Hollywood Calling

By Ariel Sabar / September / October 2000
October 26th, 2007
MY father is a professor of Near Eastern languages at UCLA. Though his office is a short drive from the big studios of Hollywood, little about him evokes Tinseltown. He was born in Iraq, in a village of mud-brick houses with no plumbing or electricity. His hair, a froth of curls combed over to one side, embarrassed me as a kid, even though some of my friends compared it to Einstein’s. His pastel-plaid JC Penney suits would probably win more style points on the back nine than at the faculty club. As for his latest book, it won’t make Oprah. It is a Neo-Aramaic-English dictionary, a scholar’s lifework whose readers, if brought together, would at best fill a small auditorium.

Yet twice in the career of this least glitzy of men, Hollywood has come calling. The first time was during the making of Oh, God!, the 1977 comedy starring George Burns as the Supreme Being. In one scene, a group of theologians tests the bow tie–wearing Almighty with questions written in an “ancient tongue.” The handwriting is, in fact, my dad’s. Then, one Sunday night this spring, the plot of the television show The X-Files centered on Mulder and Scully’s discovery of a biblical artifact called the Lazarus Bowl. An old woman was throwing this clay pot when Jesus uttered the words that raised Lazarus from the dead. The words, encrypted in the bowl as the clay dried, still have the power to raise the dead, or so we are led to believe.

In a climactic scene in the April 30 episode, a balding FBI sound engineer places the bowl on a computer sensor to “tease out” Christ’s original incantation. From the computer’s speakers comes a frail voice nearly lost in static. A flash of recognition crosses Scully’s face – a sign that not even this is too arcane for her intellect. “That’s the language Christ spoke,” she says. Indeed. But the voice viewers heard that Sunday night was not His. It was a voice that had groused, during a recent visit home, about the way I’d left my shoes in the hall instead of the bedroom.

For my father, who is sixty-one and speaks with a soft Middle Eastern accent, a brush with Hollywood is, as he puts, “like a fantasy come true.”

For one thing, Zakho, the Kurdish border town where he grew up, was no La-La Land. You found your way at night by moonlight, not klieg light. When his family moved to Israel in 1951, my father, then a 13-year-old boy, escaped from the trials of life in a new country in the darkness of Jerusalem’s movie theaters. He still remembers those dazzling actresses in Oklahoma! and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. “The world in those musicals was such a beautiful world compared with the difficult life of new immigrants,” he once told me. “My dream as a child was to someday be in Hollywood. Just to see it even. It looked like some Shangri-la.”

He got there many years later, after graduating from Yale and taking a job at UCLA as a young husband and father. Yet while stars schmoozed at movie galas, he remained worlds away. He would often spend entire days at his desk at home without changing out of his faded bathrobe. His passion is Aramaic. In biblical times it was the lingua franca of much of the Middle East. Nowadays just 200,000 people know it. When my father’s generation dies, the language will, too. My father has spent a career preserving it for scholars.

When a producer for The X-Files called not long ago, my father hadn’t really heard of the show. But at his office he found himself the subject of adoring chatter. “I thought no one would care,” he said. “But all these secretaries got quite excited.” So late one afternoon, my father got into his 1987 Toyota Tercel and drove to the Fox studio gate. A guard waved him to a specially assigned parking place. Inside a big sound studio, a producer asked him to say “Lazarus, come forth” in Aramaic. This was easy. The part that threw my dad was when the producer asked him to say “I am the Walrus” in Aramaic. The writers, it seemed, wanted to have a little fun at the expense of Beatles fans. Preferring Jewish folk music to the Fab Four, my father didn’t get any of this. The producer reassured him with a curt “Don’t worry.” He probably wouldn’t have worried, except that walruses are not native to the flatlands of Zakho, and the nearest ocean is hundreds of miles away. So as the tapes rolled, my father delivered a line perhaps never before spoken in Aramaic’s 3,000-year history. “I am,” he said, “the dog of the sea.”

A few months later, as The X-Files’s 9 p.m. broadcast time neared, my father told me over the phone that he had checked TV Guide and found that a reviewer had given the episode a nine-out-of-ten rating. He said he was getting ready to record the program on two VCRs. “Just in case I have to lend it to two people at the same time,” he said. “Just in case.”

Because he was in southern California and I was in New England, I watched the show three hours before he did. Then I called Los Angeles.

“You’re a star,” I told my father. “Really?” he asked, his voice rising.

Ariel Sabar is a staff writer at the Providence Journal, where an earlier version of this story appeared.

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