Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tamara Chalabi: Late for Tea at the Deer Palace - Review

Tamara Chalabi, author of Late forTea at the Deer Palace: the Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family, has written a thought-provoking and interesting cultural and poltical history of her family's ascendance to wealth and power in Iraq and their fall from influence as the winds of change swept through the middle east in the last decades of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I was originally attracted to this volume because I recognized Chalabi as the daughter of Ahmed Chalabi, the often shadowy political figure who deeply influenced American neo-conservatives to clamor for war against Islamic terrorism in general and the dictator Saddam Hussein in particular. Through the influence of Vice-President Dick Cheney and neo-con ideologues like Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and Richard Pearle, President George W. Bush was influenced to invade Iraq under the guise of seeking and destroying non-existent weapons of mass destruction, involving the U.S. in ten years of costly human and financial losses, which now continue in Afghanistan. Fortunately, Late for Tea at the Deer Palace (Harper Perennial, 2011, 414 pp in trade paperback, $15.99) turns out to be much more than an apologetic for Chalabi and his misdeeds.

The Chalabi family rose to wealth and influence as the territory once known as Mesopotamia, the cradle of world civilization and one of the major centers of Islam's growth and development between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, emerged to become Iraq after the chaos of World War I. Unfortunately, as a part of the Ottoman Empire for the previous 400 years, the region had, as a Turkish province, been at least nominally allied with Germany during the war. During the Versailles conference of 1919, the middle east was carved up between the victorious nations, as Great Britain and France received most of the spoils creating small countries out of tribal areas rich with the petroleum the world had become addicted to. Iraq, with its cultural capital, the ancient city of Baghdad, and numerous Shi'a shrines within its borders despite a Sunni majority as well as other, smaller, groups like the Kurds and nomadic Bedouin tribes found it difficult to form a unified national identity and government. Within this context, the Chalabi family thrived for several generations before declining as pan-Arab nationalism swept the middle east creating the havoc and danger we continue to live with. Sadly, much of this story depends on the selfishness of the large European powers and the U.S. as they sought to manipulate these created countries to control the huge petroleum reserves found there for their own needs.

Tamara Chalabi, a Harvard trained historian born in 1973, is descended from nineteenth century Ali Chalabi, who, as an influential and wealthy Muslim held court much as, without its criminal implications, Don Vito Corleone from The Godfather did, resolving disputes and granting favors to the large numbers of people seeking his intervention. In traditional Muslim society, this role was respected and carried great weight. The Chalabi family rose to its greatest wealth and influence during the period between the end of World War I and the emergence of pan-Arab nationalism promulgated by Gamel Abdul Nasser with his rise to power in Egypt during the 1950's. Much of their power came from supporting the imported King Faisal, a Hashemite noble and deposed king of Syria who was installed by the British as King of Iraq. Faisal, a progressive for the period, was committed to eliminating the separations between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims as well as reconciling with the nomadic tribes of the region and the Jewish move to establish a homeland in Palestine. The Chalabi, as an influential Shi'a family, exercised great influence and strove to increase their wealth through establishment of large farming operations, banking, and the law.

Tamara Chalabi
 But the rise and then destruction of modern Iraq is only part of the story here, always important, but sharing equally with the domestic story of the Chalabi family as representative of a kind of life that existed during the period. Tamara Chalabi is the grand-daughter of Abdul Hadi and his wife Bibi, whose lives spanned much of this period. Hadi expanded the family influence through smart acquisition of large farms and association with British cotton dealer. He amassed great wealth, allowing his sons to become educated and assume leadership in banking and the law. His wife, Bibi, was chosen for him through the traditional Islamic fashion of formal searches and arranged marriages. She became a powerful social arbiter in her circle, although much as her grand-daughter seeks to disguise it, seems to have been an unpleasantly outspoken and querulous person for much of her life. Nevertheless, she and Hadi remained married for nearly seventy years. Most notable among their nine children were Rhushi (born 1919) who expanded his father's business interests to international proportions, the blind Hassan (1921) who studied law and became influential in legal and political matters, and Ahmed (1944) who was educated in mathematics at MIT and earned his Ph.D at the University of Chicago and became a political operative opposing the vicious dictator Saddam Hussein, whose regime eventually led to the destruction of Iraq.

The book contains intimate pictures of life within the closed family quarters of one wealthy Iraqi family. In a world where women, until quite recently, could only appear in public completely covered by an abaya, the pictures of women at tea, the importance of eating fine food together as a family while providing food and hospitality for all who came to the door, and the complex web of inter-related family and political influence help explain to western minds the often difficult to understand cultural and social world of the middle east. Chalabi very clearly explains the religious and cultural differences between Shi'a and Sunni branches of Islam. By emphasizing the importance of family (clan) loyalty and domestic (at home) politics, she helps the western reader gain an understanding of Arab Muslim culture. She depicts the Shi'a as analogous to right wing U.S. Protestant fundamentalists in their resistance to government and narrow interpretation of the law (Sharia). The Chalabi family both enjoyed huge wealth and practiced incredible generosity to those whom they favored. People were taken into their family as servants (sometimes even former slaves) and maintained for generations. The family is depicted as unusually progressive, especially as Shi'a, interested in education, commerce, contemporary innovation, and building a modern Iraq free from foreign (British) control while still benefiting from their association with the foreign influences.

