Day of Honey

 

 

 

Annia Ciezadlo’s Day of Honey is an artfully crafted, precociously wise, always touching – and often hilarious – memoir about an unlikely marriage between a garrulous, food-obsessed “Polish-Greek-Scotch-Irish mutt from working-class Chicago” who will “eat anything,” and her husband, Mohamad, a quiet Lebanese-born Shiite who “refuses to consume: asparagus, artichokes, mushrooms, beets; anything cruciferous, pumpkin not in the form of pie; duck; pork; fish of any kind… and anything else that emerges from water; beef that hasn’t been cooked to resemble linoleum; coffee or beer. That is a partial list.” And on this basis alone Day of Honey would be an impressive literary debut.

But Day of Honey is far more than a cross-cultural love story. Annia and Mohamad are war correspondents who honeymooned in Baghdad during the early days of the Iraq War, and spent their next six years in Beirut, where they faced recurring sectarian street combat amongst a shifting array of militias, not to mention a period of intense bombing by the Israelis. And Ciezadlo is an astute observer with a ravenous appreciation of local culture, a sharp eye for human foibles, a matchless ear for dialogue, an exquisitely tuned sense of irony, and an uncanny ability to convey the larger importance of virtually everything she encounters. In her hands, meals and their preparation become the basis for a portrait of daily life in the Middle East more intimate and profound than most foreigners will ever encounter, a lens through which to view 4,000 years of Arabic history and mythology, and a metaphor for the ability of the human spirit to transcend the “unimaginable stress and hardship” of war.

The book’s title is derived from an Arabic proverb, “Day of honey, day of onions.” It means “some days will be good, and some days will be bad,” Ciezadlo explains, and in her pages, we meet unforgettable characters who persevere through both: an Iraqi intellectual overwhelmed by the beauty of Chicken Soup for the Soul; a professional “squeegee man of mourning” who crashes funerals and keens until relatives of the deceased pay him to leave; a Beirut restaurateur who serves up “fruit cocktails named after Hitler, Castro, Noriega, and Nelson Mandela;” Ciezadlo’s friend Leena, who hosts a dinner party in her Beirut bomb shelter; and, most memorable of all, the author’s indomitable mother-in-law, Umm Hassane, who, when her furniture is stolen by rampaging Amal militiamen, thinks nothing about browbeating their leader in an attempt to make them return it. “Auntie, they didn’t know it was your house,” he pleads, and in the face of her unrelenting onslaught, he offers a compromise: her chairs and tables are long gone, but his men will happily rob someone else’s home and give her the victim’s furniture. (“She declined,” Ciezadlo notes.)

“Most 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 all,” Annia Ciezadlo concludes. “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… about how they survive.”

One of the most affecting passages in Day of Honey concerns the chef in a near-deserted Iraqi hotel restaurant who chooses “at a moment in late May 2004 – during the Mahdi Army uprising, the first Marine assault on Fallujah, and the Abu Ghraib court-martials – to make a chicken roulade stuffed with cream sauce. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Why make such a beautiful thing at a time like this?’ He shrugged. An expression of pride and despair, half way between a smile and a sigh, flickered across his face. ‘It’s what I do,’ he said.”

- Christopher Cerf, 2012 finalist judge


2012 Nonfiction Runner-Up

Click to see award video
Click to see award video

(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)

Annia Ciezadlo
Day of Honey

“This is an era of forgotten wars. Who talks about Baghdad any more, or Kabul, let alone Beirut or Gaza or Benghazi? But even after the television crews have moved on to the next war, people still have to cook dinner, wash dishes, get their kids to school. That’s the real war, the one they don’t show on TV. And that is why I’m so grateful for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize: books can bring us into those invisible wars, show us those hidden lives, and help us remember why we try to avoid war in the first place.”

—Annia Ciezadlo                        

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Born in Chicago, Annia Ciezadlo grew up in Bloomington, Indiana. She received her Master's in journalism from New York University in 2000. In late 2003, she left New York for Baghdad, where she worked as a stringer for The Christian Science Monito and other publications for the next year. During this time, she wrote groundbreaking stories, about parliamentary quotas for women, Baghdad's graffiti wars, militant Islamist poetry slams, the flight of the country's Christian minority, and Iraq's first reality TV show. Her first-person piece on what it's like to go through checkpoints in Baghdad earned a flood of responses, and is now used by the US military to help prevent civilian casualties. Since then, she has reported on revolutions in Lebanon, crackdowns in Syria, repression in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the 2006 "summer war" between Israel and Hezbollah. Although she has covered several wars, Annia does not describe herself as a war correspondent. She specializes in articles about Arab culture and civil society, stories that explore the intersections between larger political realities and everyday activities like driving, cooking, and going to school.

She has written about culture, politics, and the Middle East for The New Republic, The Nation, The Washington Post, the National Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Observer, and Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper. Annia lives somewhere between New York and Beirut, with her husband, the journalist Mohamad Bazzi.

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Excerpt from the book

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.

 
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