Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War by Annia Ciezadlo, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War

Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War

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by Annia Ciezadlo

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Now in paperback, the powerful memoir that The New York Times described as “filled with adrenalized scenes…Ciezadlo is the kind of thinker who listens as well as she writes.…Her sentences make a smart, wired-up sound on the page. Readers will be lucky to find her.”

American Book Award Winner
Winner of Books for a Better


Now in paperback, the powerful memoir that The New York Times described as “filled with adrenalized scenes…Ciezadlo is the kind of thinker who listens as well as she writes.…Her sentences make a smart, wired-up sound on the page. Readers will be lucky to find her.”

American Book Award Winner
Winner of Books for a Better Life Award (First Book)
James Beard Foundation Award Nominee
BNN Discover Awards, second place nonfiction

IN THE FALL OF 2003, AS IRAQ DESCENDED INTO CIVIL WAR, Annia Ciezadlo spent her honeymoon in Baghdad. For the next six years, she lived in Baghdad and Beirut, where she dodged bullets during sectarian street battles, chronicled the Arab world’s first peaceful revolution, and watched Hezbollah commandos invade her Beirut neighborhood. Throughout all of it, she broke bread with Sunnis and Shiites, warlords and refugees, matriarchs and mullahs. Day of Honey is her story of the hunger for food and friendship during wartime—a communion that feeds the soul as much as the body.

In lush, fiercely intelligent prose, Ciezadlo uses food and the rituals of eating to uncover a vibrant Middle East most Americans never see. We get to know people like Roaa, a young Kurdish woman whose world shrinks under occupation to her own kitchen walls; Abu Rifaat, a Baghdad book lover who spends his days eavesdropping in the ancient city’s legendary cafés; and the unforgettable Umm Hassane, Ciezadlo’s sardonic Lebanese mother-in-law, who teaches her to cook rare family recipes (included in a mouthwatering appendix of Middle Eastern comfort food). From dinner in downtown Beirut to underground book clubs in Baghdad, Day of Honey is a profound exploration of everyday survival—a moving testament to the power of love and generosity to transcend the misery of war.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
”Ciezadlo's lovely, natural language succeeds where news reports often fail: She leads us to care.”
The Oregonian

“Her book is full of more insight and joy than anything else I have read on Iraq. . . . Ciezadlo is a wonderful traveling companion. Her observations are delightful — witty, intelligent and nonjudgmental.”
The Washington Post Book World

“Her writing about food is both evocative and loving; this is a woman who clearly enjoys a meal... A glass of Iraqi tea, under Ciezadlo's gaze, is a thing of beauty.”
The Associated Press

“In her extraordinary debut, Annia Ciezadlo turns food into a language, a set of signs and connections, that helps tie together a complex moving memoir of the Middle East."
The Globe and Mail

Dwight Garner
[Ciezadlo's] book is among the least political, and most intimate and valuable, to have come out of the Iraq war…It's a carefully researched tour through the history of Middle Eastern food…filled with adrenalized scenes from war zones, scenes of narrow escapes and clandestine phone calls and frightening cultural misunderstandings…These things wouldn't matter much, though, if her sentences didn't make such a sensual, smart, wired-up sound on the page.
—The New York Times
Christina Asquith
[Ciezaldo's] book is full of more insight and joy than anything else I have read on Iraq…Ciezaldo is a wonderful traveling companion. Her observations are delightful—witty, intelligent and nonjudgmental. Skirting the politics, hotel food and headline-grabbing violence, she spills the secrets of this region so rich in history as if they were spices from a burlap sack. Her writing is at times so moving that you want to cry for countries destroyed, but she writes with such wisdom that you don't fret over the future of these 4,000-year-old civilizations.
—The Washington Post
Library Journal
Ciezadlo, a freelance journalist, intertwines the narrative of her reporting from war-torn Beirut and Baghdad from 2003 to 2009 with her personal story of seeking a sense of home amid different cultures and impending violence. Focusing on how societies survive through war and violence, she introduces us to individuals able to reach out even when buffeted by religious or national hatred and explains important realities about the destruction brought by the American invasion of Iraq. She skillfully tempers scenes of brutality and cruelty among ethnic and religious rivals in Beirut or within the disintegrating political and social structure in Baghdad with her conviction that food can bring people together and preserve our humanity. Her fast-paced, graceful writing weaves politics into discussions of literature and cuisine to bring insight into the long history of cultural mix and transition in the Middle East, reminding us that even as war persists, our humanity helps to preserve our civilization, and our foods bind our communities and our families. VERDICT A highly recommended personal perspective on political and cultural aspects of the war-riven Middle East, with an appealing focus on food and its ability to bring people some stability and security in an otherwise unstable society.—Elizabeth R. Hayford, Evanston, IL
Kirkus Reviews

A lucid memoir of life and travel in the war-torn Middle East, in which the author explores the journalistic adage that "to write the story, you have to eat the meal."

