Book review: Day of Honey

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Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo (Simon and Schuster)

A review copy of this book was handed my way by a mate at my previous place of employment.

He figured it would tick almost all my boxes.

And why wouldn’t he?

It’s about food, it’s about writing, it’s about – more precisely – Middle Eastern food.

And it’s about international and current affairs, and the turbulence and conflicts and joy that accompany them, something I find endlessly fascinating, although I have rarely let that interest intrude on Consider The Sauce.

Truth is that while I stay on top of such things, they often leave me feeling down.

So why did Day of Honey sit around the house unloved and gathering dust for several months?

Why did I pick it up, read a few pages then discard it several times?

Why did it take only the most desperate boredom with every other available reading resource at hand before this book got its hooks into me?

A couple of reasons at least, I think …

One was the simple fear of confronting the horrors of the Middle East in a too-real account.

Reading about the Middle East’s trial and tribulations in news stories in newspaper and magazines or online is one thing.

There’s a certain dryness there that insulates us from the realities, brutal or otherwise.

Reading on-the-ground accounts of happenings in Baghdad and Beirut written by a gifted and eloquent writer is quite another.

I wasn’t at all sure I was up for it.

Another reason, one that was completely irrational given the nature of the subject, was that I feared the book would have a foodie-light veneer, making it a sort of Under The Beirut Sky.

About that, I turned out to be very wrong.

Once I started reading in earnest, this turned into a joyous page-turner.

I knew the author had me when she writes:

“The Mesopotamians baked a lot of their bread in a tinuru, a cylindrical clay oven with an open top and diabolically hot radiant heat inside. They rolled the dough into little round pats and left them for the gluten to relax. Then they flattened them into pancakes and slapped them onto the oven’s scorching inside walls, where they bubbled into chewy flatbreads.”

Hey, that sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Ciezadlo continues:

“Thousands of years later, Iraqis still make bread exactly this way at neighborhood bakeries … The Akkadian tinuru lives on as the Arabic tanoor, the Iranian tanura and the South Asian tandoor. Next time you order chicken tandoori at an Indian restaurant, chew on this: you are speaking a word that human mouths have been pronouncing, in one form or another, for at least four thousand years.”

Day of Honey follows the journey of Ciezadlo and her Lebanese husband Mohamad as they ply their journalistic/media trade in Baghdad and Beirut in the early-to-late 2000s.

If I skip going into any detail about the exact locations and conflicts they are involved in, it is simply because in many ways they are the background detail of the book’s major themes.

For this is a book, primarily, about people. Or more exactly, about people and how they deal with war.

And as Ciezadlo reveals, they do this largely through food.

There is a good deal of violence in the book, particularly towards the end.

But the author covers it in quite a dispassionate way, and always in the context of the people she loves, friends and family.

She simply lays out the absurdly sectarian nature of so much of life and politics and conflict in the Middle East without ever losing track of her focus.

That leaves her – and us – to revel in the food, its rituals and fabulous cast of characters who are by turns droll, hilarious, romantic, inspirational and more.

Particularly beguiling is her ongoing portrait of her mother-in-law, Umm Hassane. I’m tempted to describe her incredible and maddening wiles as “adorable” or some such, but then I don’t have to put up with her!

Through Day of Honey, I have had some of my beliefs about the Middle East buttressed.

But in many ways, I have had others shaken.

Mainly to the extent that what we read and hear about the region in the media is appallingly superficial or little more than window dressing and spin of various kinds.

Mostly, though, the book has emphasised for me how fortunate I am to be living in a part of the world where I am so free to participate in and enjoy food, food rituals and traditions, and the people who keep them alive.

And in one vivid account of a meal, Ciezadlo makes me believe more than ever that in the likes of Abbout Falafel House, Al-Alamy and so many more we have a genuine, life-affirming way of being part of what really is the greatest story ever told.

There are very many lovely examples of food anecdotes, recipes, lore and history.

At its end, the book includes more than a dozen recipes of food featured in its pages.

A lot of them seem sufficiently complex to deter me from attempting them.

But happily, the one that most intrigues – a simple Lebanese dish of onions, potatoes and eggs called Batata wa Bayd Mfarakeh – is the subject of a short video on the author’s website.

Unsurprisingly, what she creates there looks not at all like I imagined it would!

Day of Honey is a terrific book and I look forward to reading future posts on the author’s Facebook page for revealing and uplifting insights on Middle Eastern food, culture, people and – yes – politics.

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