You're right, Joan. I had a great job at The Baltimore Sun back in late 2004. Then I quit, cold, and moved to a Maine farmhouse with my family on a somewhat crazy premise: that my father's life story might make a compelling read. But it wasn't just that I saw a good story. It was that I wanted to try to make things right with my dad. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, I looked at him and saw a man who didn't belong. Not in America. Not in LA. Not in my life.
I wanted to be this cool California kid -- a skateboarder and rock drummer -- and saw my father as a stone-age relic. He'd been born in a mud shack in a remote enclave of Jews in the mountains of Kurdish Iraq and spoke, as his mother tongue, Aramaic, a language most people thought was long dead. But after having my own son, I began to see that I'd been unfair. I stopped seeing him as a spoiler and began to see him as a bridge that could connect me and my own children to an important part of our past. I quit my job when I did because I worried that my father, and others of his generation with memories of that vanished world, were getting older. If I didn't act then, I feared, those stories might be lost forever.
For me, the two were inseparable. To gather these stories, I knew I would need to spend many, many hours with my father, getting to know him better, trying to understand how his origins made him the man he is. In the end, we wound up traveling together in 2005 to his hometown in northern Iraq.
Tell us about your trip. Was it at all like you imagined? What was returning home like for your father?
As a boy, the little I knew about Zakho -- my father's hometown in northern Iraq -- was from the ghost stories he would tell. I imagined it as this sleepy mountain hollow, a place in a fairytale. What I discovered in 2005 was a bustling border town hurtling into the future, thanks to its location at the Turkish border, now the safest and busiest land crossing into Iraq. My father had been back once before, in 1992, after the first Gulf War.
Though there are no Jews left in Zakho, the older generation of Muslim Kurds told us fond stories of the Jews who were their neighbors, friends and business partners. We were overwhelmed by invitations to share sweet tea and memories with many of the old-timers. Their welcome stood in stark contrast to headlines in the newspaper, and the portrayals of Iraq as a place somehow inescapably hostile towards Jews. The fact is that for most of its history, Iraq was a far more hospitable place for Jews than Europe ever was.
So often, reality is quite different than what we read in the newspapers. Have you and your father ever discussed the fact that both of you grew up defining yourselves in relation to an immigrant father? And, now that I think of it, your father was in the unusual position to ultimately find himself on both ends of that dyad - as a son of an immigrant and, later, as an immigrant himself.
I don't think my father defined himself against his immigrant father as much as I did mine. But he definitely had an immigrant father, and rather late in my reporting, he confided that as a teenager in Israel he balked at bringing girlfriends home, for fear of their reaction to his parents' traditional ways. For a while, my father wanted to become the consummate Israeli. After the Army, he even changed his last name to Sabar, the word for cactus fruit, the very symbol of the Israeli character.
So yes, there are undeniable parallels to my quest to become the ultimate California kid, with my affected surfer-boy slang and home-built skateboard ramps. But both of us eventually boomeranged, and that has been fodder for a great deal of father-son bonding. It may also explain why he continues to see my early rejection of him as forgivable -- certainly more forgivable than I do.
If we live long enough, and, if we're lucky, most of us do arrive at the point where we're mortified by our past behavior. Luckily, I came to my senses while my parents were still alive so I could belatedly apologize. It's an unattractive stage, but pretty inescapable. Now that you've worked through it, would you share a few anecdotes of how a cool California high school surfer dude could find himself so embarrassed by his uncool dad?
I think we can use their imaginations on that one. This project was unlike anything you'd done before. Being a journalist, you already had research skills. What kind of special challenges did you face putting it all together?
I'd been a daily journalist for a decade when I decided to take the leap into books. The biggest difference, obviously, is length. I had done a lot of narrative storytelling as a newspaper reporter, but figuring out how to sustain dramatic tension and move multiple characters through a story spanning five generations and three countries was a challenge of a much higher order. Though the writing process was more time-consuming and complex, the result, for me, was far more satisfying. I'm grateful that most readers and critics seem to think it worked.