Late for Tea at the Deer Palace: The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family


Just ten days after Baghdad’s fall in 2003, Tamara Chalabi arrived in the city after a lifetime in exile—finally entering the homeland she’d known only through stories and her own imagination.

Investigating four generations of her family’s history at the forefront of Iraqi society, Chalabi offers a rich portrait of Middle Eastern life and a provocative look at a lost Iraq. Unforgettable characters provide glimpses of the end of the Ottoman Empire, the birth of the Iraqi state, ...

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Just ten days after Baghdad’s fall in 2003, Tamara Chalabi arrived in the city after a lifetime in exile—finally entering the homeland she’d known only through stories and her own imagination.

Investigating four generations of her family’s history at the forefront of Iraqi society, Chalabi offers a rich portrait of Middle Eastern life and a provocative look at a lost Iraq. Unforgettable characters provide glimpses of the end of the Ottoman Empire, the birth of the Iraqi state, the flowering of “the Paris of the Middle East,” and Iraq’s descent into chaos. At once intimate and magisterial, Chalabi’s memoir of return and reclamation vividly captures the rich history of a country shattered by war and a family that has never forgotten its past.

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Editorial Reviews

Ann Marlowe
“Fascinating. . . . Chalabi is a natural storyteller. . . . There are absorbing vignettes that describe everyday life in Iraqi high society as it has never before appeared in English. . . . An often beautiful and vivid but tragically belated book.”
Christopher Hitchens
“It’s an admirable endeavour to have Iraq addressed by someone who is in so many ways able to approach it from two worlds. . . . Tamara Chalabi has the stuff, in every sense, that is needful to undertake this.”
The Nation
“A gripping and well-told saga. . . . An eye-opening account of the family’s long history at the center of Iraq’s royal court.”
The New York Times Book Review
“An absorbing social history of Iraq. . . . A work of exile literature, beautifully written, rich with human detail as only personal family histories can be.”
The Associated Press
“A sweeping, enchanting memoir . . . Late for Tea at the Deer Palace deftly combines elements of history and memoir, but shines most when the author lets the characters’ stories tell the history of Iraq.”
The Los Angeles Times
“One small way to rebuild a country after war may be to hold a picture of its true beauty, which is what Chalabi does.”
The New Yorker
“Chalabi reconstructs her family’s past in novelistic scenes that demonstrate impressive scholarship.”
Linda Robinson
Thankfully, Late for Tea at the Deer Palace is not Ahmad [Chalabi]'s book. It is a book about a bygone era—that of his parents, Bibi and Hadi, and his grandfather—an absorbing social history of Iraq that weaves the story of the influential and agile Chalabi family into Iraq's passage from part of the Ottoman Empire to monarchy to revolution…This is a work of exile literature, beautifully written, rich with human detail as only personal family histories can be, and minimally marred by an occasional excess of nostalgia.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
A wealthy clan weathers Iraq's turbulent history in this intimate retrospective. Chalabi, daughter of the controversial Iraqi political figure Ahmed Chalabi, recounts her family's journey from WWI through its exile after the 1958 nationalist coup. Her grandfather Hadi was one of Iraq's richest and most prominent men, and high politics swirl in the background as Ottoman and British imperialists, Arab nationalists, Sunnis, Shiites, Communists, and a transplanted monarchy jockey for power. But Chalabi tells the story mainly from the viewpoint of Hadi's wife Bibi, a feisty, progressive woman, complete with cigarettes, who chafes against the constraints of traditional Islamic femininity. Chalabi's novelistic treatment--full of arranged marriages, household melodrama, and big, steaming feasts--paints a rich panorama of Iraqi domestic life as the nation evolves toward a hopeful, modern future, until the coup (Chalabi's account is gripping) turns it onto a darker path. The author's political chronicle is sketchy--we don't really learn why Nasserite mobs wanted to kill the Chalabis in 1958--and her brief memoir of later years grinds some of her father's axes. But her family portrait is most telling as a glimpse of a contented, prosperous Iraqi normalcy that might have been. Photos. (Jan.)
Library Journal
The daughter of controversial Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi and a Ph.D. historian writes here about Iraq, a country she barely knew—the Chalabis went into exile in the 1950s—yet she felt drenched in its rich scenes through the tales of her exiled relatives. Her family has shaped her sense of a place called Iraq mainly through memories and folk stories. Chalabi elegantly narrates her family history, merging it with that of Iraq, from the Ottomans all the way to the birth of the modern state and her family's exile. We see the prestigious and rich Alchalibi family, who played political and administrative roles for decades in Iraq; we witness high lifestyles, gossip, women's voices, picnics with the royals—and the exile. Through this memoir, Chalabi tries to reinvent Iraq, claim it as her own, and defy the sense of estrangement that weighs heavily upon her. She visits Iraq for the first time, after the fall of Saddam, to find it a broken place wrapped with the dust of wars, so unlike the place lavishly introduced to her in the stories of her uprooted family. Verdict Through this vibrant literary memoir, readers learn about Iraq's history and a notable family's experience of the country, no matter how far away. Recommended for general readers.—Sadiq Alkoriji, South Regional Lib., Broward Cty., FL
Kirkus Reviews

A pleasantly informative memoir of an Iraqi family from the twilight of the Ottoman Empire before World War I to Baghdad today.

