Annia Ciezodlo, Day of Honey: A memoir of food, love, and war
In 2003, Annia Ciezodlo married a Lebanese Muslim man, and for the next six years divided her time between Baghdad and Beirut, her husband’s home town. As journalists, over these years they spent their work lives witnessing and recording the descent into violence and sectarian conflict in both Iraq and Lebanon. But as she says, “if you want to understand war, you have to understand everyday life first.” In Day of Honey, Ciezodlo tells us the parallel story of finding the heart of her new everyday life in its language, friends and family, and food.
She befriends any number of shopkeepers and restauranteurs, and lets them tell us, eloquently, why food matters so much to them. For instance, after one shattering outbreak of violence in Beirut, when she visited her regular cheese shop she asked the proprietor, “Why did you stay open that Friday, during all the shooting? . . . ‘Because people want cheese.’ Why? Why, in the middle of a firefight, do people decide that they must have cheese? He smiled with everything he had this time. ‘Because they think they will never be able to taste it again.’”
Her experience of the sectarian passions that fed that firefight was personal in the worst way. Her husband’s last name identified him as Shiite, and one night they were forced to walk home, threading their way through the dark streets to avoid armed gangs of warring Sunni and Shiite men. An encounter with the wrong group could have been the last for her husband. Shortly afterwards, for many reasons, they returned to New York.
In the course of her memoir, Ciezodlo gives us a vivid portrait of the personalities of her new family (especially her formidable mother-in-law, Umm Hassane), of her husband, and of her many friends, but also of herself. She’s warm, difficult, tough-minded, kind of a mess. At one point, a friend warns her, “simplicity is a virtue.” Yes, she says, “but it’s not one of mine.” She longs for home and family, but “home was a moveable feast; you strapped it to your back, stuffed it in a jar, dried it in the sun, dug it from the ground. Home was wherever you broke bread with people you loved.”
Back in New York adjusting to another everyday life, she concludes that “there was no point to staying in Baghdad or even Beirut. No point to being there simply because our friends could not or would not leave. . . But there is something to be said for memory, and for raising what small flag you can, even a tattered one, against forgetting.” When she misses Beirut or Baghdad, she heads to a farmers’ market to buy food and make something good to share with people she loves.
Note: The book ends with a chapter of recipes for the traditional dishes and family favorites that appear and re-appear throughout her story. I’m going to make some of them soon.
Free Press, 2011