When Iraq was a ‘country of dreams’

Emily Esfahani Smith Managing Editor, Defining Ideas
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On a sweltering spring day in Iraq, days after American forces rolled into Baghdad, Harvard-educated historian Tamara Chalabi wandered through an abandoned house searching for a sign of its former occupants. Tamara, the daughter of Iraq’s infamous Ahmad Chalabi, found it outside, where “a life-size stone statue of a deer stood,” she writes. “I knew that my grandfather Hadi had loved that deer as much as his father before him. Someone had beheaded it.”

“You can’t imagine the wonderful life we had in Baghdad, Tamara. I was like a queen,” is the mournful refrain of Chalabi’s late grandmother, Bibi, the lively matriarch who takes center stage in Chalabi’s spellbinding new family memoir, “Late for Tea at the Deer Palace.” An exile searching for a bygone Iraq, Chalabi brings to life a shimmering country that was once the sophisticated center of the Arab world.

Before the Golden Mosque was bombed at Samarra, before Saddam unleashed his barbaric wrath on the Kurds and before the carnage of the Iran-Iraq war, Chalabi’s family lived in that abandoned house — “Deer Palace.” This was during Baghdad’s golden days over 50 years ago, when the city was embracing modernity. The “new roads were busy with Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Chryslers and Buicks,” Chalabi writes. But then, a violent coup forced the Chalabi family into exile and changed Iraq forever.

But today, Chalabi writes with angst, Iraq has been reduced to a “desert of tanks, screaming women and barefoot children.” In the face of this, Chalabi tells Iraq’s story “through its people” — her family specifically. It is an approach full of emotional resonance. “Theirs is not a history of ideas and social patterns,” she explains, but of “people who lived their lives in the best way they could.”

Tamara is the daughter of Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi politician who by Tamara’s own characterization “has been labeled a maverick, a charlatan, a genius.” A teenager when his family was exiled in 1958, Ahmad Chalabi devoted much of his adult life to overthrowing Saddam’s regime so that his Shi’ite family could return to Iraq. “Over the course of three centuries,” Tamara notes, her family in Iraq “had transformed themselves from warriors into administrators into confidants of the ruling family.” The Chalabis did not just live in Iraq, a “country of dreams,” they embodied it.

An array of fascinating characters come and go on Chalabi’s stage — the enchanting Gertrude Bell, the indispensible Lawrence of Arabia, the doomed Mohammad al-Sadr — but Chalabi ultimately focuses on the Iraq of Bibi and Hadi, her grandparents. “I poured my imagination into this mythical place,” Chalabi writes.

Among the most memorable chapters of the book is “Sugared Almonds and Jasmine,” which captures Hadi and Bibi’s joyful wedding in 1916, during the thick of World War I. Within two years, the Ottoman Empire would crumble, and out of its rubble, a new country — Iraq — would be born, fraught with sectarian tension.

And yet, as Chalabi masterfully tells it, this was a country still full of hope. It was a place where Salima Murad, a Baghdadi Jew, “became the voice of Iraq” — where Bibi, who considered the abaya old-fashioned, showed off her glittering jewels at monthly visits to the royal household. It was a country that in 1957 commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build an opera house on the outskirts of Baghdad.

How quickly it all fell away. Wright’s opera house was never built: In 1958, a violent military-led coup overthrew the Hashemite monarchy. Inspired by Gamul Abdul Nasser’s Arab nationalism in Egypt, the Iraqi army declared that the Hashemites were a “corrupt crew that imperialism installed.” Horror ensued for the royal family: “A butcher started to fillet [the prince’s] body, throwing pieces of it towards the people,” Chalabi writes.

There was no place in such an Iraq for the Chalabis, who were close to the monarchy. The family eventually fled to Lebanon, where it remained until the 1975-90 Civil War forced them into exile once more. In Iraq, meanwhile, instability plagued the country until Saddam Hussein took power in 1979.

Today, Iraq is no longer a forbidden land to the Chalabis. “Now we can come and go as we please,” Tamara writes, “My family’s long journey has come full circle.” And yet, it has not: Although the Chalabis are no longer exiles, the majesty of the Iraq they once knew — the Iraq where Bibi was queen — has faded into the dust of time, a filmy memory. What lies ahead for this fragile land? More wars, coups and revolutions?

For Chalabi, “It gives me great hope to know that this place, which projects so much negativity and pain today, once — and not so long ago — confidently embraced the modern world.”

Emily Esfahani Smith, an assistant editor at The New Criterion, is also managing editor of Defining Ideas, a journal of the Hoover Institution.

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Emily Esfahani Smith