My Father's Paradise

A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq
By ARIEL SABAR

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Copyright © 2008 Ariel Sabar
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-56512-490-5


Chapter One

ZAKHO

1 * What's in a Name

Which are you, Ariel Sabar or Ariel Sabagha?" the fat man asked, sizing me up with his one good eye. "Which?"

It was a crisp February evening in 2005 in Jerusalem's gritty Katamonim neighborhood. The Katamonim is the heart of Kurdish Jerusalem, rows of tumbledown Soviet-style apartment blocks where Israel had deposited its poorest immigrants in the 1950s and where most stayed until their bodies were carted off by the bearded undertakers of the Kurdish Burial Society. Floral-print house dresses dangled from balcony laundry lines, and courtyard grapevines withered in the unusually cold air. I had come here to learn more about my family. I was particularly keen on stories about my great-grandfather. Ephraim Beh Sabagha had been the only fabric dyer in Zakho, a dusty northern Iraqi town just south of the Turkish border. But he was famous less for the vats of dye in his market stall than for the strange cries that pierced the stone walls of Zakho's synagogue during his nightly prayer vigils. "He spoke," people told me, usually in hushed tones, "to angels."

A few days earlier I had found his only surviving photograph, fastened with rusting staples to a water-stained ID booklet from the Israeli Interior Ministry. The picture was from 1951, the year he came from Iraq. His face has a beatific animation: the mirthful eyes, drooping a little at the corners, as if in rapture at the world's wonders; the faint smile on his lips, as though he possesses some private knowledge he burns to share; the ears pressed out at odd angles by the poshiya turban around his head; the unkempt beard, a black tangle made striking by the shock of silver that flares under his chin like a flame. The face is so arresting that it wasn't until much later that I noticed his body, which is pictured only from the chest up. It is a pixie's, with sloping shoulders and a sunken chest. It seemed altogether too small to carry around that extravagant head.

All the Kurds I had spoken to in Israel said that if I wanted to know more about my great-grandfather, I should talk to Zaki Levi. A Zakho native who had helped organize the Jewish exodus from that town, he became a Kurdish macher in Israel, a swaggering operator with a roly-poly frame, who liked to drop the names of the Israeli generals and politicians he had dined with over the years. More important, he was said to have an encyclopedic memory of the Jews' last days in Zakho.

So one chilly February evening I walked up the dimly lit steps of Levi's Katamonim apartment.

"Which are you, Sabar or Sabagha?" he repeated, with a dubious glance. He wouldn't let me through the door until I answered. I saw now what he was asking: Are you the great-grandson of Ephraim Beh Sabagha, Ephraim the Dyer of Zakho, or a son of America whose father had seen fit to clean up the family name?

"Sabar," I said.

Levi looked away, and I felt suddenly ashamed.

"Well, okay," he said. "Come in. I'll tell you about me."

He led me on a tour of his apartment, pointing out photographs of himself with Moshe Dayan, Chaim Weizmann, and other Israeli dignitaries. When he saw me staring at his clouded-over left eye, he explained that he was getting ready to give a speech at a Socialist rally in one of Israel's immigrant camps in the 1950s when angry Communists began hurling rocks. "Ben-Gurion was speaking first," Levi said gravely. "I stepped between him and the rock."

There was a knock at the door, and in came a parade of prominent Israeli Kurds - a businessman, a poet, a lawyer, the chairman of the National Organization of Kurdish Jews in Israel. Levi bid us sit at a long table his wife had covered with delicacies: golden fried kubeh, spiced urjeh kabobs, a pile of pita, garlic-eggplant dip, chopped beets, shredded lemon peels dusted with curry. "This feast is like the sultan of Baghdad's!" Levi declared, slapping the table so hard the dishes rattled. "A thousand and one nights!"

I wanted to start in on a long list of questions, but this man with the barrel chest, small nose, and pencil-thin mustache seemed to have other priorities. He sank into a high-backed chair at the head of the table and clicked the TV to the KurdSat satellite channel, broadcast from Sulaymaniyah in the heart of Kurdish Iraq. The screen flashed with Kurdish music videos: a woman in a shimmering dress swaying in the tall grass of a lush mountainside. The words Kurd Live, in English, scrolled across the screen.

The photographs, the food, the Kurdish machers, the music. Was this some kind of crash course on my heritage, on the side of me that was Sabagha? All I had come for were a few family stories.

It was two hours later, after we had stuffed ourselves and listened to dozens of Levi's jokes, that he finally leveled his good eye at me.

"Ephraim, your great-grandfather, was a genius," he began suddenly.

I pulled out my notebook.

"He went to Zakho's big synagogue every night. It was big, six dunams. It had a courtyard with a mikveh. The ark took up an entire room, with the Torah and a place for holy water."

