MY FATHER’S PARADISE: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq

By Ariel Sabar
Algonquin Books. 352 pages. $25.95.

Reviewed by Cynthia D. Bertelsen
Cynthia D. Bertelsen is a writer living in Blacksburg.

Be forewarned: you will lose sleep over this book.

Journalist Ariel Sabar’s story about his father, Yona Beh Sabagha (later Sabar), an Iraqi Jew who grew up speaking Jesus’s lingua franca-Aramaic, mesmerizes from the very first sentences: “I am the keeper of my family’s stories. I am the guardian of its honor. I am the defender of its traditions. As the first-born son of a Kurdish father, these, they tell me, are my duties.”

But Sabar wasn’t always the good son, the keeper of stories and honor and tradition. He grew up rebellious, born in the la-la land of make-believe, Los Angeles, California. “Ours was a clash of civilizations, writ small. He was ancient Kurdistan. I was 1980s L.A.” When Sabar experienced the birth of his own son, suddenly he needed to know his father’s story.  He quit his job at a well-respected newspaper and started researching and writing My Father’s Paradise. It took him three years, and included two trips to war-torn Iraq.

In the tradition of the famed storytellers of Zakho, his ancestral village, Sabar narrates a saga so touching, so amazing, so miraculous that the reader will feel awe for the resiliency of the human spirit. And also awareness of what immigrants to strange lands sacrifice in their exile, whether exile is self-imposed or forced upon them.

Beginning with the mud hut where his father was born to illiterate parents, Ariel Sabar recaptures the sense of Iraqi Jewish life in the shadows of looming mountains close to the Turkish border. From there the action moves to Israel, where phenomenal challenges faced his young father, one of the 120,000 Iraqi Jews airlifted out of Iraq to Israel in 1950. That little-known diaspora brought them to the Promised Land, but the bigotry and intolerance of European-born Jews toward the Kurds soured their experience. By the quirkiest of fates, young Yona earned his Ph.D. at Yale University and became one of the world’s most renowned and respected linguists of Aramaic at UCLA. In the end, the action moves back to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, where Sabar and his father searched for Yona’s older sister Rifqa, kidnapped by a wet nurse hired in the 1930s when Ariel’s grandmother couldn’t feed her.

Juxtaposed with Yona’s story are vignettes and informational passages about Kurdistan, Muslims, Jews, Christians, language, women, love, marriage, and history. Sabar also reveals the poignant story of how he came to understand and appreciate his strange immigrant father, a man who wore plaid suits better suited to 1960s golf courses than 1980s Los Angeles-“he was a bad dresser in a fashionable city.”

All this is the stuff of both Hollywoodish high drama and profound lessons about life. Unlike many memoirs flooding the book market these days, My Father’s Paradise is both unique and universal. Unique because of the isolation of the Zakho Kurds and the archaic language they spoke. And universal because it’s not just Yona Sabar’s story-it’s everyone’s. My Father’s Paradise is ultimately about the struggle to find a place in the world to call home.

C. Bertelsen’s review of Ariel Sabar’s new book, MY FATHER’S PARADISE: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, appeared in The Roanoke Times, Sunday, September 21, 2008. Read it here.



By Amitav Ghosh

Farrar Strauss Giroux. 504 pages. $26.00.

Reviewed by C. Bertelsen

Opium, scourge of China, coin of the realm for Britain, financed the British Raj in India under the flag of The East India Company. Beginning in 1730, China imported 15 tons of opium, brought in on British ships. The Chinese government soon realized the devastation wrought by opium and banned its importation. But the British continued to inundate China with smuggled opium; by the mid 1820s, 900 tons of Indian opium entered China yearly.

Indian anthropologist and historian Amitav Ghosh earned a doctorate from Oxford and writes well-received novels like The Glass Palace, The Hungry Tide, and The Shadow Lines. His latest, and most ambitious, novel, Sea of Poppies, is the first in a planned trilogy.  And it flays the British opium trade.

Ghosh initially became interested in the issue of Indian opium when he learned about Indian indentured servants who fled India because of inroads on their livelihoods made by the opium trade. Using a former slave ship called The Ibis as the central character, he tells their story, wrapping it around the British opium trade. Dozens and dozens of characters flit in and out of the narrative. Three of these serve as the pillars of the sordid tale of Britain’s role in flooding China with smuggled opium:  the poor indentured Indian woman Deeti, the American sailor Zachary Reid or Zikri, and the French woman Paulette Lambert. Loves, deaths, betrayals, swindles, double-crosses, power struggles, and obsessions ebb and flow throughout the pages.

