At heart this is about a Jewish man, born and raised in America, trying as a grown-up to find a connection to the immigrant father by whom he was baffled and embarrassed as a child. Ariel Sabar knows how to tell a story, however, and it's his writing and organization even more than the story itself that makes this book such a treasure. But the story is wonderful, too.
The book starts in the village of Zakho, in Kurdish Iraq, with the tale of its people, including the author's great-grandfather, Ephraim, the dyer, whom the locals believe talks to angels. Sabar makes the village and its inhabitants come alive and while I at times wished there were more photos included in the book, Sabar's writing is usually picture enough. Sabar's parents are married (arranged, of course), Sabar's father, Yona, and his siblings are born, and too many of them die. One goes tragically missing. Throughout the personal saga, Sabar presents a global context -- World Wars I & II, the relationship of his family's native language in Zakho (Aramaic) to the rest of Iraq, to the multi-culturalism and religious harmony of Kurdistan and how the area was divided in the wake of the first World War, to the changing attitudes toward Jews in Iraq and the Middle East and the foundation of Israel.
In the '50's Sabar's family relocates, not entirely willingly, to Israel, where they find not the holy land of their dreams, but a huge and unwelcoming city in which they are the lowest of the low. Most of the middle of the book follows Yona's tale as he works to make something of himself in this hostile environment, eventually earning a scholarship to Yale and becoming a respected professor of Neo-Aramaic at UCLA.
The final sections of the book recount the author's story and his attempts to reconnect with his roots in Iraq and reconcile himself with his father.
Wisely, Sabar distances himself from the earlier portions of the book and doesn't spend much time on his American upbringing and personal story, choosing only to interject himself into the tale as it relates to his family's past. The tale is about the people, but Sabar deftly weaves throught the book language, politics, religion, and poverty without letting any of them dominate.
Being from Los Angeles I find myself hoping one day that I will run into and recognize Ariel and Yona, so that I can smile at my fellow Angelino and the rumpled professor who has never felt like he truly belongs here. I know very little about my family before they emmigrated to New York, but somehow Sabar's book makes me feel as if I do. His family's story is that of everyone whose ancestors came here hoping for a better life for the people they loved, yet still missing that which was lost.
Thank you, Ariel Sabar for this beautiful and heartfelt book.