Former Christian Science Monitor Baghdad correspondent Ciezadlo traces the six years she spent as an American in the Middle East. The story begins with the author following her Lebanese-born husband to Baghdad in 2003, where the two began new lives as war correspondents. Through immersion in food and cooking, Ciezadlo grounded herself amid widespread instability while gaining special insight into a people forced to endure years of bloody conflict. For ordinary Iraqis, creating meals from handed-down recipes that recalled "the memory of other places, other worlds" brought them a comfort and freedom they could not find elsewhere. At the same time, Ciezadlo also discovered how food allowed her to transcend the lingering homesickness that came from "trying to straddle two different places at once." When the situation for foreign journalists in Baghdad became too dangerous, the author and her husband relocated to the relative calm of Beirut, a city that had been rocked by civil war for nearly 20 years. The couple eventually settled into happy domesticity; for a brief moment, among her husband's relatives and the bounty of delicious food, the Ciezadlo felt satisfyingly rooted. However, they soon found themselves caught in yet another war as Israel began a military campaign against Hezbollah, which included the bombardment of Beirut. A re-emergence of old hostilities between Shiite and Sunni Muslims soon followed, causing more unrest. Saddened by "the aftertaste of hate," Ciezadlo realized that while "the war would never end," internecine conflicts did not diminish the fact that "[h]ome was wherever you broke bread with people you loved."

Though the author is occasionally overzealous in her attempts to wed the political and historical with the personal and domestic, this ambitious and multilayered book is as much a feast for the mind as for the heart.

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Free Press
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Read an Excerpt


The Siege

HE WAS ONE of an endangered species: among the few white, native-born cab drivers left in New York. Meaty, middle-aged, face like a potato. A Donegal tweed driving cap. He pulled up beside me, drew down the window, and growled out of the corner of his mouth: “You wanna ride?”

We rode in silence until we reached Atlantic Avenue. “You see this street?” he said, waving a massive hand at the windshield. “They’re all Arabs on this street.”

He was right, more or less. The conquest began in the late 1800s, as the Ottoman Empire waned and the Mediterranean silk trade collapsed. Between 1899 and 1932, a little over 100,000 “Syrians”—in those days, a catchall term for practically anyone from the Levant, the French name for the eastern Mediterranean—emigrated to the New World. Many of them settled in New York. In 1933, the Arab-American newspaper Syrian World described Atlantic Avenue, with gently sarcastic pride, as “the principal habitat of the species Syrianica.”

By 1998, the Atlantic Avenue strip was such a symbol of Arab-American identity that 20th Century Fox re-created it for a movie called The Siege. In the movie, Arab terrorists carry out a series of bombings in New York City, and the government imposes martial law and rounds up all the Arabs, guilty and innocent alike, into detention camps.

“These Arabs, yeah,” the cabbie continued. “They come over here, they try to act normal. Try to act like you and me. Like they’re fitting in, ya know?”

He barked out a laugh. “Turns out they’re al-Qaeda.”

It was a relief when people said it openly. I could talk to this guy. He was an ethnic American, and he assumed I was one too. He was right: I’m a Polish-Greek-Scotch-Irish mutt from working-class Chicago. A product of stockyards and steel mills and secretarial schools. I could see where he was coming from. I came from there myself.

But then again: the man I loved was named for Islam’s prophet. We had been seeing each other for about five months. I had thought of him as just another ethnic American, but now it was September 13, 2001, and suddenly nobody else seemed to see it that way. On September 11, the landlady had knocked on his door just before midnight. Mrs. Scanlon was an immigrant herself, from Ireland, and no doubt with terrorism-related memories of her own. In a high and quavering voice, she asked, “Mohamad, are you an Arab?”

I had been thinking about The Siege quite a bit since then.

When 20th Century Fox started filming The Siege in the late 1990s, I had just moved to the heavily Polish Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint. Apparently the real Atlantic Avenue didn’t have enough brownstones to look like New York on film, so overnight, Hollywood set designers transformed Greenpoint’s Little Warsaw into a cinematic version of the Arab street. Awnings that had once read Obiady Polski (Polish Dinners) now surged with Arabic script. Tanks rolled past under klieg lights. Wandering down the imitation Atlantic Avenue, it was easy to imagine that all of our carefully constructed ethnic identities were nothing but Hollywood sets, as specious a notion as the species Syrianica, a scaffolding you could put up or tear down in a couple of hours.

The city had papered Greenpoint’s streetlights with flyers forbidding people to park because of Martial Law, the movie’s working title; as it happened, many Greenpointers had fled Poland in the early 1980s, when it was under actual Communist martial law. Middle-aged Polish émigrés would stop and glower at the Hollywood diktats with gloomy satisfaction: You see? I told you it would happen here too.