As the political situation in Iraq changes with the advent of Pan-Arabism and the fall of King Faisal in 1958, the fortunes of the Chalabi family fall, too. They are forced to move, first to London, where they find themselves to be aliens in a land where they feel neither welcome nor comfortable. This is made worse by Hadi's arranging accommodations in an apartment complex his son Rushdi had urged him to purchase years before and which would have assured his wealth under the new and challenging circumstances. For the remainder of Hadi's life, Rushdi never allowed him to forget this mistake. Bibi ages and becomes more difficult as her children and grand-children become increasingly westernized and modern, while not understanding nor approving the changes she sees. The idyllic life of an influential family is replaced by the struggle to hold themselves together and re-create their life under bearable but difficult conditions. They move from London, to Lebanon, to Jordan, each time having to learn new ways of surviving.

Tamara Chalabi has obviously interviewed members of her family and lovingly recreates the world they lived in, at least in their own memories as well as conducted large amounts of un-credited reasearch. The contrast between the closely knit, loving, wealthy family and the nation torn asunder by sectarian, political, and economic forces creates a remarkable picture while clarifying much that most Americans find mysterious about life in the Middle East and Islam. In doing this, Chalabi provides a highly readable and very informative volume. The sections where she seeks to justify some of her father's later misdeeds are understandable and not very persuasive. Otherwise, this is an excellent, readable, and worthwhile book.

Latefor Read at the Deer Palace: The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family by Tamara Chalabi is published by Harper.Perennial and has a retail price of $15.99 in trade paperback. It was provided to me by the publisher through TLC BookTours. You can order it directly through my blog by clicking on any of the links or the book carousel. Thanks. 

Other Stops on Tamara Chalabi's Tour
 Tuesday, January 31st: BookNAround
Monday, February 6th: Books Like Breathing
Tuesday, February 7th: The Whimsical Cottage
Thursday, February 16th: Broken Teepee
Friday, February 17th: Boarding in My Forties
Tuesday, February 21st: A Bookish Affair
Wednesday, February 22nd: Man of La Book
Friday, February 24th: Book Club Classics!
Monday, February 27th: Bookstack
Tuesday, February 28th: Luxury Reading
TBD: Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorm
TBD: Library of Clean Reads

Monday, February 27, 2012

Dixieland Music Park Spring Festival, Waldo, FL - Review

U.S. 301 is a spur road for U.S. 1 running nearly 1100 miles from Glasgow, DE to Sarasota, FL, often sharing its number with other, more local highways.  With the advent of the major Interstate, limited access roads leading to Florida, it has become little used through much of its length. In north-central Florida it shoots straight through a rather charmless part of the state from Callahan to Ocala with little to capture a driver's imagination but the frequent speed changes designed to lull them into inattention before providing local police the opportunity to bust them for speeding, one of the only reliable sources of income in this region.  South of Starke, enlivened by the one of the largest state prisons, lies Waldo, a town with, apparently, no there there.  Dixieland RV Park lies on the southbound side across the street from the Waldo Flea Market and a newish Dollar General.  The Park, once quite run down and moribund, has been rescued and refurbished by local entrepreneur Greg Giffis and his wife Michelle, and regional bluegrass promoters Ernie and Debbie Evans hasve begun offering a re-imagined series of bluegrass festivals and other musical shows in the well-protected music shed dominating the property. Last weekend's show, the most successful since Ernie began producing shows here, brought together an enthusiastic crowd with a varied enough lineup to provide interest and a framework for enthusiastic participation by jammers and other bluegrass fans seeking an enjoyable bluegrass weekend. Now with full-hookups on most sites, Dixieland Music Park has become, once more, a solid place to spend a weekend of music or stop along your way.

Dixieland Music Park


 We arrived early on Monday afternoon to find some festival goers had already preceded us. Rigs kept rolling in each day, with the largest number appearing on Thursday afternoon and into Friday. Ernie, a long-time figure as both a promoter and performer, has kept in mind the need for bluegrass people to both hear and make music and provided an significant open mic period on Thursday evening as well as plenty of time all weekend for people to socialize at their rigs and jam in the field or the music shed.  The weather deteriorated on Saturday, but the covered and protected shed made continued enjoyment possible. In really chilly weather, very possible in north Florida in winter, the has plenty of heat to keep it warm.

Thursday - Open Mic

Members of the Stevens Family & Ernie Evans


 Country Karaoke Singer - Ray

Waiting for the Music to Begin

Generations Bluegrass
Taking its name from the Rogers family's four generation involvement in Florida bluegrass circles, the Generations Bluegrass Band offers a wide variety of familiar classic bluegrass covers well-loved by fans of traditional music who came to enjoy their show.

