Since 2001, when the “War on Terror” began, the Middle East has been a central subject in the media and countless journalists and writers have made their way here. For several years, my radio alarm would awake me with this opener, “A suicide bombing in Baghdad…” What did I know, really, about the war in Iraq, besides what was defined as “military” or “infidel”?
I am writing about a book published in 2011 because Annia Ciezadlo carries out a remarkable feat in her memoir, Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War: she takes readers from Midwest America, to the West coast, to New York, and across the ocean to Baghdad and Beirut without a single pretension. That is, she draws conclusions from her intimacy with foreign people and places as well as from her well-researched subjects. She does not serve up clichés or tired images and characters or conclusions from one-off experiences. It seems that her humility may be in part due to her childhood, which she establishes from the first chapter of the memoir. She spent much of it homeless with her single mother, who always managed to cook a proper dinner for the two of them to sit down to, an act that Ciezadlo describes as making her feel “at home." This theme carries throughout the work, as she dynamically flips things around to show how one makes a home for oneself while consistently feeling like belonging nowhere.
In a world of foreign correspondents, journalists, and writers who write about the Middle East in terms of who died and who killed, Ciezadlo wisely chooses to focus on “another battle” – “the hidden war of the slow but relentless destruction of everyday life” and how people cope with this destruction: “how they live before, during, and after those wars.” As a result, she avoids all the predictable and over-stressed subjects of oppressed women, terror cells, corruption, and conspiracy theories, which contribute to infamously narrow views of the Middle East. Instead, she takes us into the homes and lives of activists, artists, shop owners, who she calls by name. At the same time, we are invited to learn about her intimate relationships, namely with her husband, Mohammad, who, as the Middle East Bureau Chief of Newsday, is required to live between Beirut and Baghdad. While this results in feelings of instability and an itinerant phase, Annia comes to find the Middle East her home while Mohammad becomes keen on going back to the U.S. This tension is never resolved within the book, which ends with the two of them living apart. Nonetheless, we get some insight into her internal conflict when toward the end of the chapter “My Previous Experience in War,” which takes us through the 2008 May events in Hamra, she says, “But the war would never end; like Mohamad said, you ended it yourself. Moving back to New York was the ending to his wars. I would have to find my own.”
Ciezadlo consistently finds new ways to express the triangulation between food, love, and war. Much of the driving force of this triangulation comes through complexly drawn characters. You will cry and laugh as she recounts the tales of her mother-in-law, Umm Hassane, who during the July 2006 War and a simultaneous bout of bad health, occupies Annia and Mohammad’s couch, at times starving herself out of self-pity and rage at the war; and other times hobbling into the kitchen to show Annia how to make a Lebanese meal, micromanaging and criticizing all the while. In one instance, as Annia is determined to learn the way that Umm Hassane makes one of her and Mohammad’s favorite meals – a mélange of fried eggs and potatoes (batata wa bayd) – the only response she gets to her questions of how long to cook is “Until it’s ready!” The humor we find in Umm Hassane’s character is a warm foil to the memoir’s setting of war.
While observing details like a journalist, Ciezadlo also writes with the talent of a seasoned memoirist, the personal and universal in constant interplay. With each major section, we meet a character and the social and political issues surrounding that person. We also witness the feast or relationship with food Ciezadlo shares with that person, which she often intelligently whips into a history lesson, a cultural note, or a broader connection to a life lesson. For example, she contextualizes her Iraqi friend Roaa as being born in 1980, the year the Iran-Iraq war began. We learn that she grew up chanting “Long live the great Saddam!” at school; her family traveled quite a bit as her father was a pilot with Iraqi Airways until sanctions after the Gulf War cost him his job; she and her family always had their bags packed for fear of having their house bombed during the American invasion; after the American invasion, she landed her dream job as a reporter, only to quit due to the danger to women who interviewed men who were not their husbands; she eventually immigrated to Colorado. Without being political, Ciezadlo intimately shows what happens as a result of the political. When Roaa invites Annia in Baghdad for an unexpected epic lunch – a magnificent spread of dishes from Iraq, Lebanon, and North America (banana cream pie!) in Ciezadlo’s honor – Ciezadlo concludes that “Through the universal act of handing down recipes, they also handed down the memory of other places, other worlds.”
Thoughtful conclusions such as this one leave the reader feeling she’s in the hands of someone who has looked at her subject from all sides. War journalists are a courageous bunch, but not so often do you find one that can make the personal so valid and real, avoiding the clichés or click-bait style language and imagery, that incidentally, we find on the back cover, which promises a book about “Hezbollah commandos,” “Sunnis and Shiites,” “warlords and refugees,” “sectarian street battles,” and writing about “the Arab world’s first peaceful revolution.” These are the subjects that people usually eat up. In this case, if it worked for the masses, good! I, for one, was not interested in the book because of the back cover until I received a recommendation to read it, which delivers much more than the back cover purports. Her own openness about her feelings toward war reveal her sensitivity and lived experience; they are relatable and convincing to those who live in proximity to war:
War changes your metabolism so that a part of you is perpetually at war and uneasy with peace[…] A part of us secretly exults in disaster: we are proven right; things are exactly as bad as we always knew they were. That ugly part of us (and I have it in me just like anyone else) resents the people around you, the ones who seem only to see the smooth and perfect shell.
As Beiruti writer, Lina Mounzer, who read Day of Honey said, “This is one of the only books about the Middle East by a foreigner that doesn’t piss me off.” That is, this book does not float on pretensions, clichés, and rushed conclusions. It is an honest account by a humble, open person who writes about the Middle East from experience that draws on intimate personal relations, observation that mines characters and makes them significant in the larger context of war, and detailed information that documents history. The best sign that the book truly gets to the heart of her subjects is that Ciezadlo breaks bread with everyone she meets.