Levi tore a piece of paper from my notebook. He sketched a diagram of the synagogue's layout, drew a square representing a fine Persian rug, and put an X on the spot where my great-grandfather sat. Ephraim whiled away the night there, by turns reading books, napping, and conversing aloud with spirits only he could see. "He'd come at two A.M. and stay until morning," Levi told me. "When people started filtering in for prayer at five A.M., they'd hear him all of a sudden start screaming, 'Elohim, baruch, baruch, shmo!'" Oh, God! How Blessed His Name!

"Did people think he was pious or off his rocker?"

"No!" Levi said. "Pious! He carried himself like a holy man. But he was also a simple man, a working man."

Everyone, it seemed, knew which prayer book was his: The margins were dappled with smudges, from fingers that had spent the day soaking in dyes.

"Please, Mr. Levi," I said, at the edge of my seat now. "What else do you remember?"

But Levi pulled away. He patted the air in front of him in slow motion, as though applying brakes. His point was clear: It was Zaki Levi, and Zaki Levi alone, who would decide when stories about Zakho would begin and when stories about Zakho would end.

"Leaht, leaht," he counseled. Slowly, slowly.

Later that evening he leaned over his ample stomach toward a tray of decanters filled with brightly hued liquids.

"What you like?" he said, turning to me. "Wine? Cocktail? Arak?" I had never tried the anise-flavored liqueur, but I remembered reading that it was a favorite after-dinner drink among the Kurds, some of whom also drank it during and before dinner.

"Arak," I replied.

Levi smiled at me for the first time. Then he poured the liquid into a row of hourglass-shaped snifters, dropping in ice cubes and a splash of water, which turned the drink a cloudy pear color.

The liquor burned my throat and I winced.

Levi was beaming. "Hah!" he said. "Now, you are Sabagha."

If only it were that easy.

2 * An Island in a River

"The appearance of Zakhu in the present day coincides in a remarkable manner with what it was described to be in the time of Xenophon." -William Francis Ainsworth, Travels in the Track of the Ten Thousand Greeks, 1844

It is tempting to look out across my father's hometown and see a landscape of fairy tale: an ancient island in a river, in a broad plain, walled by snow-fringed mountains. The Jews lived on the island, a crescent of rock spanning four hundred by eight hundred yards, in a region so isolated that Western visitors (and there weren't many) often fancied they had discovered a tribe of lost Israelites.

"Such Jews!" the Jewish-American professor Walter Fischel wrote after visiting Kurdistan in the 1940s. "Men virile and wild-looking; women wearing embroidered turbans, earrings, bracelets, even nose-rings, and with symbols tattooed into their faces - our brethren and sisters!"

Their language was just as intoxicating, mostly because people had written it off as long dead. Aramaic had been the English of its day, a lingua franca across what was then the world's center of civilization. Its first inscriptions - mostly on stone monuments to gods and kings found near Aleppo, Syria - stretch back to around 1000 B.C., when an obscure tribe of Semitic nomads, the Arameans, began drifting from Syria across the Fertile Crescent. The Arameans' trump wasn't their wealth or power - they never had much. It was their tendency to wander.

As nomads, they had dispersed so widely across ancient Mesopotamia that their language became a de facto common tongue, the world's first esperanto. It was the language on the ground. And no one, it seemed, wanted to mess with it. By the eighth century B.C., a practical decision had been made throughout the Assyrian Empire to adopt the Aramean tongue as the official language of administration. When the Assyrians fell, the Babylonians embraced Aramaic as the official language of their Mesopotamian empire; when the Babylonians fell, the Persians took it up.

That no fewer than three empires came and went without imposing their own language upends a linguistic verity: that language follows power. Aramaic survived precisely because its native speakers lacked political ambition. The Arameans were no-account drifters - "uncouth Bedouins," one historian called them. They were everywhere. But they were so badly organized, so poor, and so powerless that the new emperors saw no threat in their language. Here is what made Aramaic irresistible: It was high-tech. Before it, the closest thing to a Near Eastern lingua franca was Akkadian, which was etched in cuneiform, wedge-shaped characters pressed into clay. Aramaic could be written on papyrus. For an Assyrian or Babylonian bureaucrat with a sprawling empire to administer, it was simply easier to push paper than rock.

The miracle of Aramaic was not lost on Assyrian king Sargon II, who claimed credit for its rapid spread in a stone inscription found near Mosul: "Peoples of the four regions of the world, of foreign tongue and divergent speech, dwellers of mountain and lowland ... I carried off [and] made them of one mouth."

People were soon speaking and writing Aramaic over wide bands of Asia and northern Africa, from the Caucuses to southern Egypt, from western Turkey to southern India and western China. It crossed borders and bridged faiths as no prior language had. Not only did Jews and Christians speak it as an everyday tongue, but so, at various times, did Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Muslims, Mandeans, Manicheans, and pagans.

