- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2011

By Annia Ciezadlo
Free Press, $26, 400 pages

Annia Ciezadlo is a “Polish-Greek-Scotch-Irish mutt from working-class Chicago.” She’s a “product of stockyards and steel mills and secretarial schools.” As a child, she was constantly on the move, from state to state, school to school. After college, she wandered from city to city before ending up in New York.

Mohamad, a Shiite Muslim born in Beirut, was sent to Jackson Heights, Queens, at age 10 to avoid the dangers of Lebanon’s civil war. When they met in 2001, Mohamad was covering transportation for Newsday; Miss Ciezadlo wrote about urban poverty and politics for a small monthly news magazine. They were friends first; then they fell in love.

In her delightful book, “Day of Honey,” Miss Ciezadlo tells the story of the first five years of her life with Mohamad. It’s a story of adventure, wartime reporting and survival - and food, written with a reporter’s objective eye, a writer’s gift for language, and a personal appreciation and love of food. The memoir goes into the background of the Lebanese civil war and later tribal war, the Iraq war, and the fascinating cultural history of the many dishes the author discovers during her years in the Middle East.

When Newsday appointed Mohamad its Middle East bureau chief, he chose Beirut, a “city that goes back to the third millennium before Christ” as his base; he took Miss Ciezadlo with him. They married in 2003.

Baghdad was Mohamad’s first assignment; Miss Ciezadlo went along. They lived in a hotel and made friends with other journalists, local merchants, artists, writers and politicians.

Miss Ciezadlo had freelance assignments and went on “hairy patrols” that could have ended in disaster. Her real love was food, and she set out to discover Iraqi cuisine. She discovered street markets and their fresh seasonal fruits, vegetables, grains and bread. She watched the preparation of “masquf,” the delicate grilled fish “meant to be savored in the open-air restaurants on the Aba Nuwas, the corniche along the Tigris where Iraqis used to stroll at sunset.”

She explains that she cooks “to comprehend the place I’ve landed in, to touch and feel and take in the raw materials of my new surroundings. I cook … because eating has always been my most reliable way of understanding the world. … And I cook for that oldest of reasons: to banish loneliness, homesickness, the persistent feeling that I don’t belong in a place.”

Upon their return to Beirut late in the summer of 2004, Miss Ciezadlo missed Baghdad, “the date palms, the dry yellow heat, and the hard consonants of Iraqi Arabic.” The Christian Science Monitor had asked her to join its regular rotation of Iraqi correspondents and she planned to return to Baghdad, but she changed her mind given the spate of kidnappings of foreign journalists.

The Lebanese civil war was long past and Beirut seemed to be functioning reasonably well. “Beirut still had neighborhoods where old men wheeled up every morning on bicycles hung with hoop-shaped sesame breads called kaak, shouting ‘Kaaaaa-EEK!’ Women would come out on their balconies, lower money down in baskets to the old man, and reel them back up filled with bread. Old men would push carts of fruits and vegetables though the streets. Shopkeepers would feed stray cats on the sidewalks. Lottery ticket vendors would walk up and down bellowing, ‘This is the day! This is the day!’ Tiny old women in high heels would march down the potholed sidewalks every morning to the grocery store. Idlers would take over the sidewalks for their open-air salons … and sometimes croon a few bars of a love song, so that on some days, as you walked down the street, it seemed the entire city was singing one continuous serenade.”

Then came the day in 2006 when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and a new war started with Israel bombing southern Lebanon and Beirut. “Eight square city blocks had been bombed into a concrete goulash. … The streets were a heaving sea of concrete.”

Once the war was over, the pro- and anti-Syrian Hezbollah militias took over the streets and the city became even more dangerous. Miss Ciezadlo notes that “[m]ost civilians experience war not as the fighters and victims that parade across television screens, but as tired housewives peeling potatoes and wondering, all the while, at the stupidity of it. Being trapped in the house … forced me to experience the awful, humiliating tedium of war without the anaesthetic of danger or the narcotic self-importance of risk - to go through it not as a witness, not as a journalist, but as a human being.”

Miss Ciezadlo returned to New York, where she now lives. When she thought of Baghdad, she “thought of the way people there treasured books; their sense of humor, of history. … The old-fashioned cafes. The smell of masquf. The way everyone was constantly breaking into poetry, or relating the same stories they had been telling since before the [eighth century]. When [she] thought of Beirut, [she] did not remember the gunmen, or [her] neighbors checking identity cards, or the Hezbollah men hunkered in tents like Ibn Khaldun’s Bedouin hordes. [She] remembered the smell of lamb being grilled by the neighbors on Sundays, mixed with the fragrance of roasting coffee and cardamom from the shop downstairs.”

Miss Cielzadlo is a good reporter. She does not give opinions on the facts of what happened, but her storytelling is vivid as well as factual. She has a gift for evocative similes and descriptive passages: Beirut had become “a dusty time capsule where old men sat on cracked orange plastic chairs and smoked over the same cup of coffee all day like patient gray lizards;” “At the corner, the charcoal husk of a car smoldered forlornly, resting on its rims like a tired cow;” “The roof had been sheared off but had not fallen, and it tilted dangerously off the side of the building like an absurdly cocked fedora.”

It is the author’s love of food that truly animates her memoir, although as the war becomes more dominant, the emphasis on food decreases. She notes that during “peacetime, when we need metaphors, we raid the language of war. But the idiom of wartime is food: cannon fodder, carnage, slaughter-house. Buildings and people are pancaked, sandwiched, sardined.” At the end of the book are a number of her favorite recipes, including fattoush (Levantine bread salad), crumbled potatoes and eggs, kafta (meatballs), and her favorite zucchini stew.

“And so this is a book about war, but it is also about travel and migration, and how food helps people find or re-create their homes.”

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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