Tuesday, September 9, 2008

When do our family stories start to matter to us?

That's the question, isn't it? It's been on my mind lately, for the StoryCorps project but also as I talked with author Ariel Sabar today about his book "My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq."

As children and young adults we often tune out when our parents and grandparents tell us stories about the "olden days". I asked Ariel if his dad had told him about his Kurdish roots as he was growing up in Los Angeles.
"I didn't give my dad the chance to tell me things. I didn't want him around. I wanted my mother who was American born to take me to things like soccer practice and picking me up after school. I looked at my dad as someone who was hopelessly mired in the past. Who refused to make any accommodations to the modern era - I didn't even let my dad get that close. So I really knew nothing."
He went on to say,
"In fact this was the 1980's when I was growing up and this was right after the Iranian hostage crisis and I remember skateboarding in the local public school yard and seeing graffiti on the walls along the lines of 'Iranians go home' and 'towel-heads go home'. I didn't think most kids made any distinction between Iraqis and Iranians and people from other countries in the Middle East and so I saw my father as a spoiler on my own yearning to fit in. I didn't know much at all."
At some point, sometimes as relatives age or are sick or when we have children of our own, we WANT to know the stories of the people that came before us. That's what happened to Ariel Sabar when he had his son. That's the genesis of the book about his dad's heritage.
"This book is about what happens when we leave an ancient culture for a modern one - and what happens. As children of immigrants we find ourselves just a few steps over that threshold - the folks who live in the old world are still alive - their memories are still with them. If we wait too long then their stories are gone.
You begin to see yourself more as a link in a chain. Are you going to carry forward this culture in some way or are you going to drop the ball?
For me, one of the things I learned about the Kurdish Jews is that against some very great odds they kept up their ancient language and their religion over 3,000 years as a minority in the mountains living among Muslims. I'm close enough to it that I was in this privileged position of being able to record some of this and bring it forward.

We have a choice to make: do we walk away and blaze forward into this great American future in which we can be whoever we want to be and reinvent ourselves? Or do we carry some of what came before us with us and do we connect ourselves to history in a way that allows us to be something bigger than ourselves? "
It's a question Ariel Sabar posed to himself, but it's something we should pose to ourselves too. Do you carry the traditions and heritage of your parent and grandparents and great-grandparents with you? How do you do that?

What I'm finding out, as are the folks who have signed up for StoryCorps, is that we should all carve out time to ask questions, and most importantly, to listen. It's a gift we can give to ourselves.

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