Gastronomy in Iraq and a woman business operator in Afghanistan

March 25, 2011

For the scores of journalists and aid workers who poured into Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the terrible food in Baghdad’s hotels was a shock — greasy minced meat, mayonnaise-soaked vegetables and an obsession with Pepsi. But the story of the occupation and insurgency was so intense that most visitors spent little time worrying about what they put in their mouths. Thankfully, freelancer Annia Ciezadlo, who arrived in the fall of 2003 for a year-long reporting stint, became obsessed with Iraq’s food and trekked across its gastronomic desert. In “Day of Honey,” she delves into how the 25-year dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and a decade of U.N. sanctions drove Iraq’s best recipes underground.

Her epicurial tour cracks open a different Iraq. She looks into its dusty cookbooks, explores its coffeehouses and savors the foods of its many regions and religious sects. Her book is full of more insight and joy than anything else I have read on Iraq. Some tidbits are fascinating. For example, she tells us that the world’s oldest known recipe was written on three clay tablets in Southern Mesopotamia in 1600 BC.

Ciezadlo’s Arabic husband, the Middle East bureau chief for Newsday, whom she married in New York before the war, helps her navigate the lives of Iraqis and their dinner tables. The book’s narrative focuses on the development of her relationship with him and his Lebanese family and explores the theme that food, friendship and family are all intertwined.

Halfway through “Day of Honey,” when Newsday moves her husband out of Iraq after a year of increasing danger, the scene shifts to Beirut. Ciezadlo is enchanted by this “city of balconies,” which she describes beautifully:

“The million and a half residents of Greater Beirut had only a handful of tiny, pocket-sized public parks, none of them particularly green. And so, like Nebuchadnezzar, people created hanging gardens . . . geraniums, bougainvillea, rosemary, and frangipani. A city of gardens in midair.” And in Beirut she keeps the focus on food, but also gives readers a survey of the country’s civil war, people and history.

“Day of Honey” covers a lot of ground and sometimes loses sight of its main subject: food. But Ciezaldo is a wonderful traveling companion. Her observations are delightful — witty, intelligent and nonjudgmental. Skirting the politics, hotel food and headline-grabbing violence, she spills the secrets of this region so rich in history as if they were spices from a burlap sack. Her writing is at times so moving that you want to cry for countries destroyed, but she writes with such wisdom that you don’t fret over the future of these 4,000-year-old civilizations. It’s a shame that the hundreds of journalists, aid workers and pundits who dominate the discussion of Iraq and Lebanon rarely stop to delight in the countries’ beauty.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon probes another war-torn country in “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana,” a tale of one woman’s pertinacity in Kabul and the wide-ranging impact she had. Afghan women, who typically lead deeply private lives, have given outsiders some fascinating glimpses of life behind the veil, in such works as Asne Seierstad’s “The Bookseller of Kabul,” Debra Rodriguez’s “Kabul Beauty School” and Christina Lamb’s “The Sewing Circles of Herat.”These real-life Muslim soap operas have enthralled us by exploring the way culture, family dynamics and religion combine to suppress women’s rights.

In her book, Lemmon focuses on Kamila Sidiqi, a young Afghan woman whose professional ambitions were severely disrupted in 1996 with the arrival of the Taliban. Her parents were forced out of the country, and she was left to fend for herself and her four sisters. Unwilling to give up her dreams, she learned to sew and slowly built a thriving business making dresses for local shopkeepers. As her business grew, she took on dozens of female employees and provided a much-needed economic lifeline to families in the neighborhood.

It’s a remarkable story and a worthy case study for aid workers interested in effective ways to promote women’s rights. Indeed, Lemmon is a graduate of Harvard Business School, where she focused on expanding women’s rights by teaching business skills. But “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” fails to come alive with the richness of “Day of Honey.” Lemmon’s bland writing is as formulaic as an after-school TV special, complete with endless thumbs-up, you-can-do-it messages. As Sidiqi built her lucrative business amid Afghanistan’s widespread corruption and desperate poverty, she encountered no family squabbles, no jealousies, no duplicity or greed. In Khair Khana, it seems, all Afghans, except the evil Taliban, are kind, generous and hardworking — and one-dimensional.

The author’s insistence on portraying Sidiqi and her family in a congratulatory light and on sending the message that industrious women can overcome all odds is admirable. But that doesn’t make for a very interesting book.

Christina Asquith , who covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is author of “Sisters in War: A Story of Love, Family and Survival in the New Iraq.”

DAY OF HONEY

A Memoir of Food, Love, and War

By Annia Ciezadlo

Free Press. 382 pp. $26

THE DRESSMAKER OF KHAIR KHANA

Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe

By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Harper. 255 pp. $24.99

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