My Father, the Linguist of Kurdistan
By ARIEL SABAR
In order to write My Father’s Paradise: A Son's
Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, Ariel Sabar first had to sort out his complicated relationship with
his father. Below he gives a glimpse of his maiden journey to Iraq via London
with his father.
The first thing I heard was a gasp somewhere above me. I looked up, bleary
from the transatlantic flight to London, and noticed two young couples staring
down from the top of the long escalator that lifts riders from the Underground
to the city’s Mayfair district. They weren’t looking at me, I saw now, but past
me. I spun around and saw the reason: my father was knotted in a fetal position
and tumbling noiselessly down the moving steps. I watched his body wedge
between the guardrails and stop, his
left cheek flush with the step’s metal claw.
My thoughts pinballed as I raced toward him. Was he hurt? Was there a hospital
nearby? Would we have to call off our trip to Iraq? He had complained before we
left of a sore back and bad knees. I had brushed it aside as just his latest
round of excuses. I had assured him that he would survive Iraq. But now, it
seemed, he could scarcely navigate London.
My father and I had been at war over my plan to travel to his hometown in Iraq.
I had quit my job as a reporter at the Baltimore
Sun to write my father’s story—how a Jewish boy born to an illiterate
mother in the mountains of Kurdish Iraq wound up at UCLA as a professor of
Aramaic, his ancient mother tongue. But I wanted the book to be something more:
a way to repair a relationship with a man I had always kept at arm’s length.
Trying to grow up cool in 1980s Los Angeles, I wanted nothing to do with him.
His hair, a froth of curls combed over to one side, embarrassed me as a kid,
even though some of my friends compared it to Einstein’s. His pastel-plaid
JCPenney suits would have won more style points on the back nine than at the
faculty club, except that he didn’t play golf or any other sport. As for his
books, they would never make Oprah. His latest is a Neo-Aramaic—English
dictionary, a life’s work devoted to a 3,000-year-old language that almost no
I was a son of suburban Los Angeles, a skateboarder in Bermuda shorts and
sunglasses. He was a son of Zakho, Iraq, raised in a mud shack in an ancient
enclave of Jewish peasants and peddlers.
I knew I had to see my father’s birthplace to understand him. But this was July
2005—war-torn Iraq—and my father came to see me as frighteningly detached from
reality. The height of the insurgency, he pointed out, wasn’t necessarily the
ideal time for a sentimental journey by two American Jews, one whose name
sounded a good deal like Ariel Sharon, then the prime minister of Israel.
I was aware of the risks. But with my father’s advancing age, I worried that if
we didn’t go that summer, we never would.
I knew my father saw Zakho as a paradise of religious tolerance, a fairyland
where Muslims and Jews had coexisted in peace for hundreds of years. So what
did we have to fear? I asked, playing to his nostalgia. He resisted. But I
pressed, and after a few months, he broke down. If I came with him to a
linguistics conference outside London, he said, we could fly from there to
southeastern Turkey, then hire a taxi to the Iraqi border.
“I can’t let you go alone,” he said. “God forbid anything should happen to
On the escalator that night in London, I kneeled beside my father’s crumpled
body. His suitcase and an overstuffed nylon tote were flipping in place on the
bottom steps. His eyeglasses had skidded to the floor a few feet away. I dug my
hands under his armpits, straining at first, but then the load lightened. He
was helping me. There was no blood. He was conscious.
I felt something inside my chest unclench. “I think I must have lost my
balance,” he said, dabbing sweat from his temples.
As the escalator churned higher, I asked myself what I was doing dragging this
elderly man halfway across the world, to the edge of a war zone. If he wanted
to pull out now, I would have to honor his wishes.
But not for the first time, I had underestimated him.
A worried-looking station attendant who had apparently been alerted was waiting
at the top of the escalator. He led us to a small office and poured my father a
cup of water. “Sir, please have a drink,” he said. I saw it as an act of
kindness, the sort the British are famous for.
But my father, already lost in faraway thoughts of Zakho, saw something else.
“In Kurdish tradition,” he told me, “you give people water to take the fear
As a boy, I blamed his Kurdishness—his odd looks and off-kilter English—for my
struggle to belong in America. Now, in this most unlikely place, I was starting
to see how my father’s roots anchored him. In a strange land, when the world
felt like it was giving way beneath his feet, he turned to the folklore of the
Jewish Kurds for courage.
As he drank, I could hear his breathing grow steady, then strong.
This essay first appeared in The
Algonkian. It is reprinted with
permission. Copyright © 2008