In 2001, when journalist Annia Ciezadlo met her husband Mohamad, also a reporter, she was not fascinated by the Middle East. However, she had been enthralled by food from a very young age. Her Greek grandmother was the source of that interest. Grandma grew vegetables and grapes, stewed lamb with tomatoes and zucchini, and wrapped the jade green leaves from her grape vines around meat and rice to braise in lemon-scented egg-thickened broth. Annia mentioned her grandmother's stuffed grape leaves to Mohamad. His mother, he replied, also made grape leaves --- in Lebanon, where he grew up.
Not long after sharing memories of stuffed grape leaves, Mohamad invited Annia to his favorite kebab restaurant. They feasted on Afghan delicacies. While Mohamad ordered his favorite chicken kebab, Annia experimented with more exotic dishes. During the meal, Mohamad spoke of interviewing a Taliban ambassador to the United Nations. The owners of the kebab café were Shiite Muslims; the Taliban had killed many Shiites not long before. Annia tells us she was "vaguely aware" that Mohamad was also a Shiite, but it seemed insignificant.
Annia and Mohamad courted and spoke of possibly moving in together. But days after September 11th, he flew to Pakistan to work as a journalist. His return to the United States was brief. In 2003, he became Middle East bureau chief for Newsday, which meant he would have to live there. Annia traveled with him to Beirut to gauge if she would enjoy living there with him. She also met his parents for the first time --- a meeting complicated by her nerves and language barriers. Annia knew only a very few Arabic phrases; she forgot even these as she met her future in-laws. However, the scents of the simmering meal communicated beyond words; they made Annia feel at home.
The two navigated the complications of intercultural matrimony, eventually settling for a civil ceremony in New York and moved to Beirut in 2003. Annia describes her new home in food-lover terms, seasoned with salty humor: "In Beirut, late-summer sun glinted off the Mediterranean. The rains had not really begun yet, and the sea still held the summer's warmth. Green-grocers lined the sidewalks with the last of the jabalieh tomatoes, big meaty pink and green fruits whose rippling flesh puckered into circles like little baboon butts mooning you all in a row."
Over the next six years, Annia freelanced as a journalist living in Baghdad and Beirut, and she describes her everyday life in these cities. We meet her friends and relatives, relish the exotic dishes she ate and cooked, and learn the culture and history of the Middle East. Along with her, we experience the tragedy and terror, as well as the mundane daily activities, of life in a war zone. In lyrical and powerful prose, the author shines a light on the Middle East through her memories, many leading to the table and sumptuous exotic feasts.
I must confess that I was expecting more of a cookbook/memoir, heavy on the recipes and light on politics, history and culture. That's what I thought I was getting --- but what I got instead was an epiphany. This is a transformative book, as well as a richly descriptive page-turner; readers may find themselves actually dreaming of war and feasting, terror and friendship. And, as they contemplate cooking up the intriguing recipes the author generously includes, they are likely to discover a commonality with the people in this book that will forever change the way they regard the Middle East.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon (firstname.lastname@example.org) on March 28, 2011