As a journalist, or an anthropologist, the convention is that people are there for you to study, and they are your objects.— Annia Ciezadlo
The most valuable Annia Ciezadlo quotes that will add value to your life
There hasn't been a lot written about it in the Western media.
But in the Arab world, and Western Asia as a whole, Baghdad was always known as a famously bookish, intellectual city. There's an old saying that Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads.
We're taught that domestic life is not a "serious" political topic, like war and peace, but the fact is that we spend most of our lives doing everyday things: at the dinner table, in the kitchen, washing dishes, grocery-shopping, commuting. These things make up the fabric of our lives.
One of the unspoken themes that I'm grappling with in Day of Honey is the relationship between violence and cosmopolitanism. It's one thing to comprehend violence as an outgrowth of ignorance, poverty, and backwardness. It's another matter entirely to confront incredible atrocities in a country with a rich civic and intellectual life.
The Middle East is the only region in the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa where rates of malnutrition actually rose over the past decade or two, instead of falling.
There were a hundred booksellers in the old round city founded by the eighth-century caliph al-Mansur. The café and wine-drinking culture of Baghdad has been famous for centuries; there was a whole school of Iraqi poets who wrote poems about the wine bars of medieval Baghdad - the khamriyaat, or wine songs, that I quote in the book.
In the Middle East, bread is so essential to everyday life that word for it in Egyptian Arabic is aish, which means life. It's always been the staple grain. But the predicament is that the Fertile Crescent, where wheat cultivation began, has now become the part of the world most dependent on imported wheat.
So much of what we see and hear about the Middle East focuses on what we call politics, which is essentially ideology. But when it comes to the Middle East, and especially the Arab world, simply depicting people as human beings is the most political thing you can do. And that's why I chose to write about food: food is inherently political, but it's also an essential part of people's real lives. It's where the public and private spheres connect.
So much of what we see and hear about the Middle East focuses on what we call politics, which is essentially ideology. But when it comes to the Middle East, and especially the Arab world, simply depicting people as human beings is the most political thing you can do.
But being an American woman married to an Arab guy - and a Muslim to boot! - put me in a different category. People would open up, and tell me things that they would never tell another journalist, no matter how persistent.
There is a feminist proverb I learned from my mother: The personal is political.
There's a powerful literary stereotype that men write about war and politics and public life, while women confine themselves to family and food and personal life.
You [can] become part of someone else's narrative.
Every once in a while I would get people asking me questions like, "If your husband is a Muslim, then why haven't you converted to Islam?" Interestingly enough, almost every person who asked me that was a Sunni, and it was their not-so-subtle way of implying that my Shiite husband was a bad Muslim for letting his infidel wife run around unconverted.
The problem is that so many of them are not getting told.
This is a massive problem, not just in the Middle East but for places from Africa to Afghanistan. There are millions of stories out there, millions of potential Booksellers of Kabul or Valentino Achak Dengs.
The irony is that Iraq actually has one of the richest and most sophisticated cuisines in the world. So many classic American or European foods - ceviche, albondigas, even the mint julep - have roots in Iraqi cuisine, which was a crossroads of Persian and Arab and Turkic traditions. The oldest written recipes in the world are from Iraq!
For my generation - the "Children of Nixon," as I call us in the book - the Lebanese civil war was an iconic event. Downtown Beirut became a metaphor for so many things: man's inhumanity to man, what Charles Bukowski called "the impossibility of being human." It shaped our perceptions of war and human nature, just as Vietnam did for our parents. We used it to understand how the world works.
Americans are curious about the texture of everyday life in the Middle East because they rarely get to see it. I wanted readers to feel like they were sitting around the dinner table with me and my friends, hearing what average people really say and really think, [where] the dinner table is the best place to find out.
Part of the reason you see so little about this in the Western media is that Iraq was closed off from the outside world for so long under Saddam. But I think there's a deeper reason, which is that it messes with our assumptions - not just about Iraq, but about culture and human nature.
If you look at the list of the top wheat importers for 2010, almost half of them are Middle Eastern regimes: Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Tunisia. Egypt is the number-one importer of wheat in the entire world. Tunisia leads the entire world in per capita wheat consumption. So it's no wonder that the revolutions began with Tunisians waving baguettes in the streets and Egyptians wearing helmets made of bread.
Being an American journalist can put people on the defensive.
In countries where people assume the press is partisan, like in Lebanon, or where it had essentially become an extension of the government, like in Iraq, people tend to see a journalist as an agent of his or her government. That can be dangerous if the United States military is occupying their country, or aligned with their enemies.
But how can you understand a war without any knowledge of the society where it happens? It's like trying to understand birth without knowing anything about pregnancy or conception. Or like trying to understand our current economic collapse without knowing what a derivative is.
I chose to write about food: food is inherently political, but it's also an essential part of people's real lives. It's where the public and private spheres connect. I wanted to show readers that the larger politics of war and economics and U.S. foreign policy are inextricably bound to the supposedly trivial details of our everyday lives.
Pedro Teixeira, the great Portuguese merchant-adventurer, wrote a beautiful description of a coffeehouse with windows overlooking the Tigris and the ruins of old Baghdad. That was in 1604, and he's visiting the same street that I write about in the book, named after Abu Nuwas, though it wasn't called that back then.
I don't have a problem with the media focusing on bad things happening.
That's our job, after all. But I think it's incomplete, and I would even say it's inaccurate, to only portray a place through its tragedies.
How can a country be home to sectarian militias and yet also to people who are educated, sophisticated, and pluralistic? This is not a simple matter. It's the kind of dialectical inquiry that's impossible to present in the world of Twitter feeds and newspapers where stories are shorter and shorter and more simplistic.
I'm optimistic, though. Now, with the Arab Spring, I think that people in the region are beginning to overturn some of these clichés, and Western editors are starting to catch up. We're seeing some exceptions to the stereotypes, like Elizabeth Rubin's great piecein Newsweek, "The Feminists in the Middle of Tahrir Square." But an article like that shouldn't be the exception. It should be the rule.
Which is one of the dangers of immersion journalism: you can find yourself getting sucked into battles you have nothing to do with, in this case an ongoing battle between Muslims.