Thursday, November 15, 2012

Q&A with author Ariel Sabar

Ariel Sabar
Journalist Ariel Sabar has written two books. The first, My Father's Paradise, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, is the story of his father, born in a small Kurdish village, who ended up immigrating to the United States and becoming a well-known expert on the Aramaic language and a professor at UCLA. The second, Heart of the City, looks at nine different couples who--like his parents--met in a park or other public space in New York City.

Q: Why did you decide to write about your father’s life, and what was his reaction to your decision?

A: Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, I tried to turn myself into this postcard-perfect Southern California kid, some hybrid of surfer boy, child actor and rock drummer. I looked at my father with his out-of-control hair and strange Middle Eastern accent and decided, as a boy, that I wanted nothing to do with him. My son’s birth in 2002 was a kind of comeuppance. It was a reminder that I wasn’t the first chapter in some brand new story, or the last chapter in an ancient one. Instead, I saw that my own life was no more than the very middle of this ever-unfolding story of Jewish life in lands not our own. As a writer and now a father myself, I saw a chance to link the far-away world my father grew up in with the very modern, very American one I was raising my children in.

At first, my father was a bit nervous about my project. He’s a modest man, and was a little uneasy about the prospect of his journalist son casting him as the leading man in some book, especially one with a sort of heroic narrative arc. But the more time we spent together and the more he watched me dig into the research, the more he came to see that my project wasn’t all that different from his own life’s work: I was trying to build a kind of ark for our people’s fading stories, just as he had done for their dying language. He’s a committed fan of the book now, in part because it has brought the story of the Kurdish Jews and of their Aramaic language to so many people.

-->Q: Did your work on the book change the relationship between the two of you, and if so, how?

A: Working on the book gave us common ground. It gave us a vocabulary with which to communicate. As a boy and even as a young man in my 20s, I felt as though we had nothing to say to each other. But My Father’s Paradise put us on a joint mission, which has brought us a lot closer. And it wasn’t just writing the book that did that. It was seeing it published and hearing from so many people who told us how touched they were by the story. My father now gets almost as many speaking invitations as I do, and the best ones — for both of us — have been for events where we’ve both appeared together. We traveled as far as London and Istanbul this year to give talks about the book, to audiences of several hundred people. That’s not something I ever imagined the two of us doing together.

Q: Your second book, Heart of the City, was also inspired by your father’s (and mother’s) experiences. Can you tell us about the concept behind this book?

A: A turning point in my father’s immigrant journey was a day in the autumn of 1966 when he first met my mom. He had been in graduate school at Yale and took a weekend off to go to New York. Depressed and lonely, he wandered into Washington Square Park,  where he glimpsed a woman taking photographs of Greenwich Village’s great unwashed: the hobo poets, the shirtless street musicians, the fortune tellers, and the homeless. He approached her with a pretty clumsy pickup line, and four months later, they were married. In thinking about their story, I grew fascinated by the way in which well-designed public spaces magnetize strangers. My father told me that he’d first spotted my mom on the street. But only after he’d entered the sanctuary of the park did he feel he had license to approach her. The park, he said, shrank the city. People who were strangers on the street became a kind of family once they set foot in the park. Working with that idea, I set out to find other couples who married after first meeting, by chance, in one of New York City’s iconic public places: Central Park, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grand Central Terminal, the subway, etc. Heart of the City tells the stories of nine such couples, spanning from the 1940s to the present. If My Father’s Paradise is this wrenching multi-generational family saga, Heart of the City is my beach read.

Q: What do you think is unique about your father’s immigrant experience? On the other hand, do you see ways in which his story is similar to those of immigrants from other places who come to the United States?

A: What makes my father’s immigrant journey somewhat unusual, perhaps, is where it started: a forgotten enclave of Aramaic-speaking Jews that had dwelt in the mountains of Kurdish Iraq since the original exile from the Land of Israel, back in 720 B.C. Also striking are the vast gulfs of culture and geography he crossed to wind up in, of all places, Los Angeles. A man born to an illiterate teenage mother in a mud-brick shack in northern Iraq had somehow gotten himself into Yale University and then landed a prestigious faculty job at UCLA, where he’s taught now for four decades and is one of the world’s leading experts on modern Aramaic, his native tongue. But in most broader respects, the stories of immigrants are universal. The push and pull between the old world and the new. The struggle over which things — physical, intellectual and emotional — to take with you and which to leave behind. The hobbling loss of status that follows emigration, followed by a kind of groping towards reinvention and redemption. I’ve been deeply moved by how many immigrants and children of immigrants from other places — and of every faith — have come up to me after my talks and said, “This is my story, too.”

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: After finishing Heart of the City, I moved more or less full-time now into writing long feature articles for magazines. It’s been a blast. I also lecture on creative writing and continue to have a fairly regular schedule of speaking engagements around My Father’s Paradise. I will no doubt write another book, though none is in the works just now. Stay tuned.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My website is , where people can find some of my recent magazine articles and other hopefully interesting stuff.

Interview with Deborah Kalb.

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