Historian Chalabi is the daughter of Ahmed Chalabi, America's candidate to replace Saddam Hussein in 2003. Her controversial father occupies a modest position in a history that opens in 1913 Baghdad with her great-grandfather, Abdul Hussein Chalabi (1879–1939), a powerful local figure. Caught in World War I, his area suffered badly; afterward the British assembled present-day Iraq from former Ottoman provinces. Abdul became a government minister while his son, Abdul Hadi (1898–1988), expanded family holdings before maturing into a leading nationalist after World War II. Hadi's increasingly Western-educated children were rising to prominence when, during the vicious 1958 military coup, mobs and soldiers murdered the royal family and leading officials. Their property confiscated, most Chalabis fled. As Iraq endured repeated brutal coups ending with the 1979 accession of Saddam Hussein, the family reassembled in Britain, Lebanon and the United States, joining the growing exile community. The author skims over events since 1990, but readers may blink to read that America's 2003 invasion surprised Iraqi opposition groups, and their offers of help were firmly declined. Besides delivering affectionate biographies of dozens of 20th-century antecedents, giving the women equal time, Chalabi provides an extensive, wide-ranging account of Iraqi history and culture through the eyes of a prominent family emphasizing the nation's often grisly politics and the persistent, catastrophic rift between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

Propelled by a rich narrative, this is one of many books that would have proven helpful to American leaders before they decided to invade Iraq.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061240409
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/31/2012
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 784,395
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Tamara Chalabi

Tamara Chalabi holds a PhD in history from Harvard University. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, Slate, and The Sunday Times, among other publications.

