Reviewed by Vera Pereskokova (Luxury Reading)
Tamara Chalabi can trace her ancestry through who is who of pre-Saddam Hussein Iraq, to men who socialized with and advised royals and politicians alike. Both her grandfather, Hadi, and her great-grandfather, Abdul Hussein, played important roles in the shaping of the country. Her father, Ahmad Chalabi, spent many years – and often risked his life – as the head of Iraqi National Congress (INC), whose goal was to remove Saddam from power.
Despite her family’s deep set Iraqi roots, Tamara was born in Lebanon, and spend her childhood in Jordan. In 1958, as all chaos erupted and the Iraqi royal family was murdered by the opposition, the Chalabi family became a target due to their political involvement. One by one, they escaped to Britain. They spent the subsequent years moving back to the region and building a life in Lebanon, only to be exiled again after the outbreak of a civil war.
Tamara grew up hearing magical stories about Baghdad from her larger-than-life grandmother, Bibi, and finally arrived on Baghdad’s soil in 2003. Exile was different for everyone – her relatives never felt truly at home anywhere – and her return to the homeland was a realization of their hopes and dreams.
I had a difficult time writing a review for Late for Tea at the Deer Palace given my mixed feelings about the book. On the one hand, Late for Tea at the Deer Palace added greatly to my understanding of Iraqi history and I could not help but sympathize with the plight of the Chalabi family and Iraqis in general. Tamara put a lot of work and thought into tracing the history of Iraq from its time under the Ottoman rule, through World War I and II, to overthrow of the royal family, Saddam Hussein’s rise to power and finally the country’s current state. She wove in her family’s stories throughout the book, providing the individuals’ personal experiences during the tumultuous events.
On the other hand, Tamara’s writing was somewhat stiff and very detailed; it’s quite evident that she took effort to include every little story or tidbit she had on hand. I understand that Tamara likely wanted to give readers a very clear understanding of the day to day life in Iraq, but I felt frustrated with the mundane and unimportant facts that were included.The barrage of names alone was overwhelming and while there was a family tree at the front of the book, I wish there was also a list of “characters” for anyone not related to the author. The events were laid out chronologically but there were too many odds and ends and offshoot stories that detracted from the main focus. Tamara’s own experience was only relayed on a few pages interspersed throughout the book and in a small section at the end; I learned everything there was to know about her family, but very little about her…
Everything said, I wish I had a book like Late for Tea at the Deer Palace when I took modern history classes in high school and college – it would have provided a welcome break from dry history textbooks. Tamara paid homage to her family while also providing an interesting look at the creation of Iraq as we know it today, and the events that have shaped the region in past decades. While it was not the easiest book to read, I definitely walked away from it with an improved insight into this country.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Harper Perennial. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.