BACK TO BAGHDAD; First-Time Author Tamara Chalabi Is at This Month's Festival of Asian Literature to Talk about Her Memoir of an Iraqi Family in Exile. Her First Visit to the Old Country Left Her 'In a State of Shock', She Tells Nosheen Iqbal
Byline: Nosheen Iqbal
BEIRUT-born Tamara Chalabi, 36-year-old historian and firsttime literary author, is perched gracefully on a Soho House sofa, explaining how she came to be writing a book about one of Iraq's most controversial, powerful and wealthiest families -- her own, that is. Late for Tea at the Deer Palace: The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family is Tamara's insider account of more than 150 years of Iraq, from the moneyed perspective of the country's ruling class. Unsurprisingly, the Chalabis, a political dynasty exiled from Baghdad for 40 years, are no strangers to scandal: ousted several times over from their luxurious homes, vilified for their influential support of a British-imposed Iraqi monarchy and most recently caught up in the "dodgy dossier" disaster that formed the basis of the Iraq war, theirs is a story as complex as it is compelling. In the context of this year's major news stories coming from the Middle East -- the Arab Spring, the death of Osama bin Laden -- Late for Tea is also pretty pertinent.
"Each country [in the Middle East] is preoccupied with its own specific domestic issues," says Tamara, unwilling to give any more weight to the impact already assigned to Bin Laden's death. "[Those issues] supersede the violent ideological themes of Osama's message." Having lived in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, Tamara thinks the war on terror is unlikely to subside in the region. For her, the only real positive outcome from recent news is of "the power of nonviolence of the people, which achieved so much more in toppling regimes than a misguided suicide bomber".
It is an ironic statement for her to make: her father, 66-year-old Dr Ahmad Chalabi, spent much of his lifetime working to remove the despotic rule of Saddam Hussein. In the end, he helped achieve it -- but only through violence. Leader of the Iraqi National Congress (a party formed outside Iraq, in opposition to Saddam, and funded by at least $140 million by the US government), Ahmad has been mired in controversy for two decades: first for being convicted (in absentia) for embezzling $300 million from the bank he founded in Jordan, then for allegedly supplying false intelligence to the US government. This information, it is claimed, forged the basis of the Iraq war -- leading to the loss of more than 4,000 American lives and a 12-figure bill to the White House.
In her personal, often whimsical, portrait of day-to-day Iraqi life, published last summer by HarperCollins, Tamara neatly sidesteps the full story of her father. Understandably defensive and dismissive of the charges against him, she insists that although Ahmad "has been labelled a charlatan, a maverick ... a triple agent", the book isn't about him. "He has his own story to tell," she says. "My interest was never to set the record straight or for [the book] to be considered an academic study."
Instead, Late for Tea is a richly detailed account of the Chalabis' collective ups and downs. Anchored by Bibi, Tamara's paternal grandmother and the book's central character, the story begins during the Ottoman Empire and runs until the present day, taking in Baghdad's red-light district, the family's lavish parties, the brutally tense escapes abroad and Bibi's sardonic, wicked humour. It comes with a recommendation from Christopher Hitchens on the cover and has been praised as "an absorbing social history of Iraq" by The New York Times. Commanding its own event at the Festival of Asian Literature, which starts today in London, it's a gutsy mix: part-memoir, part novelistic reimagining of events from the Chalabi family timeline.
"The research was exhaustive -- the whole project took four years," explains Tamara, between sips of tea. She tells me about trips to dusty archives in three countries and endless transcripts interviewing her extensive family. "But the seed was really sown when I saw Baghdad for the first time in 2003. All my life I'd heard about 'Iraq-Iraq-Iraq' and somehow, people expect that because of your DNA, you're telepathically linked to a place because your roots are there," she says. …