Looking at the title and subtitle of this book, some may be tempted to classify Late for Tea at the Deer Palace as a memoir. Save for a small section at the end, when the author inserts her own narrative into the book, it really isn’t. Instead, the book is a sweeping family history that documents the experiences of several generations of the Chalabi family, whose roots in Iraq–part of what was previously known as Ottoman Empire–can be traced back several centuries. By the early twentieth century, the Chalabi family–full of successful politicians, businessman, and scholars–was one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Iraq. But after a violent coup in the 1950s, the family was forced to flee abroad, leaving behind their beloved country and starting over from scratch.
I truly enjoyed this book. From an oral history perspective alone, I am in awe of Chalabi’s ability to unearth and convey so many personal stories (and the Chalabi family’s ability to preserve such a detailed family history). The end result is a fascinating and impressive collection of narratives that often reads like a novel. In fact, I was initially thrown off by the novel-esque qualities of the book; like many nonfiction books these days–history books included–Late for Tea at the Deer Palace follows the current trend of reimagining events as they may have occurred. The effect is initially disconcerting, but ultimately, the writing is clear and vivid, and it’s easy to get drawn in by the Chalabis, many of whom have quite memorable personalities.
I think I was a little panicky while reading the last part of the prologue, in which Chalabi gives readers a brief crash course on Iraq’s history. In typical American fashion, I’m embarrassingly unfamiliar with the rich histories of more areas of the world than I’d like to admit–the Middle East being one of these areas. I was worried that I’d have to process all of this information in order to follow the book, but all that worrying was unnecessary. Since Chalabi’s family was prominent in Iraq, it would have been impossible for Chalabi to write their story without writing about Iraq history; she careful to contextualize her family’s narrative with the history pertaining to that time period. The narratives and explanations of relevant historical events are smoothly woven together, and it is easy for readers to follow along.
It is remarkable how little things over time. I was struck by these comments that were made by a British diplomat in 1917, when British troops “liberated” Baghdad:
Our armies come into your cities and lands not as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators … I am commanded to invite you, through your nobles and elders and representatives, to participate in the management of your civil affairs in collaboration with the political representatives of Great Britain who accompany the British Army, so that you may be united with your kinsmen in North, East, South, and West in realizing the aspirations of your race.
Exchange “Great Britain” for “America,” and it sounds like something politicians say all the time about the current war, no?
Later in the book, after speaking at length about the horrors in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s reign and the effect it had on the innocent people who lived there, Chalabi talks about what the atmosphere in one part of Iraq was like as the U.S. geared up for war:
What I remember most from those days is the uncertainty and frustration, but also the fragile hope that the dictator’s end might be nearing. Following the huge anti-war protests in many Western cities in mid-February, I listened to bewildered Kurds who wondered why the international community loved Saddam so much.
I appreciated the fact that Chalabi included several moments like these in the book, because they offer perspectives that are often ignored by the mainstream media. The Iraq portrayed in the book is one filled with rich cultural and ethnic diversity, one that is filled with those who are traditionally religious as well as those who are ready for change.
The book is also successful at conveying a profound sense of loss. Though the Chalabis were able to succeed after being forced into exile, they still longed for their homeland. Even the author, who was still quite young when her family was forced to flee, writes about the sense of loss she feels over a place she spent so little of her life in because it is such a huge part of her identity:
Iraq still challenges me, even when I attempt to pull apart the fabric of who I am and examine it one layer at a time: as a woman, as someone with a comopolitan multicultural upbringing, as an Arab, as a person with a Muslim Shi’a heritage, as a secular individual, as an exile. What persists is my identity as a human being, beyond borders and frontiers, but still with dreams for the land of my fathers.
While I wouldn’t say I now have a solid grasp on Iraq’s history (which wasn’t the point of the book anyhow), I did come away from this book with a better understanding of the changes in Iraq’s political landscape over the last century. Before reading the book, I knew that the country was ethnically diverse, but I wasn’t aware of the extent. Reading about all the different cultures and customs sparked an interest in me, and it certainly left me wanting to know more.
Late for Tea at the Deer Palace: The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family was released on January 18, 2011 by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.