For a while, Aramaic appeared destined for immortality. As the common language of the formative years of Christianity and diaspora Judaism, it embedded itself in seminal liturgical texts. An Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible was expanded into a landmark work of interpretation known as the Targum, or Translation. The Books of Ezra and Daniel were partly composed in Aramaic. Babylonian Jews wrote the Talmud, the book of commentary and law, in Aramaic. A medieval Spanish poet drafted the Zohar, the chief text of Jewish Kabbalah, in it. The original "writing on the wall" that prophesied the fall of Babylon was in Aramaic. And Jesus Christ himself cried out in the same lilting tongue as he died on the cross: "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The death of Aramaic as one of the world's great languages came suddenly. In the seventh century, Muslim armies from Arabia conquered Mesopotamia and Aramaic was steamrolled by Arabic, which is still the Middle East's dominant tongue. That is why when other Jews, even those from elsewhere in Iraq, first met their Kurdish brethren in the twentieth century, they could scarcely believe their ears. "Though neither Arabic nor Farsi - not Hebrew, either - something in the language struck a chord," the Baghdadi doctor Heskel M. Haddad wrote in his memoir, recalling his first encounter with Kurdish Jews. "Single words were understandable, or almost, and all at once I knew their source. This motley ragged mass was speaking a derivative of Aramaic, the language I'd encountered in the Zohar! Impure, admixed, distorted, but unmistakably the ancient tongue!"

Hearing Aramaic in the twentieth century tended to induce giddiness in otherwise temperate men. "In my view, the history of Aramaic represents the purest triumph of the human spirit as embodied in language," wrote the eminent Yale Arabist Franz Rosenthal, a buttoned-down German Jew normally given to softer pronouncements. "Great empires were conquered by the Aramaic language, and when they disappeared and were submerged in the flow of history, that language persisted and continued to live a life of its own.... The total sweep of Aramaic history ... teaches us that the underdog may in fact have the opportunity to play a decisive role, that it is possible for the word pure and simple to dominate empires and survive their dissolution, that it is possible for the true achievements of the human spirit to live on...."

Aramaic's longevity owes much to the isolation of places like Zakho: the island in the river in plains ringed by mountains, a fortress against the world. More than twelve hundred years after the arrival of Arabic, Aramaic was still hanging on, thanks in large part to Kurdistan's twenty-five thousand Jews, a forgotten race of peasants and peddlers who saw themselves as the direct descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel.

By 1930, at around the time this story begins, Zakho had replaced Arbil and Amadiya as the center of Jewish activity in Iraqi Kurdistan. But that wasn't saying much. In a town of 27,000 souls, most of them Muslim Kurds, Jews numbered just 1,471.

The Jews lived on Zakho's island, its oldest district and commercial heart. Their mud-brick houses lined narrow alleys that zigzagged down to the Habur River. On the riverbanks, packs of children scampered, loggers tied up rafts, and men at the chaykhana sipped glasses of tea while cooling their toes in the frothing currents. Beyond the Jewish quarter were a cramped open-air market and an ancient castle housing a small jail and the offices of the provincial administrator. Stone and suspension bridges linked the island to Muslim neighborhoods, a small Christian quarter, and the boys' primary school.

The jumble of low, flat-roofed buildings still gives way to an unremitting flatness. Golden fields of wheat and barley roll across the plains for miles until they dissolve into an angry terrain of steep gorges and ravines. Hemming the valley like fortress walls are the Bekher and White mountains, whose peaks tower thousands of feet above the town.

"As a stranger approaches, he is struck with its bold and isolated appearance," the British traveler William Francis Ainsworth, one of the few Western visitors, wrote of a trip through Zakho in the mid-1800s. "It is not like Mosul, a town in a partially civilized country; but is an outpost of warlike Kurdistan."

For a long time Zakho was just a lonely speck of rock on the fringe of the Ottoman Empire, an afterthought some sixty miles northwest of Mosul. When European powers redrew the map of the Middle East after the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I, Zakho found itself within spitting distance of two borders: five miles south of Turkey, twelve miles east of Syria. Its rebirth as a border town only added to its rugged spirit. As it prospered from international trade - much of it illegal - the town had even less of a need for ties with any central government. But isolation had its price: With few exceptions, its people were consigned to lives of mercilessly hard work, ill health, and wild superstition.

Some say Zakho is Aramaic for "House of victory," some, Kurdish for "River of Blood." Both allude to its possible role as the site of some decisive battle in antiquity. The Greek warrior and historian xenophon is thought to have passed through Zakho with his army of ten thousand mercenaries in 401 B.C., coming under savage attack by the Kurds, or "Carduchians," as he called them.

Others have glimpsed a simpler, more timeless meaning, one better suited to a fairy tale. Zakho, they say, is Kurdish for "Bend in the River."

(Continues...)



Excerpted from My Father's Paradise by ARIEL SABAR Copyright © 2008 by Ariel Sabar. Excerpted by permission.
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