If you’re looking for a book about Iraq in the 20th century, pick up Late for Tea at the Deer Palace. Through a memoir of her family, Tamara Chalabi tells the story of Iraq — albeit an Iraq that probably most Iraqis did not experience.
Chalabi’s family was part of the country’s elite dating back to Ottoman times, not representative of the average Iraqi. That leads to some significant issues in the narrative, as Chalabi never really fully explores either the 1958 revolution or the 1968 Ba’athist revolution, but instead views their impact on her family.
The story of Iraq’s Jews also falls somewhat to the wayside. Chalabi’s family had close interactions with Iraq’s Jews, particularly those involved in commerce, and she does discuss — in a limited way — the Farhud, or pogrom of 1941 when Iraqis looted Jewish businesses and murdered at least 175 Jews. But then Jews — and the end of Iraqi Jewish life — cease being part of Chalabi’s story, likely because they ceased being part of the family’s life.
One aspect of her family story that struck me was nomenclature.
When I lived overseas this topic often came up among expats — or were we immigrants? Chalabi’s family call themselves exiles, not refugees.
The key difference, it seems, is privilege. Expats and exiles have financial means and connections that refugees and immigrants do not. Chalabi’s family, while not able to return to Iraq, was free to live elsewhere in the Middle East and still had significant financial resources. Exiles also dream of returning to their homeland, while immigrants settle into their new reality.
At times the Chalabi family privilege made it difficult to connect with the tribulations and misfortunes the family faced, but family memoir remains for me a powerful device for capturing a complicated political history.
Shana Goldberg may be reached at email@example.com
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