To his credit, Ghosh writes of the sea and ship life in the manner of Melville and Conrad. The tone of his book sounds very Dickensian, with a hint of Patrick O’Brien’s sea sagas. But Ghosh’s compulsive fascination with linguistics spoils the impact of his solid research on the minutiae of life and language in 1830s British India. His telling of a basically interesting yarn suffers accordingly.

For Sea of Poppies either has you running to the dictionary every five minutes or frantically paging through the “glossary” at the end of the book, searching for the meanings of words like “sheeshmahal,” “silmagor,” and “doolally.” Called “The Ibis Chrestomathy,” this eccentric “glossary” encompasses thirty-one pages of double columns and contains most, but not all, of the odd words swimming out of the mouths of Ghosh’s characters and throughout the narrative itself. Take the ship’s pilot words to Zachary about the old Raja of Raskhali: ” ‘Wasn’t a man in town who could put on a burra-khana like he did. Sheeshmahal blazing with shammer and candles. Paltans of bearers and khidmutgars. Demijohns of French loll-shrub and carboys of iced smikn. And the karibat! In the old days the Rascally bobachee-connah was the best in the city. No fear of pishpash and cobbily-mash at the Rascally table.’ ”

No doubt about it, reading Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel comes close to a Babelic nightmare.

And yet, and yet, the story takes hold as the three major characters attempt to make their way through the currents of their karma.  Sea of Poppies, for the patient reader, renders up a fascinating look at a little-known time period, with a story line worthy of trilogization.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen. Originally published in The Roanoke Times, Sunday, October 19, 2008.

HOUSE OF WITS: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family

By Paul Fisher

Henry Holt and Company. 694 pages. $35.

Reviewed by C. Bertelsen

Recent studies indicate that parents, consciously or unconsciously, often tend to allocate more economic resources to one or two children in the family. And this generally predisposes those favored children to success.

Paul Fisher, professor of American literature at Wellesley College, illustrates this mode of parenting in his thought-provoking and well-written biography of the James family. Not the infamous James gang, but the family of William James, the famed nineteenth-century psychologist and his brother, the prolific writer and novelist Henry James, who wrote such classics as Daisy Miller, The Turn of the Screw, and Wings of the Dove, as well as The Bostonians, Portrait of a Lady, and other novels still in print.

This meaty tome also includes the other members of the family: alcoholic father Henry James, Sr. striding his world on one leg, mother Mary Walsh James, and the peripheral siblings-ner’do well brothers Wilkie and Bob, and perennial invalid sister, Alice. Fisher’s biography of the entire family isn’t the first attempt to dissect this remarkable group of American intellectuals-that honor goes to F. O. Matthiessen’s The James Family (1947). Nevertheless, the pathology and dysfunction that formed these children reveal a fascinating theme, and that is where Fisher’s work is unique. He explores this theme so thoroughly that the characters live again in all their palpable pain. At times Fisher appears to attribute feelings to the James family members, suggesting that he might be reading a bit too imaginatively between the lines of their voluminous letters and writings. The House of Wits could have been titled Portrait of a Family, parodying Henry James’s novel Portrait of Lady!

The stifling atmosphere of a normal upper-middle-class Victorian childhood, compounded by father Henry James, Sr.’s delusions of grandiosity and depressions-due in part to his own father’s neglect of him and the fire that cost him his leg as an adolescent, created tremendous challenges for all five James children as they sought to individuate themselves from their loving, but controlling, parents. At one point, their father enrolled and withdrew the children from ten different schools in New York City alone. Then he dragged them to Europe for years on end. Most of the time the parents homeschooled the children, who remained socially isolated. Their father encouraged the two oldest boys, particularly William, but the younger children, Wilkie, Bob, and Alice spent their lives seeking the approval and love they felt they never received. Depressions, breakdowns, puzzling illnesses, conflicted sexuality, alcoholism, and escapes to Europe resulted as the James children grew up. In spite of that, William and especially Henry finally found their niches.

Of all of the five James children, Alice is the most tragically drawn. As a brilliant woman, she contended with the Victorian ideal of womanhood, useless and ornamental. Alice’s own father expounded at length on the inferiority of women’s intellect in his writing and in the public lectures he gave over the years. Yet modern-day scholars consider Alice James’s diary a masterpiece, written before she died of breast cancer at age forty-three. She claimed that Henry borrowed her “pearls,” or ideas, and used them to write his novels.

The House of Wits offers a rewarding and fascinating read for those enamored of American political, social, and economic history, not just literary history.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen