Sunday, February 6, 2011

Book Review - Late for Tea at the Deer Palace: The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family by Tamara Chalabi

Title: Late for Tea at the Deer Palace: The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family
Author: Tamara Chalabi 
Year: 2011
Page: 448
Genre: Non-Fiction - History

FTC Disclosure: HarperCollins gave me an ARC in exchange for an unbiased review

Summary (from
A lyrical, haunting, multi-generational memoir of one family’s tempestuous century in Iraq from 1900 to the present.

The Chalabis are one of the oldest and most prominent families in Iraq. For centuries they have occupied positions of honour and responsibility, loyally serving first the Ottoman Empire and, later, the national government.

In ‘Late for Tea at the Deer Palace’, Tamara Chalabi explores the dramatic story of her extraordinary family’s history in this beautiful, passionate and troubled land. From the grand opulence of her great-grandfather’s house and the birth of the modern state, through to the elegant Iraq of her grandmother Bibi, who lived the life of a queen in Baghdad, and finally to her own story, that of the ex-pat daughter of a family in exile, Chalabi takes us on an unforgettable and eye-opening journey.

This is the story of a lost homeland, whose turbulent transformations over the twentieth century left gaping wounds at the hearts not only of the family it exiled, but also of the elegant, sophisticated world it once represented. When Tamara visited her once-beautiful ancestral land for the first time in 2003, she found a country she didn’t recognize – and a nation on the brink of a terrifying and uncertain new beginning.

Lyrical and unique, this exquisite multi-generational memoir brings together east and west, the poetic and the political as it brings to life a land of beauty and grace that has been all but lost behind recent headlines.

First Sentence:
The kitchen was bare, an abandoned room.

My Thoughts:

Why this book?
  • I didn't know a lot about Iraq or its culture, apart from what you hear in the media in recent years... even then I didn't pay a lot of attention (yes I'd admit I'm ignorant!). Since I like memoir, I thought this book would be a good introduction to the Iraqi history and culture, as I am not particularly fond of reading history books
First thought:
  • This is more of a history book (of Iraqi, and the Chalabi family), rather than a memoir!
Cover Art:
  • The colors are quite eye catching! It fits the book. Quite pretty!
  • A symbolic title
  • While the sentences were not overly complicated and the vocabularies were not difficult, it was not a fast read. Only because you had to pay attention and could not really skimp (as I sometimes do with fiction). It also took extra effort to remember the Iraqi names (even though I am Chinese, I have trouble remember characters with Chinese names in books written in English... so it has nothing to do with Iraqi names per se.)
  • The beginning was a little slow... it didn't pick up for me until about p30 when it talked about how the author's grandparents met
  • I mistakenly thought this was a memoir. The author's own story was maybe about 5% of the whole book. So I was a bit disappointed about that
  • I really enjoyed the parts when the author talked about her family history - the food, the wedding, the relationships, the culture. I could visually see it happening in my head
  • The parts about Iraqi history was a bit slow for me and my brain tended to not absorb these parts very well, and I found myself having to re-read them. Now I understand why the author had to talked about Iraqi history as it greatly affected her family's history, but I wish they could be a bit more integrated and more personal. At first I thought they author did a pretty good job integrating the two elements, as typically the parts about Iraqi history were not very long passages. However, in retrospect, if they were more intertwined, my brain wouldn't have automatically tuned out when the family story was not directly involved. It seemed like the straight history part, it was more "tell" rather than "show", whereas the family story was more "show" than "tell"
  • Even though the book subtitle was "The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family", the book focused more on the author's grandparents, and both of them, especially grandmother Bibi, were vividly described. Some aunts / uncles were also mentioned more than others.
  • It talked about the author's father a bit, but the mother was hardly ever mentioned (granted, she was not Iraqi, but it would have been nice to know if she supported her husband's efforts?)
  • I wish the author talked more about her story, as she also experienced her own exile and it would have been interesting to know what went through her and her siblings' minds as it was such a traumatic experience and they were so young.
  • It was nice that a family tree was included! Or I seriously would have been lost with all the extended family members!
  • Actually some more memorable characters for me were the family's slaves / servants. Their loyalty to the family were stronger than some family members' own loyalty
  • While the author began the story by saying this was her story, and not her father's story (I didn't know who her father was until I read this book... see I told you I was ignorant. If you googled Ahmad Chalabi, you could read more about her father and why his story might have played a bigger role in this overall family history), I felt that this was more about her grandparents' story
  • As I was reading the book, I couldn't help but thought of what is happening in Egypt today? Egypt was mentioned a bit in the book (the past, not current politicians)
What I Learned:
  • There were quite a lot of similarities between Iraqi and Chinese culture and traditions! The food, the wedding traditions, the networking and relationships, the family value, the fact that multigenerational family lived under one roof, and the devotion to their own country (typically speaking)... 
  • I tried to read this book without any political bias, which wasn't overly difficult since I did not know a whole lot about Iraqi history, and did not know who the author's father was (and what he had supposedly done since) or that he and his brothers were big bankers. My only biased was "Saddam Hussein was a bad guy" to put it simply. So I guess my ignorant made me unbiased when I read this book. But as each story has two (or rather, multiple) sides, it would be good to hear from the other sides too to have a more complete picture - the Chalabi was a rich family, how about from the poor? From Saddam Hussein's followers? From the people who banked with the Chalabi's banks? Or even just from the author's numerous uncles / aunts / cousins who experienced the same events but might feel differently about what happened.
Read this Author again?
  • Possibly, depends on the topic. I think it was quite ambitious of the author to tackle the subject that she did (the book covered 1913 - 2009!) The back blurb compared this book to Wild Swan: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. I read that probably 18 years old and do not remember much (plus my English was not as good back then so probably did not quite get everything written in the book), but I remember I learned quite a bit about Chinese History and was shocked about some of the events (which I also did not know a lot of... at that time I only had 2 years of Chinese History in school but it was about way, way back, not recent history at that time). But I can see why the two books are compared.

The darkness and dampness of London seeped into the children's bones from the moment they arrived. The city seemed a forlorn place to them. It had not yet recovered fully from the hardships of the Second World War, although rationing had ended seven years earlier. They could not help comparing grey London to golden Baghdad, which for them represented space, safety, warmth and plenty. They knew why they were there, but somehow they could not square the circle. The leap from the palm-lined roads of Baghdad to the grey streets of London was too big. Food was another sore point. Used to crates full of fresh fruits and vegetables, they found the idea of buying a single apple or banana from a shop depressing (p297).

Overall Rating:
4 Stars. Not perfect, but wortwhile. Learned something new!

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1 comment:

  1. I quite like this cover.

    The babies were sleeping with me on the bed all cudlled up. Hopefully their fight is ancient history.