Back in September 2001, red and yellow traffic lights flowed over the dark windshield. The few cars ghosting down the empty avenue ignored them. Everyone ran red lights during the days after the attacks. Stopping seemed pointless, like everything else.

“No, man, that’s not true,” I said finally. “A lot of the Arabs here left their countries because they weren’t al-Qaeda. A lot of them left to get away from those guys.”

Al-Qaeda wouldn’t have had much use for my Arab: he’s a Shiite, at least by birth. But introducing the Sunni-Shiite divide seemed a little ambitious in this case. “They left cause their countries were messed up,” I said. “The ones that are here are the ones that wanted to come to America.”

He looked hard at me in the rearview mirror, his eyes flashing in the little strip of glass.

I sighed. “You know, most of the Arabs here in the U.S. are actually Christians.”

A cowardly argument. My own Arab was a Muslim, after all.

“Shyeah!” the cabbie spat. “They act like they’re Christians. They pretend. But they’re really al-Qaeda.”

Gray metal shutters hid the store windows, but memory filled in what I couldn’t see. Here on my right was Malko Karkanni’s shabby storefront, jammed with bins of olives and dusty coffeepots. Mr. Karkanni liked to talk; if you had time, he would pull out a stool, make you tea, and talk about the lack of human rights in Syria, the country he still missed. Ahead on the left was a restaurant named Fountain, with a real fountain inside, like an Ottoman courtyard; once, when I told the waiter where my grandmother was from, he broke into fluent Greek. And here was Sahadi’s, the famous deli and supermarket, run by a family that has been part of New York ever since 1895, when Abraham Sahadi opened his import-export company in lower Manhattan, back when my ancestors were still plowing fields in Scotland, Galicia, and the Peloponnese.

“Well, my boyfriend’s an Arab,” I said suddenly. The words tumbled out, high-pitched and breathless. “And he’s not al-Qaeda, and I have a lot of Arab friends, and they’re not al-Qaeda either!”

The eyes flashed back at me again, a little more anxiously this time. Was he going to kick me out of his car? Would he call the police, the FBI, and tell them about me and my Arab boyfriend?

Or would he just shake his head and decide that I was a fool—one of a breed of unfortunate women who marry foreign men, put them through flight school, and end up later on talk shows insisting that “he seemed so normal”? Like Annette Bening in The Siege, who falls for an educated Arab guy, a Palestinian college professor who acts normal but—you can’t trust them—turns out to be a terrorist in the end?

He thought about it for a block or two before he spoke. His voice was casual, and unexpectedly gentle, as if we had backed up and rewound the whole conversation to the beginning.

“You know that place Sahadi’s?” he said. “Y’ever been in there? They got some great food in there, yeah. Hummus, falafel, you know. Boy, that stuff is pretty good. You ever try it?”

There’s a saying in Arabic: Fi khibz wa meleh bainetna—there is bread and salt between us. It means that once we’ve eaten together, sharing bread and salt, the ancient symbols of hospitality, we cannot fight. It’s a lovely idea, that you can counter conflict with cuisine. And I don’t swallow it for a second. Just look at any civil war. Or at our own dinner tables, groaning with evidence to the contrary.

After September 11, liberal New Yorkers flocked to Arabic restaurants, Afghan, even Indian—anything that seemed vaguely Muslim, as if to say, “Hey, we know you’re not the bad guys. Look, we trust you, we’re eating your food.” New York newspapers ran stories about foreigners and their food, most of which followed much the same formula: the warmhearted émigré alludes mournfully to troubles in his homeland; assures the readers that not all Arabs/Afghans/Muslims are bad; and then shares his recipe for something involving eggplants. They were everywhere after September 11, photos of immigrants holding out plates of food, their eyes beseeching, “Don’t deport me! Have some hummus!” But a lot of them did get deported, and American soldiers got sent to Afghanistan and Iraq. A decade later, the lesson seems clear: You can eat eggplant until your toes turn purple, and it won’t stop governments from going to war.

But then again, there is something about 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.

Food connects. In biblical times, people sealed contracts with salt, because it preserves, protects, and heals—an idea that goes back to the ancient Assyrians, who called a friend “a man of my salt.” Like Persephone’s pomegranate seeds, the alchemy of eating binds you to a place and a people. This bond is fragile; people who eat together one day can kill each other the next. All the more reason we should preserve it.

Many books narrate history as a series of wars: who won, who lost, who was to blame (usually the ones who lost). I look at history as a series of meals. War is part of our ongoing struggle to get food—most wars are over resources, after all, even when the parties pretend otherwise.

But food is also part of a deeper conflict, one that we all carry inside us: whether to stay in one place and settle down, or whether to stay on the move. The struggle between these two tendencies, whether it takes the form of war or not, shapes the story of human civilization. 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.

