BEIRUT: Toward the end of the narrative unfurling in her first book, “Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War,” the journalist Annia Ciezadlo gets a curious piece of advice from a wrinkled old man, “one of the antediluvian leftists who held court drinking and chain-smoking all day in Hamra’s cafes.”
What, he asked, was she, a foreigner, doing in Beirut while her Lebanese husband had turned his back on the city of his birth for a more stable life in New York?
As she stumbled through a convoluted answer to this straightforward question, “the old man held up his index finger like an alcoholic oracle. With the painstaking dignity of an all-day drunk, he said, ‘Don’t be complicated.’”
Ciezadlo considers his wisdom and sets it aside. Given the capricious alliances of Lebanon’s political class, the social minefield of its sectarian system, the local cuisine’s delicate balance of flavors, the exasperating routine of arranging one’s life around power cuts or water shortages, and the dull pain of conducting a relationship that is either mentally or physically split between two very different places, she concludes, “You couldn’t live in Beirut without being complicated.”
“Day of Honey” takes its title from the rhyming Arabic proverb youm asal, youm basal. It belongs to a quizzical subgenre of so-called “post 9/11 lit,” that glut of publications grappling with the state of world since two planes slammed into New York’s World Trade Center nearly a decade ago, instigating wars, deportations, extraordinary renditions and an overall atmosphere of fear and prejudicial loathing of all things Arab, Muslim or Middle Eastern.
If one were to arrange all of these books on a set of shelves, the memoirs of the foreign correspondents corps would occupy a squished but admirable space among the hefty tomes of dry foreign policy analysis, the thin volumes of hysterical clash-of-civilizations theory, and the padded apologia of native informant narratives.
From “In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran” (by Christopher de Bellaigue, writing for The Economist) to “Waiting for an Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq” (by Farnaz Fassihi, of The Wall Street Journal) to “The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East” (by Neil MacFarquhar, of The New York Times), the intrepid reporter’s yarn has proven an attractive publishing enterprise.
Journalists on the ground gather a wealth of material, and these books give space to richly rendered stories that would have otherwise been fleeced from day-to-day news accounts. The subgenre is not equally accomplished – if anyone remembers Allegra Stratton’s promising but scattershot book “Muhajababes.”
What makes Ciezadlo’s book one of the most captivating of the lot is that, ultimately, she doesn’t take her drunk’s advice at all.
“Day of Honey” is unabashedly complicated, piling a love story, a rollicking adventure in the journalism trade, a bold political diatribe, a subtle feminist screed, a guerilla cookbook and a social, cultural and economic history of food between its covers like a ludicrous towering sandwich.
Pinning it all down are the equally complex characters of the author and her husband, Mohamad Bazzi, who was the Middle East bureau chief for the New York newspaper “Newsday” from 2003 through 2007.
The action in “Day of Honey” begins on Sept. 13, 2001, with Ciezadlo in the backseat of a cab, throttling toward Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, historically the nerve center of New York’s Arab-American community. The driver starts grousing about Arabs and Al-Qaeda lurking in every corner.
“My boyfriend’s an Arab,” she says. “And he’s not Al-Qaeda, and I have a lot of Arab friends, and they’re not Al-Qaeda either!”
It is a mark of Ciezadlo’s sense of humor and self-deprecation that she knows how ridiculous this sounds but still uses the anecdote well. Détente is achieved as the cab passes Sahadi’s, a deli with a hundred years of history. By the time Ciezadlo steps out of the car, her and the driver have found common cause in their appetite for falafel and hummus.
From there, “Day of Honey” skips ahead and follows a six-year arc.
Ciezadlo marries Bazzi, the boyfriend. In lieu of a proper honeymoon, they set out for Baghdad and then bounce around from there to Beirut to New York and back again. Against a backdrop of invasion, occupation and insurgency in Iraq, of bombardment, siege and the reverberating echoes of a resurfacing civil war in Lebanon, Ciezadlo finds comfort, as well as a penetrating understanding of the people and places she encounters, through food.
“Day of Honey” is, in a sense, a passionate ode to masquf, a carp or carp-like fish that is sliced in half and left to smolder for an hour in a wooden vat, a delicacy once common in the open air restaurants of Abu Nawas Street in Baghdad.
It is likewise a tribute to the infinite urban and rural variations one finds in Lebanon for kafta, kibbeh nayeh, mlukhieh, mjadara, yakhnet kusa, foul mdamas and more.
The book digs in deeper as a series of sensitive portraits of the people behind those dishes: the plucky young journalism student in Baghdad who prepares Ciezadlo a feast fit for kings, the radical religious scholar with whom she shares an ice cream, the Baathist princess holed up in a hotel, the Lebanese farmer who is a master of mouneh and an uproarious critic of the Bush administration, and the feisty mother-in-law, Umm Hassane, who tries in vain to teach her the indelible intricacies of batata wa bayd mfarakeh, and who is, at heart, the heroine of this book.
Ciezadlo has a comedian’s timing and a novelist’s ear for dialogue, both of which are in evidence when Umm Hassane starts shouting out of nowhere: “Bring me a baby!” (“But we have a cat! Who needs a baby?”) or when a fellow journalist calls to say, “Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers this morning; I’m going to get a pedicure.”
Whenever Ciezadlo arrives in a city, she scours its markets and sets up a field kitchen, even if it’s no more than a hot plate resting on the floor, plugged into a dubious electrical socket outside a bathroom door.
She cooks to figure out where she is and how she fits in. She cooks to stave off loneliness. She cooks to belong, to learn, to listen and to see. She cooks to find out how food not only keeps people alive but also allows them to remain human, capable of maintaining the bonds of family, community, culture and civilization.
“If you want to understand war, you have to understand everyday life first. The dominant narrative of the Middle East is perpetual conflict,” she writes. “The bombs and the bullets and the battles are always different, and yet always, somehow, depressingly the same.
“And so this book is not about the ever-evolving ways in which people kill or die during wars but about how they live before, during, and after those wars. It’s about the millions of small ways people cope.
“I went to the Middle East like most Americans,” she writes, “relatively naive about both Arab culture and American foreign policy. Over the next six years, I saw plenty of war, but I also saw normal, everyday life … Other people saw more, did more, risked more,” she adds. “But I ate more.”
Annia Ciezadlo’s “Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War,” just published by Free Press, is available at bookshops throughout Beirut.