This is a review of Late for Tea at the Deer Palace, a new book by Tamara Chalabi, published in 2011 by HarperCollins.
Had Anastasia, the daughter of Czar Nicholas II of Russia, somehow escaped the wholesale execution of the Russian ruling family in 1918 along with her father, and half a century later returned to Moscow in triumph, she might have produced a volume like Late for Tea at the Deer Palace by Tamara Chalabi.
Chalabi, of course, is the daughter of Ahmed Chalabi, the wily wheeler-dealer and self-promoter who wangled his way into the good graces of America’s neoconservatives in the 1990s, helping to convince them to launch an unprovoked war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In 2003, Chalabi entered Baghdad in 2003 as a would-be president of the new Iraq and, although he never reached that goal, he’s been a fixture on the Iraqi political scene ever since.
Although the Chalabis, unlike the Romanovs, weren’t royalty, according to Tamara Chalabi’s story they were the next best thing: true insiders and courtiers, hobnobbing with Iraq’s kings, princes and nobility for decades before the revolution in 1958 that toppled King Faisal II led to the rude awakening that tumbled them out of their reverie, and their place of privilege. If all you know about Ahmed Chalabi is that he helped engineer the invasion of Iraq and then engaged in skulduggery as an agent for the Americans, or for the Iranians, or both, Tamara Chalabi’s book is an eye-opening account of the family’s long history at the center of Iraq’s royal court.
Chalabi’s book, part history and part memoir, isn’t really about the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. Indeed, the war in Iraq appears only incidentally, in the last few pages of her lengthy tale. Instead, she presents the reader with a family history, starting before World War I with her great-grandfather, Abdul Hussein Chalabi, the patriarch of the sprawling Chalabi clan. A key role throughout is played by Bibi Chalabi, Ahmed’s mother, a fierce and feisty matriarch who combines superb household management skills with reactionary politics in equal measure. If the reader is able temporarily to ignore the perfidious role of Ahmed Chalabi eight decades later, Late for Tea at the Deer Palace is a gripping and well-told saga of an affluent Arab clan that, despite its minority Shiite status, managed to secure a place at the king’s elbow. Most of the book is concerned with the day-to-day accomplishments and travails of the Chalabis, and it’s presented in a brisk, novelistic style, complete with conversational back and forth among long dead personages that, I assume, Chalabi reconstructed in her imagination. Still, the book presents a colorful, if self-serving, narrative about the life of an elite Iraqi family during the tumultuous era after the emergence of Iraq as a nation. At its best, Tamara Chalabi’s story contains nonfiction echoes of The Cairo Trilogy, the classic novel by Naguib Mahfouz about a multi-generational, upper middle class family in Egypt.
From the 1920s onward, the Chalabis resided at the very pinnacle of Iraqi society. Tamara’s great-grandfather was minister of education, and he befriended Great Britain’s most renowned Arabists and colonial officers. One of those was the legendary spy and adventurer Gertrude Bell, a colleague of T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) and a woman who, writes Chalabi, hurriedly designed Iraq’s first flag, stitching together bands of red, green, black and white. Referring to the Deer Palace, the nickname for the Chalabi mansion in Baghdad, Chalabi writes: “The magnificent dining table could seat twenty-four, and was used for official receptions Abdul Hussein [Chalabi] held for personages such as the King, members of the Cabinet, official foreign visitors or the British High Commissioner.” In 1921, when King Faisal returned from the peace conference in Europe that drew up Iraq’s borders, Abdul Hussein hosted a lavish dinner for him, and he took care to try to strengthen ties between King Faisal I, a Sunni, and the Shiite clergy who were suspicious of both the king and the British. Going back centuries, back to the time when the Chalabi family helped to administer the region for the Ottoman Turks, the Chalabis had great influence over the social and political life in and around the famed Kadhimiya shrine in Baghdad, whose four golden minarets loomed over the tombs of the seventh and ninth Imams of Shiite history, and in the 1920s the Chalabis used their influence with the Shiite establishment, including the clergy in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, to win support for Faisal.