One of my old journalism professors, a man with the unforgettable name of Dick Blood, used to roar that if you want to write the story, you have to eat the meal. He was talking about Thanksgiving, when reporters visit homeless shelters, collect a few quotes, and head back to the newsroom to pump out heartwarming little features without ever tasting the turkey. But I’ve found that this command—“You have to eat the meal”—is a good rule for life in general. And so whenever I visit a new place, I pursue a private ritual: I never let myself leave without eating at least one local thing.

We all carry maps of the world in our heads. Mine, if you could see it, would resemble a gigantic dinner table, full of dishes from every place I’ve been. Spanish Harlem is a cubano. Tucson is avocado chicken. Chicago is yaprakis; Beirut is makdous; and Baghdad—well, Baghdad is another story.

In the fall of 2003, I spent my honeymoon in Baghdad. I’d married the boyfriend, who was also a reporter, and his newspaper had posted him to Iraq. So I moved to Beirut, with my brand-new husband and a few suitcases, and then to Baghdad.

For the next year, we tried to act like normal newlyweds. We did our laundry, went grocery shopping, and argued about what to have for dinner like any young couple, while reporting on the war. And throughout all of it, I cooked.

Some people construct work spaces when they travel, lining up their papers with care, stacking their books on the table, taping family pictures to the mirror. When I’m in a strange new city and feeling rootless, I cook. No matter how inhospitable the room or the streets outside, I construct a little field kitchen. In Baghdad, it was a hot plate plugged into a dubious electrical socket in the hallway outside the bathroom. I haunt the local markets and cook whatever I find: fresh green almonds, fleshy black figs, just-killed chickens with their heads still on. I cook to comprehend the place I’ve landed in, to touch and feel and take in the raw materials of my new surroundings. I cook foods that seem familiar and foods that seem strange. I cook because eating has always been my most reliable way of understanding the world. I cook because I am always, always hungry. And I cook for that oldest of reasons: to banish loneliness, homesickness, the persistent feeling that I don’t belong in a place. If you can conjure something of substance from the flux of your life—if you can anchor yourself in the earth, like Antaeus, the mythical giant who grew stronger every time his feet touched the ground—you are at home in the world, at least for that meal.

In every war zone, there is another battle, a shadow conflict that rages quietly behind the scenes. You don’t see much of it on television or in the movies. This hidden war consists of the slow but relentless destruction of everyday civilian life: The children can’t go to school. The pregnant woman can’t give birth at a hospital. The farmer can’t plow his fields. The musician can’t play his guitar. The professor can’t teach her class. For civilians, war becomes a relentless accumulation of can’ts.

But no matter what else you can’t do, you still have to eat. During wartime, people’s lives begin to revolve around food: first to stay alive, but also to stay human. Food restores a sense of familiarity. It allows us to reach out to others, because cooking and eating are often communal activities. Food can cut across social barriers, spanning class and sectarian lines (though it can also, of course, reinforce them). Making and sharing food are essential to maintaining the rhythms of everyday life.

I went to the Middle East like most Americans, relatively naive about both Arab culture and American foreign policy. Over the next six years, I saw plenty of war, but I also saw normal, everyday life. I sat through ceremonial dinners with tribal sheikhs in Baghdad; kneeled and ate kubbet hamudh on the floor with Iraqi women from Fallujah; drank home-brewed arak with Christian militiamen in the mountains of Lebanon; feasted on boiled turkey with a mild-mannered peshmerga warlord in Kurdistan; and learned how to make yakhnet kusa and many other dishes from my Lebanese mother-in-law, Umm Hassane, who doesn’t speak a word of English. Other people saw more, did more, risked more. But I ate more.

If you want to understand war, you have to understand everyday life first. 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. And so this book is not about the ever-evolving ways in which people kill or die during wars but about how they live before, during, and after those wars. It’s about the millions of small ways people cope—the ways they arrange their lives, under sometimes unimaginable stress and hardship, and the ways they survive.

Every society has an immune system, a silent army that tries to bring the body politic back to homeostasis. People find ways to reconstruct their daily lives from the shambles of war; like my friend Leena, who once held a dinner party in her Beirut bomb shelter, they work with what they have. This is the story of that other war, the one that takes place in the moments between bombings: the baker keeps the communal oven going so his neighborhood can have bread; the restaurateur converts his café into a refugee center; the farmer feeds his neighbors from his dwindling stock of preserves; the parents drive all over Baghdad trying to find an open bakery so their daughter can have a birthday cake. They are warriors just as much as those who carry guns. There are many ways to save civilization. One of the simplest is with food.

© 2011 Annia Ciezadlo

Meet the Author

Annia Ciezadlo has written about culture, politics, and the Middle East for The New Republic, The Nation, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and Lebanon’s Daily Star. Annia lives with her husband in New York.

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