Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Day of Honey, by Annia Ciezadlo

Day of Honey was the book I was looking to read for a long time. As I am passionate about books, the Middle East and travels, and trying to learn step by step the art of cooking, I found here all the perfect ingredients for a perfect literary lunch. First of all, it is a good writing of an experienced journalist able to use the words properly in order to create amazing yet not sophisticated visual images. I was equally impressed by the diplomatic art of avoiding to focus on the huge problems faced by the Middle East as such and for the countries and ethnic and religious groups part of the area. If you open your heart, with a good meal you can discover a different side of the coin. Thus, Annia Ciezadlo went far beyond the usual image that she mentioned: "The dominant narrative of the Middle East is perpetual conflict: the bombs and the bullets and the battles are always different, and yet always, somehow depressingly the same".
Starting from this grey perspective, she placed herself in a different perspective of history: "There are many ways to save civilization. One of the simplest is with food". The recipes and food and smells she is writing about are wonderful stories about life and death, survival and cultural habits. A salad can save your life and the bread and salt between the people at the same table can tell the story of love and friendship.

What is home?

Annia is a journalist living in New York City with a multicultural background that for sure contributed to her open mind in understanding and discovering the world. Following her husband, a NYC journalist too whose family lives in Lebanon she goes, discover and is trying to make a home in the war-torn Iraq and in Lebanon. Everything started with a honeymoon in Iraq, in 2003, and continued as a love story in the Middle East till today. Cooking is a way to appropriate the space, to create her own world and share it with friends and family. 
For many of us, always on the road, the entire world could be a huge home that we can hardly know during our short lives. However, there are some benchmarks that will help us to find our place somehow, and, in Annia's words: "We cannot go on journey unless we have a place to stop, food and water to drink, somewhere to sleep in safety and people to give us these things". As global citizens, we can decide where home is, but we still need the old ingredients for considering a place home.

Histories of food

Annia Ciezadlo is a journalist discovering the world with the peaceful weapons of the anthropologist. Familiar with this domain of human sciences, she reads the cultures through their food. "Even the most ordinary dinner tells manifold stories of history, economics and culture. You can experience a country and a people through its food in a way that you can't through, say, its news broadcasts". For a journalist, such an observation could guarantee a special consideration for the hard work of writing from the most difficult corners of the world. 
She starts by discovering the cuisine of the city and of the country. The ambition of the journalist leads her to find out that, for instance, despite the usual stereotypes about the lack of a proper and tasty Iraqi cuisine, the first cooking book discovered by the French historians was in fact written in Iraq. At the end of her Iraqi journey, she can conclude that the ''map of modern-day Iraq" can offer more insights if read through the smells of the traditional dishes.

Memories of the city

In both Iraq and Lebanon, she got in touch with a world of intellectuals that made me think about all stories I've read and heard about the writers and artists from Bagdad and Beirut. Unfortunately, due to the never ending sectarian wars and the danger of religious fundamentalism, I am pessimistically tempted to think that at least for a decade or so, we will rather meet such an eclectic life outside Iraq and Lebanon, in the places  where specific members of the Diasporas meet, than in one of those cities.
For someone that has never been in none of those cities, you are left with the impression of faded glory and traces of wars. Sadly enough, it is also about the histories of countries unable yet to tackle their destinies and whose present and future was hijacked by an uneducated gang, probably with terrible food tastes. I can bet that uneducated warriors and fanatics are unable to appreciate the pleasure of a good dish, even if it is a traditional recipe made in the country that they claim arduously they venerate. 
Besides the depressing feeling that we get caught in when it comes to breaking destinies due to unclear political circumstances, we can understand as well the powerful tool of the cultural diplomacy of the good food. Thus, I wish to hear more about Annia Ciezadlo's future works. 

Closing conclusions

Are there any aspects about the book that I did not like it? I feel that each time it was about writing 'life' stories about conflicts on the run she was like keen to get rid of those episodes and return to the creative cooking table. From the warm colors of the recipes, suddenly the writing was turning very neutral and unpleasant.  
There are a lot of episodes in the book that makes you smile and even laugh, beyond the tensed circumstances. For me, one of the most laughable is when the Muqtada's man in Iraq is lecturing about Marilyn Monroe. 
As for the cover, I appreciated very much the power of the simple cover. The image tells a thousand words but the words of the book as well tell more than a thousand words about the Middle East through Annia Ciezadlo's eyes.
One more thing: if after finishing the book you feel overwhelmed by the hunger for a good Middle Eastern food and you would like to try some recipes by yourself, you should turn the pages and discover at the end of the book a couple of recipes that will keep you busy for a long time from now. 

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