LeRon Rogers

 April Rogers

Katie Rogers

Bobby Martin

Ryan Clark

The Stevens Family

The Stevens Family, from West Virginia, performed on each day of the festival, including filling in many spots during Thursday's open mic, as well as providing sound for the event.  Best known as a gospel band, they have been broadening their repertoire and beginning to include original material.  Anchored by father J.W. on banjo on the banjo and the skilled and energetic Sissy on the other end playing bass, the band offers a range of music. Momma sings southern gospel with spirit and conviction.  Sons Luke and Ben on guitar and mandolin bring energy as well as comedy.  We missed their Sunday gospel set, which we understand featured wonderful four part gospel quartets.  The Stevens Family provided both music and enthusiasm as well as solid sound throughout the four day event.

J.W. Stevens
Ben Stevens

Luke Stevens
Sissy Stevens

The Stevens Family - Heart of a Coal Mining Man - Video

Ernie Evans

The Roys

The Roys are a brother-sister duo supported by a group of young pickers who've attracted a good deal of attention on Sirius/XM radio and sufficient sponsorship to provide them with a splashy tour bus, the sort of conveyance most struggling new bands can only dream of.  Their country/bluegrass fusion sound is pleasant, and much of their work is written by sister Elaine. "Trailblazer," her tribute to Dolly Parton, has received a lot of play.  They presented a single long set on Friday afternoon, stopping for the night on their way from Nashville, where they're based, to a performance in Miami. They spent plenty of time with their fines at their merch table and made a postive impact, both personally and musically, on the audience. 

 Lee Roy

Elaine Roy

Clint White
Sterling Masat

Zac Hardin

 Harry Clark

The Roys - Lonesome Whistle - Video

The Gary Waldrep Band

Gary Waldrep is a veteran entertainer who has developed and maintained a strong fan base throughout the southeast and deserves a wider national audience. His show combines a strong combination of traditional bluegrass music and fervant gospel bluegrass. His audiences frequently request his signature song "Thomas." He's well supported by a band consisting of long-time singer/guitarist Mindy Rakestraw, who has a strong, vibrant voice. Donna and Kenny Townsell, Waldrep's aunt and uncle have been with his band for several years, and newcomer Mickey Boles on mandolin contributed well in his first gig with the band.  Waldrep is a fine banjo player in both Scruggs style and the more traditional clawhammer style. He's entertaining and pleasant from the stage. 

Gary Waldrep

Mindy Rakestraw
Kenny Townsell

Donna Townsell

Mickey Boles

Gary Waldrep - Thomas - Video

Hwy 41 South

This increasingly popular SW Florida band has played at three of the four festivals we've attended in Florida this year. Leader Mark Horn on mandolin has drawn together a group of solid performers who enjoy the scene and communicate their love for traditional bluegrass standards. The audiences have responded with warmth and acceptance. They work hard and give good value.

Mark Horn
J.R. Davis
Dave Beaumont

Robert Feathers

Donnie Harvey

Ernie Evans & the Florida State Bluegrass Band

In addition to being a promoter as well as a local and online worldwide radio host with his wife Debbie, Ernie Evans is an accomplished performer who's toured with national bands and fronted several of his own bands over the years. The Florida State Bluegrass Band is the strongest of his groups we've heard, offering plenty of straight bluegrass along with some jazz and swing numbers, too.  
Ernie Evans

Deb Evans
 Isaac Taylor

 Mike Downey

 Nate Lee


Harvin Carter & W.a. Pate

Clint & Kalyn Wilson

The Wilson Family Band
 The Wilson Family Band is growing up. Clint and Kalyn are married and living in Valdosta where Clint will soon finish college and Kalyn begin. Katie is driving and has a boyfriend. Robert and Melissa, having done the majority of their work as strong and loving parents know when to let go.  The band is better than ever. Their singing has improved with the increasing maturity of the kids' voices. Robert still has one of the great unrecognized bluegrass voices. Their playing is tight and consistent.  When Kalyn joins them on stage, she adds a new and welcome flavor to the mix.  

Robert Wilson

Melissa Wilson

Clint Wilson

Katie Elizabeth Wilson

Kalyn Wilson

Bruce Sheriden

The Little Roy & Lizzy Show

Little Roy Lewis celebrated his seventieth birthday this weekend, on the road as he has been for over sixty years doing what he does best - entertain.  Along with protege and musical partner Lizzy Long, the new show is broader and more relaxed in many ways than his work has ever been.  He's still a whirlwind of energy and musicianship. The show features songs new to his repertoire and well-chosen to showcase Lizzy's many talents. They're supported by a strong, reliable band.  Catch them when you can.

 Little Roy Lewis

 Lizzy Long

 Lisa Hoyle
Al Hoyle

Nathan Stewart

Happy Birthday Little Roy!
 Photo by W.a. Pate

Photo by W.a. Pate


The weekend closed on Sunday with gospel performances from the Stevens Family and Jackie Hill & Blue Shades of Grass as the rain came and fans packed up, heading home to try to catch the race at Daytona, which was washed out. All told, it was a good weekend with many musical and personal highlights for those attending.