Book review: Late for Tea at the Deer Palace by Tamara Chalabi

Late for Tea at the Deer Palace is a hauntingly beautiful ode to Iraq. Told from the perspective of the Chalabi family, one of the most influential families in Iraq for most part of the 20th century, the novel recreates the country’s majestic past. It is also one of the few books that really brings this country alive for the rest of the world, much in the way that Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner brought pre-war-ravaged Afghanistan to life.

Starting in 1913, the book traces the history of the nation and the rise and fall of the Chalabi family, from the decline of the Ottomon empire to its destruction at the hands of Saddam Hussein and to Tamara Chalabi’s first look at her homeland.

As she traces her own roots, Chalabi take the reader along on a journey into the culture and psyche of Iraqi nationals and gives us a look at what the nation could have been if it wasn’t for Islamic clerics and Saddam Hussein, who brought its progress to a grinding halt. Chalabi’s vivid descriptions and the many pictures she uses in her narrative breathe life into the characters and bring Iraq alive.

He wore the typical attire of a sophisticated urbanite: a traditonal robe tailored in Baghdad from sayah, a delicate striped cotton material bought in Damascus, over white drawstring trousers. On his head he wore a fez, decreed by the Sultan in Istanbul to be the appropriate headgear of the modern Ottoman Empire.
– Late for Tea at the Deer Palace, p 33

Reading this book was even more poignant for me because my mother often spoke longingly about Basra, where she spent her first few years  of married life with my father. She would often tell me about the cobbled streets, the outdoor cafes and her life there. When Basra was bombed during the Iran-Iraq war she was grief stricken, because she had always wanted to return for another visit. Reading this book, I was better able to imagine what Basra, and Iraq, were like in their hey day.

As I read about Ahmad Chalabi’s struggle to get a hearing with world leaders on the story of Iraq,  his fight to free Iraq from the clutches of Saddam Hussein and how he and the rest of the Iraqis who wanted to fight alongside US troops were ill-treated, I begin to understand their frustration with world politics. And as I read about Chalabi’s return to her homeland for the first time in 2003, I’m struck by recent news on how Iraq’s struggles are driving many refugees out of the country (read the article on NY Times). It makes me wonder when and how this nation’s suffering will end.

I’d willingly recommended this book to anybody — not only is beautifully written, it also gives readers a rare glimpse into the history, culture and psyche of Iraq — giving us a clue about why Iraqis are not satisfied with the help received from the US, why they might have not got closure to Saddam Hussein’s reign, and why the nation continues to be in strife.

The book will be available in stores from 18 January 2011. You can pre-order the book through HarperCollins’ website.

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  1. Looks like a book that I need to read. I love Khaled Hosseini too; and this one is a must-read for me because I have spent a considerable part of my life in Iraq… in fact all my first memories are of Iraq…

    Hope you are well 🙂

  2. Pingback: Looking back 2010 – Top 10 books | Modern Gypsy

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