Yona Sabar is a world expert on neo-Aramaic, an almost dead language, the driver of a Tercel, and his own barber. He is also the product of a lost world, a Jewish enclave in Kurdish Iraq. This book is his story, as told by his son, American journalist, Ariel Sabar. Ariel’s slow-growing appreciation of his father’s accomplishments, and the birth of his own son, leads him on this journey of family exploration which ends where it began, the town of Zakho, in Northern Iraq. Zakho is unique in that its minority population of Jews still speaks Aramaic, the language of Jesus and most of the Middle East until the ascendancy of the Muslims and Arabic, and long-thought to be a dead language. Life in Zakho is paradise for young Yona Beh Sagabha, despite his being a minority in every way: poor, Jewish, Aramaic-speaking, and Kurdish in the center of a predominantly Muslim Iraq. In the wake of WWII, even Zakho is affected by the rise of Zionism, pan-Arabian and anti-Semitic sentiments. In 1951, Yano and his family are part of the mass exodus of Iraqi Jews, and they resettle in Israel.
Life in Israel was difficult for non-European Jews. The population of Israel grew so rapidly that housing and jobs couldn’t keep up with demand. Demoralized and culturally isolated, many of Zakho’s Jews are lost in the Israeli homeland. Yano, however, discovers that being a native speaker of Aramaic is the key to academic opportunity. A scholarship to Yale’s Department of Near Eastern Languages is Yano’s ticket to the ultimate land of opportunity, and eventually to an esteemed professorship at UCLA, but at a cost to his sense of self, family, and community. This is the story of a town, a family, and the relationship between father and son.