Taking up her family’s burden: Tamara Chalabi’s LATE FOR TEA AT THE DEER PALACE

BY ASHLEY ALBRECHT

tea“As with everything in the Middle East, nothing makes sense until you understand the past, and the past is never straightforward.”  Such commences Tamara Chalabi’s first book, Late for Tea at the Deer Palace: The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family (HarperCollins).  Part history of Iraq, part ancestral memoir, and part political critique, the text stands to reckon with others of the “return to homeland” vein or East/West “exile literature.”  Chalabi—who dubs her father, Ahmad, “a leading opposition figure to Saddam Hussein’s fallen regime”—masks the latent political defense of her father (which resurfaces again and again throughout the book) with an authorial disclaimer in the prologue:

“Everybody asks me about my father.  He has been labeled a maverick, a charlatan, a genius.  He has been named as the source of supposedly faulty intelligence that led America into the war in Iraq.  He has been called a triple agent for the US, Iran and Israel.  But this is my story”(emphasis added).

Chalabi leads the reader on a transnational journey traversing the Middle East and the American East coast, spanning almost a century.  Arriving “late for tea” at her father’s childhood house—the “Deer Palace”—in Baghdad, Chalabi is stunned to find the life-size, stone deer statue her grandfather Hadi had cherished, beheaded.  The amputated head parallels the time—April, 2003, a month after the initial invasion into Iraq, and a mere ten days after the fall of Baghdad to the U.S.-led coalition.

Anger is openly attributed as Chalabi’s primary “trigger” to craft the work.  Within a stereotypically-Western value framework, the author aims to illustrate and convince the reader of the “modern-ness” of her homeland.  Chalabi writes to redress what she terms “the expropriation of [the Iraqi] people’s silent voices” by the American administration and the international press – which had “reduced Iraq to a desert of tanks, screaming women and barefoot children.”

tamara-chalabi-124x150The four part memoir reads part family reclamation—replete with family tree, maps of Baghdad, ancestral-political chronology, part didactic scholarship—Iraqi Arabic terms interspersed between a history of the people and culture of Iraq.  Although engaging in its suspenseful, event-laden narrative, much of the book reads like a pedantic history lecture. This is fitting, since Chalabi holds a doctorate in history from Harvard.  However, as Chalabi shrewdly observes, “The timescale of memory is not the same as the timescale of history.”

As the Chalabi clan occupied an idiosyncratic space in Iraqi cultural-political life, described by the author as a simultaneity of insider/outsider status for “Shi’as who were deeply involved in politics,” it is clear that the historical necessity was prime for Tamara Chalabi’s memoir to emerge and release itself—a fitting decade after the fall of the Twin Towers and the ensuing Western “call to arms.”

Late for Tea at the Deer Palace: The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family
By Tamara Chalabi
HarperCollins, 2011
448 pages, $19.00