Those Who Stay and Those Who Roam: Annia Ciezadlo on Private Life and the Collision of War in the Middle East

by Aaron Lawhon

Annia Ciezadlo spent most of the past decade living in the Middle East as a freelance foreign correspondent for The Christian Science Monitorin Baghdad (2003-04) and The New Republic in Beirut (2005-07). She has written on politics, culture and civilian life in war-torn countries for these and other media. In her extraordinary debut Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War, Ciezadlo “turns food into a language, a set of signs and connections, that helps tie together a complex moving memoir of the Middle East” (The Globe and Mail).

A.D. Lawhon: In Day of Honey, you give us a vital, humanizing glimpse of the Middle East during these remarkable, often terrible times in which the United States has become inextricably, disastrously involved. As one of the central themes, you explore the tensions and symbiosis between the nomadic and the “civilized”—those who stay and those who wander. You’ve lived a nomadic life yourself. Where are you calling home these days, and how has your concept of home evolved?

Annia Ciezadlo: Good question. I’m currently based in Beirut, but I’m traveling a lot. You could say I’m in a nomadic phase. I think that, for right now at least, home is wherever I happen to be at the moment. I don’t know if that’s an evolution! Maybe it’s a devolution. But one of the things I’ve learned about myself is that I’m usually happiest in this transient state.

ADL: As you point out in the book, this dynamic between those who wander and those who stay is the story of culture and the story of history. The two find their nexus at the kitchen table, with traditions of hospitality. What led you to this particular focus, to explore war and conflict through the lens of the kitchen table?

AC: Feminism. Women who write about war and foreign policy are constantly being told, subtly and not so subtly, that we should just bow out and leave this stuff to boys. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pitched an editor a story about war and been told it’s “not what we’re looking for”—only to see the same editor, eight or nine months later, turn around and assign the exact same story to a man. This kind of thing is why Lauren Bohn and Elmira Bayrasli founded Foreign Policy Interrupted.

This comes from the ancient stereotype that women should concern themselves with the domestic realm, stay in the metaphorical kitchen, and not stray into the public sphere. The idea that men are the ones who go out into the world, and women stay at home and concern themselves with the personal and domestic spheres. Obviously this is horseshit, for a number of reasons, one of them being that men also enjoy domesticity, and having private lives, and women like to travel and be part of the greater world. Another being that the public sphere, if it can’t accept half the planet, isn’t all that public.

The result of this prejudice is that the way we tell the story of war is completely skewed. War is very private, very personal. It’s the ultimate collision of politics with private life—often quite literally, like in the form of a bomb in your kitchen. I can’t imagine anything more intimate, more personal, than watching your children starve to death in a siege. Which is what many people in Syria are experiencing right at this very moment. Ninety percent of the casualties in modern warfare are civilians. Ninety percent. Many of them are women and children. But my profession still tells the story of war as a fairytale of “boys and toys”—rockets, rifles, militants, combatants. We still represent wars in this nineteenth-century way, as only taking place in the public sphere, and the world of men. What E. M. Forster called the outer life of “telegrams and anger” in Howard’s End. But Forster’s point was that the inner life and the outer life are always connected, whether we like it or not. The kitchen is one of those places where the inner and outer lives connect. This idea of different strands of life connecting—I thought you put it beautifully, about culture and history finding their nexus at the kitchen table. And this is what makes the kitchen table (or the lack thereof, for refugees) the perfect place to tell the story of war.

ADL: A lot of the reporting we see about the Middle East—in terms of news blurbs, headlines, &c.—tries, often unsuccessfully, to be very reductionist, to fill a need to separate the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” Your reporting, and the subjects whom you choose, tend to complicate those ideas. Have you experienced resistance from editors regarding the types of stories you choose to tell?

AC: As a journalist, you hardly ever experience resistance from editors. What you experience, and it’s far more corrosive, is indifference. For example, I tried very hard to sell a magazine story about Dr. Salama. She was getting divorced, because her husband wanted her to leave her political career, and she didn’t want to. Her belief in shari’a, Islamic law, fascinated me: in her view, it was something that would guarantee her rights as a woman—if it was applied properly. And it’s in that if, that tremendous if, which is where all her hopes resided, that you find the story. Islam guarantees women a lot of rights when it comes to marriage and divorce—on paper. Iraq was writing its new constitution, and shari’a was the single biggest issue under debate: what role should it play? How much authority should it have over people’s private lives? Which is an international story, by the way, not just about Iraq.

So here’s this incredible woman, who is one of the most respected and popular politicians in Iraq, who lost her son in an assassination attempt meant for her. Who is still fighting. Still risking her life. She’s doing diplomacy between the Mahdi Army and the American military. She makes James Bond look boring. Oh, and she’s willing to let me write about the most private aspects of her personal life. Which happen to be at the heart of one of the most urgent issues of our time: Islamic law, and how it will be applied in countries like Iraq. So that’s not an important or interesting story, right?

Every single magazine I pitched said no to this story. The New York Times magazine, The New Yorker, Marie-Claire, The Atlantic—all of them. And they will never really tell you why, and they probably wouldn’t even be able to articulate it to themselves. But the fact is that this is not a story that plays into Western stereotypes about Muslim women: that they’re passive, and they’re always victims, and that veiled women only ever have half a life. That shari’a is something imposed on helpless people by menacing Islamic hordes, instead of a system of thought that is very much under debate, and has been for 1400 years, and that people have complicated feelings and ideas about. That’s not a black-and-white story; it has many shades of gray, so to speak. (Thanks for ruining that phrase, E. L. James.)

But editors will never say “oh, sorry, this story confuses me and freaks me out because it challenges my entrenched stereotypes.” They’ll just say “oh sorry, it’s not what we’re looking for.” Or they’ll say what theNew York Times editor said, which is that “I don’t think the timing is right for that piece.” He also said that they had done plenty of coverage of women’s rights in Iraq, which was funny since they’d done bubkes—but in his mind, that was plenty, since to him Iraqi women weren’t important.

So that’s just one of the stories that you, gentle reader, never got to read. I’ve pitched dozens of stories like that, about people who don’t fit the stereotypes. Whose very lives are a challenge to the stereotypes. The Lebanese guy who launched a presidential campaign to protest the fact that the Lebanese don’t get to elect their president. The young Iraqi artists who were starting an artistic movement in the supposedly postwar Iraq. The guy who’s trying to revive the 120-year-old train network here in the Middle East. And so many more. You will never get to read those stories, because most editors don’t think they’re important.

ADL: Day of Honey is often a very funny book. I particularly enjoyed your retelling of The Epic of Gilgamesh, which reminds us that Iraq—ancient Babylon—is the birthplace of poetry and literature. By your description, Baghdad seems to be ripe with poets. What role does poetry play in the lives of Iraqis?

AC: There’s a funny saying an old poet told me in Baghdad: that beside every palm tree, you will find a poet. Just to put that into perspective, there were more palm trees than people in Iraq when that saying was coined. That’s no longer true, after decades of war and sanctions—the number of date palms went from about 30 million in the mid-twentieth century to a fraction of that by now. But poets—it seemed like everyone I met in Iraq was a poet. If they weren’t a poet, then they were quoting poetry, or singing it, or talking about it. Poetry is a part of the fabric of everyday life in the Middle East, more so than in the West, I would say. I think that’s especially true in a country like Iraq, where there’s a tradition of oral poetry that goes back hundreds if not thousands of years. People used it to make political commentaries—to criticize political leaders, or the American occupation. People quoted famous or not-so-famous lines in the middle of conversations. One of the most important streets in Baghdad, and one of the most beautiful, was named after a ninth-century Iraqi poet who wrote poems in praise of bisexuality and wine, among other things. Imagine if Broadway in New York City was called Walt Whitman Way, which personally I think it should be, and you’ll get some idea of how important poetry is in Iraq.

ADL: Throughout these wars and conflicts, all sides use women and women’s bodies as a rallying point and a key issue of propaganda. The West is fighting for women, the Islamists are defending women, everybody fights for women. You focus on women like Dr. Salama, who in their lives and actions subvert these lines of propaganda. What net effect does all of this “concern” for women have on the lives of women living in conflict zones?

AC: There’s a tendency in Western countries, and unfortunately among a lot of people who consider themselves feminists, to want to “rescue” Arab and Muslim women. To dwell on honor killings, and child marriages, and all the undeniably bad stuff that actually does happen. Go to the bookstore in most any airport, and you’ll see what I call the “Not Without My Daughter” section—a line of books with veiled ladies, wearing a lot of eye makeup, on the covers. The slightly more highbrow version is Geraldine Brooks’s Nine Parts of Desire, which also indulges this stereotype of the helpless, victimized Muslim woman. Lila Abu-Lughod, the anthropologist who spent the past 30 years studying actual Muslim women’s lives, wrote a whole book about this mindset. She called it Do Muslim Women Need Saving?.

There is tremendous ignorance in the West that this stuff is not particular to Arabs, or to Islam—that Christians perform female genital mutilation too, or that Hindus commit honor killings, and that our own statistics, here in the US, when it comes to gender-based violence, are not actually so fantastic. That ignorance creates this idea that part of the mission of a war like Iraq or Afghanistan is to “help” or somehow to “liberate” the women. That the West is somehow “fighting for women” and for their rights.

