Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Review: Late for Tea at the Deer Palace by Tamara Chalabi

So often what we learn from the nightly news is generic or impersonal. Even the human interest stories they show only touch the surface of complex situations. So when a memoir comes along to expand on our knowledge of historic and recent events, it is invaluable. Of course, a memoir by definition takes only one perspective and so has an inherent bias in its recounting. In this case, Tamara Chalabi a Lebanese-Iraqi, daughter of Ahmad Chalabi, one of the sources of perhaps questionable intelligence that led to the the American invasion in Iraq, writes a heartfelt and moving history of her family, their life in Iraq, and their subsequent exile from the country they loved.

Starting back in the early nineteen-teens, Chalabi opens the multi-generational tale of her influential and politically important family by introducing her great-grandfather, grandfather Hadi, and soon-to-be grandmother Bibi. She weaves the external happenings in the area that is soon to become the country of Iraq with the major personal events occurring in her wealthy family. Using the memories of her elderly relatives and what she remembers from her formidable grandmother, she constructs a tale of an elite family, political insiders despite their Shi'a religious identification in a country ruled by the Sunni, a family whose personal history is inextricably intertwined with the complex history of this troubled Middle Eastern country from its time as a part of the Ottoman Empire to its birth as an independent country mentored by the British and on through to its recent turbulent and violent history under Saddam Hussein and beyond.

This is neither dry history nor completely undocumented family memoir. Chalabi's family held governmental positions in most incarnations of Iraq's government until the coup d'etat that resulted in the deaths of everyone in the royal family. The men in the family earned immense wealth and had the ears of those who held the reins of power. The women, whose lives were more proscribed due to their religious beliefs and cultural mores, ruled the domestic sphere and contributed to their husbands' successes, especially Chalabi's diminutive, whirlwind grandmother Bibi who is a major presence throughout the bulk of the story.

The bulk of the tale centers around the unrest and turmoil of the first half of the twentieth century around Bhagdad, laying the groundwork and explaining the reasons that the situation today exists. Chalabi tries to be evenhanded in her criticisms of the West's dealings in the area but there are times when her anger towards Britain and the US seeps through. The weaving of the personal, the political and their extreme interconnectedness is done quite well, keeping the reader's attention through each narrative shift. The end of the book and the current lives of the Chalabis, especially Tamara's father Ahmad, feels much more rushed than the rest of the story though. It is possible to feel the nostalgia and yearning for a vanished time and place when Chalabi writes of the older generations but the feelings of exile are less complete when she tackles her own and her cousins' similar but confused feelings. And perhaps this would always hold true of a generation not born in country but it is a marked contrast and a definite weakness compared to the strength of feeling of previous generations. A look into a misunderstood area of the world through the eyes of one of its own, although certainly not an unbiased telling, an insightful one indeed.

Follow the rest of the blog tour for Chalabi's Late for Tea at the Deer Palace or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. Love the title and the cover, and the story sounds intriguing as well, especially since it's a memoir and not fiction. Good review.

  2. Stories like this are so inherently personal, and that makes me love them. I so appreciate seeing things from an insider's perspective.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!


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