hatred for work; there is nothing safe about this asocial element. [Even] the kibbutzim will not hear of their absorption.

These sentiments were on the strong side, but not uncommon for the era. The page includes the quote – and a look at Zionism’s European roots – to foreshadow the bigotry that Jews from Muslim countries would face on their immigration to Israel. I write:

By November 1950 roughly eighty-three thousand Iraqi Jews had registered to leave, but Israel had managed to fly out just eighteen thousand. Many had left their hometowns only to be crammed into Baghdad synagogues that served as makeshift holding pens for flights that never departed. Reports poured in of clashes with Arab rioters in Basra. Fears of a typhoid epidemic were spreading. The swelling ranks of stateless Jews stirred political unrest. Prime Minister Nuri as-Said threatened to halt the airlifts and expel the Jews to Syria, Jordan, or Kuwait or lock them up in concentration camps.

Israel, however, did not increase its quota for Iraqi immigrants. Instead, it made room for a flood of immigrants from Poland and Romania. The decision was not without reason: Poland had set a deadline for Jews to leave, and Israel feared Romania might do the same. Jews in both countries had already suffered the horrors of the Holocaust. But another, more subtle reason involved calculations about the relative merits of Jewish immigrants…

So is Page 99 of My Father’s Paradise a fair test of what Ford Madox Ford called “the quality of the whole”? In one sense, no. My book is first and foremost the story of one family’s epic journey from the remote foothills of Kurdish Iraq to the superhighways of Southern California. In a single generation, my father Yona Sabar, who was born to an illiterate teenage mother in a mud shack in Kurdistan, would become an esteemed professor at UCLA. Page 99 showcases none of the dramatic storytelling that is the book’s beating heart. Nor does it hint at the hopefulness that is just as much a part of the book as the heartbreak.

But in another sense, page 99 is a fair gauge. When I set out to write My Father’s Paradise, I didn’t just want to tell my family’s story. I wanted to show how it fit into a broader, more universal one – of immigration, of prejudice, of struggle in a new land. In that way, page 99 is as good a yardstick as any for the book’s higher ambitions.
Read an excerpt from My Father’s Paradise, and learn more about the author and his work at Ariel Sabar's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue