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.
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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.
The Chalabis produced a long line of government officials, senators and members of the Iraqi parliament, and both Hadi Chalabi, Ahmed’s father, and various uncles served in government from the 1920s through 1958. They navigated their way through the treacherous cross-currents of Iraqi politics during this time, when monarchists, Communists, nationalists and pro-Nazi Iraqis competed, often using violence and political trickery. For the most part, the Chalabis were loyal to Nuri Said, the long-time British puppet who’d been part of Lawrence’s Arab Revolt in 1917 and who, until 1958, was the power behind the Iraqi throne. Indeed, the Chalabis never seemed to question the importance of supporting Great Britain’s role in Iraq during these years, at least according to Tamara Chalabi’s account. Her uncle and Ahmed’s eldest brother, Rushdi, who later became a member of the Iraqi parliament, for a time joined the Brotherhood of Freedom, a British intelligence project set up by Freya Stark, one of London’s Middle East spies.
Nuri Said, the Iraqi royal family, and the Chalabis were united by their hatred of communism, of Arab nationalism and of nationalism’s chief proponent in the 1950s, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Because communism was particularly attractive to Iraqi Shia and Jews, along with other minorities, many Shia in the Kadhimiya area of Baghdad were attracted to it in the 1950s, and the Chalabis worked with other sections of the Iraqi establishment—including the clergy—to counter communist influence. But even some members of the Chalabi family weren’t immune. “Kadhimiya took a particular shine to Communist ideals,” writes Tamara. “Several of [Bibi’s] cousins and relatives joined the Communist Party.” To counter it, Iraq’s ayatollahs created the Dawa party around 1958, the self-same party that rules Iraq today in the form of its leader, Nouri al-Maliki. Both the Chalabi’s and the Sadr family, which set up the party and later produced the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, were involved in the Dawa milieu.
In 1953, when King Faisal II officially becomes king, and Nuri Said his Rasputin, the Chalabis were confidantes with friends in very high places. In the book, Tamara says that when Saudi Arabia’s royal family, the Al Saud, visited Baghdad for Faisal II’s investiture, the Saudis stayed at Chalabi’s Deer Palace. But the growing force of Arab nationalism loomed over Iraq. “Like the rest of her family, Bibi was terrified of Nasser’s influence on the Iraqi streets,” writes Chalabi, who says that Bibi would scream at the radio carrying Nasser’s speeches, calling him a “rabble-rouser.” In the book, there is a photograph showing the king and the crown prince, Abdullah, sitting quietly in Chalabi’s garden as the storm clouds of revolution gathered over Baghdad. In a telling incident, Tamara Chalabi relates how Abdullah asked Hadi Chalabi if he wouldn’t mind smuggling the equivalent of 100,000 British pounds out of the country for the royal family. She quotes Abdullah: “Always a good idea to have a bit put by overseas, just in case. Could you or Rushdi [Chalabi] fix that, d’you reckon?” Chalabi dutifully carried the money out of the country, but in the end the Iraqi royal family was annihilated in the revolution and Hadi Chalabi ended up giving the money to King Hussein of Jordan, who represented another branch of the Hashemite royal family that had been installed in Jordan and Iraq by the British in the 1920s.
In grim and horrific detail, Chalabi tells the story of the capture and murder of the Hashemites of Iraq, including Faisal II, and Nuri Said. Some of the bodies were literally dragged through the streets of Baghdad and carved up. Nuri, desperate to escape, holed up at the home of Thamina Chalabi, Ahmed’s aunt, but eventually he too was seized by a mob and hacked to pieces. In Tamara’s account, no doubt from personal family stories, she tells of Iraqi mobs shouting, “There is a Chalabi boy here! I have a Chalabi boy! Do you want him?” and “This is the daughter of Abdul Hadi Chalabi the traitor!” Though some members of the Chalabi clan were arrested and imprisoned, it appears from Tamara’s account that none were executed, though in the end all of them fled. The family property was impounded by the new government, now led by Brig. Gen. Abdel-Karim al-Qassim, and Hadi Chalabi lost most of his $1 billion fortune, minus whatever he and the family could smuggle out of the county. Writes Tamara:
Bibi’s precious jewels had to be smuggled out somehow, but she could not be the one to do it, because that would have been too obvious. Instead, Bibi and her three daughters devised a plan to smuggle them out in [her daughter’s] thick blue woolen coat…. She lingered over her large solitaire, her topaz from Istanbul, her rubies and emeralds from Geneva, the long strings of delicate Bahraini pearls that Hadi had bought her several years earlier and the diamond watches she had once collected.
In one passage that is especially lacking in credibility, Tamara Chalabi says that her father, Ahmed, just a youngster, assaulted the troops who ransacked the family mansion: “Ahmed could not bear it. Although he was not yet fourteen, he attacked the soldiers when they rummaged through his family’s belongings, and openly carried a large photograph of the dead King with him.” It’s a touching story, but it strains credulity that a 13-year-old boy would risk instant execution in that way.
Once in exile, the Chalabis—scattered to London, Beirut, Amman and elsewhere—compared themselves to the exiled elites of other refugee royalty. Says Tamara, wistfully:
“Their status put them on a par with other affluent exiles, such as ex-Maharajas from India, Persian Qajar grandees, and the Egyptian aristocrats who had left following Nasser’s revolution in 1952.”
In the ’60s and ’70s, the Chalabis scrambled to seek out help for a restoration. For a time, they believed that the Shah of Iran and King Hussein of Jordan might support them and their friends in retaking Baghdad from the succession of governments that followed King Faisal II, even well before Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party took over in 1968. Then, in 1969, Tamara Chalabi informs us, Ahmed Chalabi, then a young man, visited Tehran to seek the help of the Shah and Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani in a “countercoup” in Baghdad. Although the Shah, and the CIA, did back the Kurds in an insurgency in Iraq, it was all for naught. More than three decades would pass before Chalabi could persuade outsiders—in this case, the administration of George W. Bush—to support their quest for getting back to Baghdad, and to power.
Tamara Chalabi doesn’t attempt to explain her father’s close relationship with the ayatollahs in Iran, the reports that Ahmed Chalabi was secretly working with the Revolutionary Guard in Tehran or that he passed on US military secrets, including the fact that the United States had broken Iranian communication codes, to the Iranians. But she does say, throughout the book, that the Chalabis grew angry and bitter at the British for failing to protect the Iraqi royals and their allies, such as the Chalabis. And she herself suggests that she wrote the book in order to settle a score with the Americans. “It was really anger that triggered me to write this book,” says Tamara. She’s angry at the “US civil administration [in Iraq] and the international press,” presumably because neither one saw the wisdom of installing her charlatan father as leader of Iraq once it was clear that he had no support within the country. One might think that the Chalabi family would be eternally grateful that the United States was ignorant enough and arrogant enough to invade Iraq in 2003, hauling the Chalabis back into the country that had expelled them half a century earlier. Instead, she’s angry, and presumably her father feels the same way. That, in itself, might be motive enough for Ahmed Chalabi to seek out Iran, once again, to help him in Iraq, just as he did in the 1960s when he tried to enlist the Shah in his corner. Only this time, it’s not the Shah but the mullahs.