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Table of Contents

Maps x

Family tree xiv

Chronology xvii

Prologue xxv

Book 1 Fallen Pomegranates

December 2007 3

1 Duty Calls: A Busy Day for Abdul Hussein (1913) 5

2 Stacking Rifles: Hadi and the War (1914-1916) 23

3 All That is Good Will Happen: A Marriage Prospect (1916) 35

4 Sugared Almonds and Jasmine: Bibi and Hadi's Wedding (1916) 46

5 A Giant Broken: The End of the Ottomans (1917-1918) 58

November 1999, Beirut 69

Book 2 Replanting Eden

September 2005 73

6 Cafe Chantant: The British in Baghdad (1918) 77

7 Rebellion: Fighting for Freedom (1919-1920) 86

8 A New King for a New Country: From Mesopotamia to Iraq (1920-1921) 95

9 Fesanjoon, a Royal Luncheon: Faisal Visits Kazimiya (1921) 102

10 Banished: Out of Kazimiya (1922-1924) 108

11 Accidents of Nature: The Baghdad Boil (1925-1926) 117

12 In Between: A Home Between Two Cities (1926-1929) 126

13 Stolen Hopes: A Young Life Lost (1928-1929) 136

14 Bursting Energy: Hadi's Growing Empire (1931-1933) 142

15 Prison: Uninvited Guests at a Feast (1935-1936) 149

16 Carefree: Growing Up in the Golden Age (1936-1938) 161

17 A Dark Cloud: The End of a Generation (1938-1939) 173

18 A New Home: The Shadow of Death (1937-1939) 179

October 2006 185

Book 3 A Dangerous Garden

May 1993 189

19 Mountains and Floods: Domestic Changes (1939-1941) 191

20 Blood and Salons: Mounting Tensions (1941) 202

21 An Education Overseas: Mixed Fortunes (1941-1945) 212

22 Love in Strange Quarters: Of Marriage and Other Unions (1946-1947) 223

23 The Girl on the Bridge: Anger on the Streets (1947-1949) 229

24 Precious Things: Towards a New World (1950-1951) 235

25 Storm Clouds Gathering: Family Feuds and Revolution (1952-1956) 245

26 Defiance: A Crisis and a Key (1956) 255

27 Revolution: Slaughter of a Family (1958) 260

February 2005, Sadr City 279

Book 4 Fields of Wilderness

December 2007 283

28 Lost Lands: Seeking Shelter (1958) 285

29 Migration: Precious Cargo (1958) 289

30 Hunger Pangs: Yearning for Home (1958) 296

31 Arrivals and Departures: The Importance of Contacts (1958-1959) 298

32 Escape to Nowhere: The Threat of the Clown Court (1959) 308

33 A Temporary Home: Visits to the Park (1959) 312

34 Return to the Shrine: A Life by the Sea (1959-1963) 316

35 Of Carpets and New Blood: The Emergence of New Patterns (1967) 325

36 The Ruins of Kufa: A Coup and a Birth (1968-1972) 333

37 Civil War: A Shattered Sanctuary (1975-1981) 338

38 Creased Maps: A Move to a Different Land (1980s) 343

39 Lessons in Humility: The Loss of Everything Precious (1980s) 350

40 The Mortality of Gods: Burials of the Banished (1988) 357

41 The Lost Talisman: When Everything is Taken (1989-1992) 363

42 A Question of Identity: In Search of a Way to Be (1990-2009) 370

30 January 2005, Election Day in Baghdad 383

Epilogue 385

Glossary of Iraqi Terms 389

List of Illustrations 397

Acknowledgements 399

Index 403

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 3, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Required Reading if You Want to Write a Family History

    Late for Tea at the Deer Palace : The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Fam­ily by Tamara Cha­l­abi is a book which was hard to clas­sify. Part his­tory, part cul­tural, part fic­tional and non-fictional fam­ily saga and all about a bygone era.

    The book chron­i­cles the jour­ney of the promi­nent Iraqi Cha­l­abi fam­ily from the ech­e­lons of power and busi­ness to hav­ing to flee from their coun­try. After reach­ing the high­est pin­na­cles of suc­cess in busi­ness and soci­ety, they were left with com­par­a­tively lit­tle when forced to immi­grate.
    Focus­ing on Bibi and Hadi, the author’s grand­par­ents, Ms. Cha­l­abi tells a rich tale with an uncanny abil­ity to bring these stranges to life and make them, well, family.

    I believe that Late for Tea at the Deer Palace by Tamara Cha­l­abi is the first book I read because I have heard of the author’s father. I rec­og­nize Ahmad Chalabi’s name from years of liv­ing in the Mid­dle East as well as his tem­po­rary high pro­file dur­ing The Gulf War where he was accused of many things, includ­ing being a triple agent giv­ing faulty intel­li­gence. How­ever, the story of Ahmad Cha­l­abis rise and fall is the least inter­est­ing part in this fas­ci­nat­ing book.

    The first feel­ing that struck me while read­ing this book is jeal­ousy. If ever I’d write a book about the his­tory of my fam­ily, Late for Tea at the Deer Palace would be my guide. This beau­ti­fully writ­ten story mixes his­tory and his­tor­i­cal fic­tion (after all, Ms. Cha­l­abi wasn’t privy to per­sonal con­ver­sa­tion between adults) and tells the rich story of the Cha­l­abi fam­ily through an intro­duc­tion to Iraqi his­tory, Iraqi soci­ety and cul­ture in a mag­nif­i­cent way.

    What Ms. Cha­l­abi did was take sto­ries we all hear as kids, how are parents/grandparents or rel­a­tives did some­thing amaz­ing or funny and weaved it into a book while giv­ing his­tor­i­cal con­text. How our ances­tors lived through times of trou­ble how they sur­vived (or didn't) and how the fam­ily name will live on.

    This book should be required read­ing to any per­son who sits down to write his or hers life story for their family.

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  • Posted January 8, 2011

    more from this reviewer


    Just after WWI Iraq remained Under British control, but the Chalabi family was one of the most powerful locals as they pushed for modernization. The author's great-grandfather Abdul Hussein Chalabi was a key figure in the birth of a nation. In 1932, Britain granted Iraq its independence, which enhanced the influence and wealth of the Chalabi family as a monarchy is established. Between the World Wars, Baghdad become known as the Middle East's Paris with the writer's grandma Bibi leading the revival. Abdul's son Abdul Hadi Chalabi became extremely rich with a deep connection to Britain especially during World War II. However, in 1958 the coup ends the Chalabi power as they are forced to flee the country. When Saddam took power, Ahmed Chalabi became the leader of the opposition Iraqi National Congress in exile. Finally his daughter Tamara leaves England arriving in Baghdad for the first time in 2003.

    Late for Tea at the Deer Palace is an excellent historical chronicle of Iraq through four generations of the Chalabi family. An historian, Tamara Chalabi provides a profound look at her country that she first stepped inside when she was in her late twenties though the tales from her family to her provided her a rich background. The exile years are not as fully developed as the preceding decades with the best segues of the family saga coming from Bibi's extremely modern (eye opening) perspective that will leave readers to ponder what if.

    Harriet Klausner

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