'Day of Honey': Memoir of comfort, food in Mideast
Friday, March 18, 2011
By her own admission, Annia Ciezadlo is "always, always hungry."
A journalist who spent years covering the Middle East, she once scuttled along the floor to stir a pot of pasta as bullets whizzed by her window in Beirut. She braved the streets of Baghdad for a taste of masquf, roasted fish she describes as "a giant, edible fishy halo."
In her memoir, "Day of Honey," Ciezadlo finds that food — both the cooking and the eating — is one of "the millions of small ways people cope" during times of war.
The book is not a traditional war memoir, although there are scenes of breathless tension. Rather, Ciezadlo's focus is the view from the tables where people carry on with their lives.
"Food can provide a purpose and structure to your life when you don't feel like you have one," she said in an interview from her home in New York City, where she lives with her husband, journalist Mohamad Bazzi.
The couple, who met in New York, were married in 2003 and moved immediately to Iraq, where Bazzi was assigned as the new Middle East bureau chief for Newsday. They spent their honeymoon in Baghdad and the early years of their married life in Beirut, the city where Bazzi was born.
Over six years, Ciezadlo, 40, found freelance work writing for publications including the Christian Science Monitor and The New Republic, covering the wars, the assassinations and the violence that have helped shape the main narrative of the Middle East.
She interviewed soldiers, militiamen and warlords. She met families and refugees. But she also found food. Loads of it, everywhere she looked.
"Other people saw more, did more, risked more," Ciezadlo writes. "But I ate more."
Her writing about food is both evocative and loving; this is a woman who clearly enjoys a meal. Upon tasting makdous, which are pickled and stuffed baby eggplants, she writes: "What god leant down and whispered in what mortal ear to put walnuts inside an eggplant? And then to eat it with wine? I wanted to cry."
A glass of Iraqi tea, under Ciezadlo's gaze, is a thing of beauty. A warm brew made with sun-dried limes is "oily, dense and yellow, like a glass of melted topaz."
Besides the simple pleasure of eating, the region's culinary offerings helped her understand the places and the customs she was covering — a sensitivity that has drawn early praise for the book, her first, which was released last month with a modest print run of 14,500.
A glowing review in The New York Times called Ciezadlo's book "among the least political, and most intimate and valuable, to have come out of the Iraq war."
Ciezadlo was enchanted with Iraq from the start, watching as the "women wearing abayas billowed along the sidewalks like black jellyfish." But in her quest to find the stories outside Baghdad's protected Green Zone, food always seemed to take center stage, or to provide a gateway into lives so different from her own.
She even finds the language of war ultimately boils down to food.
"During peacetime, when we need metaphors, we raid the language of war," she writes. "But the idiom of wartime is food: cannon fodder, carnage, slaughterhouse. Buildings and people are pancaked, sandwiched, sardined. Perhaps it is because the destruction reminds us of the knowledge we spend our lives avoiding — that we are all meat in the end."
But focusing on food also gave her the welcome opportunity to show that there is more to the Middle East than conflict. She wanted to offer another side of Lebanon than the images in guidebooks, which show either a battleground scarred by war or a frivolous playground where impossibly perfect women go club-hopping until dawn.
Inspiration struck one day as she stood at the sink of the Berkeley Hotel in Beirut, washing dishes in the tiny kitchenette and trying to think up something to make for dinner.
"You can say the inspiration for the book literally came from the kitchen sink," Ciezadlo said, thinking back on the mounds of food she kept in her humble hotel room. There was zaatar, a blend of herbs, sesame seeds and salt that is a staple in Lebanon. There was wild fennel and garlic and Swiss chard and piles of "gorgeous little tiny cherry tomatoes."
"I wanted to show the complexity of Lebanon in a way that would be much more concrete that just saying, 'Oh yeah there's good stuff to eat and there are pretty girls,'" she said. "I wanted to show that there is this lingering hangover from the war, but there is also this amazing generosity and culture and vibrance."
The Middle East is a world away from Ciezadlo's own upbringing.
Born a "Polish-Greek-Scotch-Irish mutt from working-class Chicago," Ciezadlo is the daughter of a bitter divorce who spent a transient childhood in Indiana, Arizona and California. For a time, she and her mother lived in a homeless shelter in San Francisco where they found "livid, gelatinous little squares of something called 'tofu.'"
Bazzi, her husband, was born in Lebanon but left when he was 10, fleeing Lebanon's disastrous civil war, and moved to New York.
Unlike his wife, he had no interest in expanding his palate. A partial listing of the foods he refuses to eat includes fish of any kind and "beef that hasn't been cooked to resemble linoleum."
Ciezadlo took solace in cooking, but Bazzi, 35, refused to eat her "fancy food."
"That provided a huge impetus for writing this book," she said. "I thought, if Mohamad wasn't interested in exploring this stuff, then maybe other people will be and I should go and try to find them."
The lesson, she says, was clear: "You may love somebody but nowhere does it say that they have to love everything that you love and eat everything that you eat."
The two lived through a tumultuous time in the Middle East, including Israel's 2006 war with the Shiite militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon and Beirut street battles in 2008 that raged outside the door of their apartment building.
Eager to be done with his assignment and move home to the United States, Bazzi watched helplessly as his wife insisted on staying in Beirut.
"It was important for me to understand what he had grown up with and what the civil war was and had been about," Ciezadlo said.
The couple soon moved back to New York, though, and now spend their time in the city and in Lebanon.