My Father’s Paradise – Ariel Sabar

Winner of National Book Critics Circle Award: Best Biography 2008

I bought this book after reading Violet’s review. I don’t read much non-fiction, but this one sounded too good to miss! 

My Father’s Paradise is written by journalist, Ariel Sabar, who decides to use his investigative skills to trace the history of his father, a man born in a remote part of Kurdish Iraq. His father is one of the last native speakers of neo-aramaic, an ancient language which has almost disappeared due to population migration. Ariel Sabar decides to do everything he can to record the language and traditions of his ancestors, before they are lost forever.

The start of the book reads almost like fiction, telling the story of his father’s life growing up in a small village. I loved this section! In many ways I wish the whole book had continued in this style (perhaps because I prefer to read fiction), but also because I found the sense of community in the village heart warming. I could feel Ariel’s love for the traditions shining through the text.

As time passes the book starts to bring in more historical facts, explaining the political situation in Iraq and why his father, a Kurdish Jew, had to flee to Israel. Some parts of the book book felt a bit dry, but in reality I needed these facts to fully understand what was happening.

The book then went on to describe their life in America and how they set to work recording the language and folklore of the Kurdish Jews. His father became a famous professor, internationally renowned for his work on aramaic text. It was amazing to see how much one man’s life had changed, but I found I was far more interested in his early life than his work in the University. I think this is summed up nicely by the words of Ariel’s father:

The more a society advances in a technical and material way, the more its people grow complicated and distant from one another.

Overall, this was a fascinating book but I wish Ariel Sabar would write another one, focusing only on life in 1930s Iraq.

If you’d like to learn more about this book then I recommend that you watch this Interview with Ariel Sabar.

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  1. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I have to admit I really don’t know that much about Iraqi history and I’d love to know more. I’ll see about reading this book, even though I am, like you, more of a fiction reader.

    1. Jackie says:

      Susi, Much of this book reads like fiction so this is a good place for people like us to start. It doesn’t give a full Iraqi history, just that which affects the Kurdish Jews.

      The book I’m reviewing soon, The Weight of the Mustard Seed, gives a slightly better history of modern Iraq, but both are good reads, so I hope you find something enjoyable to learn from.

  2. vivienne says:

    There are a few books on Iraq floating around the book blogosphere at the moment, all non fiction. I have to say I haven’t read any books about Iraq and it a country I have very little knowledge of. I think I may have to get some books out on it.

    1. Jackie says:

      vivienne, There do seem to be lots of Iraqi books around at the moment. It is a coincidence that I have read two close to each other (one was a read for my book group), but it is nice to get a bit more informed about the situation out there.

  3. Amy says:

    This book sounds really interesting. I don’t think I have read anything on Kurdish Iraq, but this sounds like a good place to start. I do enjoy non-fiction and the recording of the language sounds really neat. I also love that quote! This is definitely going on the wish list.

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, I hope that you enjoy it!

  4. Iris says:

    I hadn’t heard about this book before, although I think I’ve seen the cover around. I actually never expected it to be non-fiction, the cover somehow looks like a fiction book to me.
    I did enjoy reading your review of it and I think it must be really interesting to read about Kurds in Iraq.

    1. Jackie says:

      Iris, I agree – the cover does look a bit like one a fiction book would have. The first few chapters read exactly as I expected from the cover, but then it did become a lot more like non-fiction. I think this book is just a difficult one to classify as it is such a mixture of different book types.

  5. Sounds like an interesting read, though I would probably be like you and wish for more details about life in Iraq during the 1930s.

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, Hopefully he’ll decide to write another book on the suject soon!

  6. Sandy says:

    I admire the author for taking an interest in his father and his heritage. So many people take it for granted. To me, there is no better legacy to leave that something like this.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I agree. It would be terrible for him to have lost all that knowledge and then regretted it at some point in the future.

  7. Andreea says:

    I don’t often read non-fiction. I only tend to read those that are book-related. I am glad that you enjoyed it though!

    1. Jackie says:

      Andreea, LOL! I have a soft spot for book related non fiction too! :-)

  8. I don’t read many non-fiction books either (although I’m actually reading one at the moment) but this sounds fascinating – I know very little about Iraq and I’d like to learn more about it. It’s great that the author is trying to keep the language and traditions of his ancestors alive.

    1. Jackie says:

      Helen, I really should read more non-fiction – prehaps the one you’re reading now will sound good enough to tempt me?

  9. Jenny says:

    I think it’s amazing when people try to preserve languages that are dying, though it’s sad as well, recording something and knowing that you’re creating what may be the only record of it. My uncle worked for years in Chad doing a dictionary and grammar of a tribal language which only has a few hundred native speakers left – I love languages so I really do admire this kind of work. The book looks really interesting!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, I find it really sad too. It is such a shame that their wonderful traditions have disappeared and they are almost forced to adopt the Western way of life. I agree with the quote above and I wish there was a way for us all to live simpler lives.

  10. Stujallen says:

    i ve looked at this jackie ,like you i don’t read a lot of non fiction

    1. Jackie says:

      Stujallen, I think I’ll try to read a little bit more, but I do tend to prefer fiction.

  11. Alyce says:

    I’ve had this book on my wish list for a long time, and have just been waiting for the right mood to strike me before I read it. Nice review! It definitely helped me to understand what the book will be like when I read it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Alyle, Thank you! I hope that you enjoy reading it.

  12. Kathleen says:

    I actually love non-fiction and am particularly interested in books dealing with the Middle East so I think I would enjoy this one. I’ve not ready anything as of yet that deals with this time period.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, It sounds as though this could be the book for you – enjoy!

  13. I would not have ordinarily picked this up, but your review completely persuaded me! I definitely need more nonfiction in my reading diet. Thanks for the great post!

    1. Jackie says:

      Rebekah, It didn’t appeal to me at first either, but Violet managed to persuade me. I hope that you enjoy it.

  14. Jenners says:

    That quote you pulled out was really thought-provoking. I’m not big on biography either but this sounds like a better than average one.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, I don’t know much about biography, but the fact it won an award lets me know it is one of the better ones. I should perhaps go and see which other ones have won – it might be the best place for me to start adding new ones to the TBR pile.

  15. Violet says:

    Awesome, I’m so glad you liked it :)

    I wish he writes another book too…

    1. Jackie says:

      Violet, Thank you for the recommendation!

  16. Tamara says:

    Jackie, thanks so much for the review. As others have said, I’d be interested to learn more about Iraq. I’m also interested in a few non-finction reads this year. I’m going to look this one up.

  17. Maphead says:

    Nice review ! I read this book last summer and really enjoyed it. Come to think of it, I read several books last summer dealing with Jews from the Arab world. If you get bored, drop by my blog, hit the drop down list under “cheat sheet” and select “Judaica” It should link to a few of those books including Sabar’s.
    Nice blog you have ! I must drop by more often.

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