But the truth is, our government sold out Iraqi women’s rights at the very first opportunity, in part because of our own stereotypes about Islam and Arabs. The Coalition Provisional Authority that the Bush administration set up decided that religion was the most important force in Iraqi society—again, this is how Western stereotypes about the Middle East can cause real harm, because there were other countervailing forces that the Americans couldn’t even begin to understand, like trade associations and professional societies and unions. That’s the world that Dr. Salama came out of. But American officials, working with their handpicked local elites, designed a system of government that was based on religion. And that was a terrible decision for women’s rights. They did this partly because they believed that “Iraqi society” didn’t support women’s rights. The idea that the women were the society didn’t seem to have crossed their minds.

The irony is that if you looked at the actual statistics, there was high support for women’s participation in politics, especially in places like Najaf, which is the seat of the Shiite religious authority in Iraq. Our government couldn’t comprehend an idea like that, which to them would seem like a contradiction, in large part because of Western stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims not accepting women’s rights. Which is what happens when you don’t talk or listen to Arabs and Muslims who are also women. My friend Manal Omar wrote a book about this, called Barefoot in Baghdad. Which also happens to be a very funny book.

So to answer your question: I find that when women are being used as political symbols, it tends to marginalize and even harm the actual women themselves. It creates a dynamic that’s dangerous for women. I’ll give you an example: in the book, I talk about a women’s center where two women were murdered. Before the murders, the American occupation opened up the center with great fanfare, and did a big photo op with Paul Bremer, the head of the occupation authority, even though a lot of the women they were talking to thought that was a bad idea. The photo op was more for domestic American consumption: Look, see, we’re helping Iraqi women. But it ended up identifying the women’s center with the occupation government, and sending a message to local men that “the Americans” were coming to “liberate” their women, just like they “liberated” the country. That was a really dumb and harmful decision. Which is another good example of how this rhetoric of “helping women,” without actually listening to the women themselves, can have terrible unintended consequences.

ADL: You’ve written in depth for The New Republic about Bashar al-Assad, with particular focus on his bombing of bakeries and use of starvation tactics, and his manipulation of the West to position himself as the least objectionable alternative. With the rise of Islamic State, Assad now has the United States bombing his enemies inside Syrian territory, with his blessing. In Islamic State, has Assad found his perfect adversary? Is this how Assad wins?

AC: I hope not. But it doesn’t look good. Our government has worked closely with the Assad regime in the past, most notably with Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, during the 1991 invasion of Iraq. Later with his son Bashar, when we needed a friendly dictatorship to torture people we suspected of being terrorists, often on very flimsy evidence. Our government worked with Bashar because he was a dictator, not in spite of it. There’s this idea that you need a tough guy, a dictator, to fight real evil. That the evil of a group like ISIS makes the evil of a dictator somehow less. That the people of the Middle East don’t deserve anything better than the terrible choice between religious fanatics and brutal dictators. But the reality is that the decades of misery caused by American-backed dictators—in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, among others—helped create the religious fanatics in the first place. That idea is getting lost in a morass of racist stereotypes that people in the Middle East are just prone to war and hatred, and we should support the lesser evil because if we don’t the jihadis will take over.

That’s a dumb, simplistic false dichotomy that has caused incalculable harm. And we’re poised to make that mistake once again. What’s interesting is that this time it’s the left—I’m looking at you, Robert Fisk and Seymour Hersh—that is supporting this argument. The American left has been swallowing Assad’s propaganda because they think he’s somehow socialist or anti-imperialist, even though he’s a neoliberal snob who’s more than happy to torture and kill the poor and disenfranchised people of his own country. Oh, and willing to torture people on behalf of the US government. Nothing very socialist about that. If this is our ally against ISIS, then what makes us better? A lot of people here in the Middle East believe the American government deliberately created ISIS as an excuse to crush their uprisings. Seems crazy, right? But if we’re willing to work with a monster like Assad, can we blame them for thinking that?

ADL: You are currently working on a book about food, economic violence and wealth accumulation in World War I. Would you like to tell us a little about that?

AC: As a journalist, I try to find the stories that people can’t or won’t talk about. Here in the English-speaking world, most any schoolchild has heard of the Irish Potato Famine. But very few people have ever heard of the Syrian famine, which killed the same proportion of the population here, during World War I, that the Great Hunger did in Ireland. Here in Lebanon, which was then a part of Greater Syria, about a third of the population died.

We tell the story of war through battles and back-room negotiations. If English-speaking historians address the Middle East at all, they talk about Lawrence of Arabia, King Faisal, and Sykes-Picot. Food, hunger, and disease are part of that supposedly secondary realm of domestic life. Half a million people starving to death is just a footnote to the machinations of empires and politicians. This is a failure not just of history, or of justice, but of narrative. Yes, the Sykes-Picot agreement shaped the modern Middle East. But so did the mass starvation of the civilian population. That’s the book I’m writing now.

***

A.D. Lawhon studied English at The University of Texas at Austin, where he was awarded a few nifty prizes and fellowships for his fiction. He’s also, occasionally, an actor and a musician. He’s a pretty good chef, too. He doesn’t want to be a chef, but a boy has to make a living somehow.