Nowadays the TV cameras make Baghdad look like a suburban car park, and for Tamara Chalabi, raised in England and Beirut on memories of pre-Saddam Iraq, the first encounter in 2003 was dismal. Her family kissed the very ground as they returned from exile, but initially she felt, and recognised, nothing.
She has worked hard to connect with the city where she now lives, and in this absorbing book she has wrapped up much that is important in Iraq’s history in the story of her own family’s development through the 20th century. Of course the reader may want to ask what role Chalabi’s father played in landing Iraq in the mess it is in today. It was the notoriously engaging and energetic Ahmad Chalabi who encouraged the neocons to believe that Iraqis would welcome the American invasion, promising an outbreak of democracy and friendship with the Israelis, while doing his own bit to sex up the dossiers on WMD. But very early on the daughter remarks, wisely, that this is her story, and she is entitled to tell it.
She does so beautifully, in a complex family memoir attuned to the beats of Iraqi history. Sunnis who had arrived in Baghdad with the Ottoman conquests of the 17th century, the Chalabis became bigwigs after the nationalist Arab revolts that brought the British into the Middle East at the end of the first world war. They had turned Shi’a by then, but were prepared to suffer a fatwa against them in order to work with the British Mandate. They were ambitious, and got richer, throwing their weight behind the Hashemite king, until he was dislodged in a bloody coup d’etat in Baghdad in 1958. This is an account of the revolution we have not yet read, in which a little boy creeps trembling from a big car as his driver invites the mob to come and hack him apart; later we see the family reassemble in a grim London of the 1950s, and then on to a more congenial exile in Beirut, where the author was born.
The book’s heroine is the grand- mother, Bibi, from her marriage to Chalabi’s grandfather in 1916 to her death in 1989. Not because she is supremely competent, cooks well, or tirelessly keeps up the family’s morale when the going gets tough. On the contrary: when disasters strike, she is the first to wail; when there is work to be done, she finds someone else to do it. She is a like a portion of royal jelly that has to be carried about, waited upon, listened to, diverted, encouraged, placated and reassured. But she has nine children, of whom Ahmad is the youngest, and for that reason she embodies the family.
Chalabi’s aim is to reclaim for her readers a country that war and news have reduced to ‘a desert of tanks, screaming women and barefoot children’. She succeeds: a meditation on exile, a moving family portrait, thoughtful and well-researched, Late for Tea gives Iraq, as much as the Chalabi family, its story.