Reading Group Guide for Day of Honey (also available at http://books.simonandschuster.com/Day-of-Honey/Annia-Ciezadlo/9781416583936/reading_group_guide)This reading group guide for Day of Honey includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Annia Ciezadlo.
The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find
new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that
these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of
In the fall of
2003, Annia Ciezadlo spent her honeymoon in Baghdad. Determined to make a
life and a career in the Middle East with her new Lebanese husband,
Annia spent the next six years in Beirut and Baghdad, cooking and eating
with Shiites and Sunnis, refugees and warlords, matriarchs and mullahs.
It is from these meals that Annia discovers what she calls a "shadow
war"—a hidden conflict that slowly destroys lives, divides families, and
poisons daily life. In war zones, the precious ordinariness of cooking
takes on new meaning. From hurried meals accompanied by gunfire to
lavish family feasts, Annia discovers that civilians use food to feed
the soul as much as the body in times of war. QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
- Day of Honey opens with an introduction, titled "The Siege,"
that takes place soon after 9/11 in New York City. Why do you think
Annia begins her memoir here, with a taxi ride down Brooklyn's Atlantic
Avenue? How does this introduction set the scene for the rest of the
- One important theme of Day of Honey is the
question of home. Do you agree with Annia that "home could be something
you made instead of the place where you lived" (p. 24)? Is home a fixed
location, or is it a movable feast?
- Discuss the relationship between Annia's nomadic teenage years
and her personal connection to food. Do you think Annia's travels
through America influenced her experience in the Middle East?
- "How do you like Beirut?" (p. 34). It's the question everyone
asks Annia during her first visit to her future home. What are Annia's
first impressions of Beirut? Which of the city's pleasures does she
discover right away, and which does she find later, as a resident?
- Annia identifies what she refers to as a "shadow conflict" in
times of war that she defines as "the slow but relentless destruction of
everyday civilian life" (p. 8). Of all the everyday freedoms that are
lost in Baghdad and Beirut, which loss seems the most tragic? Which of
Annia's new friends and acquaintances fall victim to this "shadow war,"
and which manage to adapt during times of conflict?
- Compare Annia's childhood to Mohamad's. How were their early
environments different, and how were they similar? What challenges did
each of them face growing up? What factors made each of them a
"reluctant nomad (p. 25)"?
- On page 265, Annia writes: "You are reading my account of one
war—my imperfect memories of what I saw and felt and did. Others had
their own perceptions and their own realities." What does she mean by
this? Is she writing as a journalist, or a human being, or both?
- When Annia arrives in Baghdad, she finds that most outsiders
describe Iraqi food as "the real weapon of mass destruction" (p. 66).
Why does Annia take this as a personal challenge, and how does she prove
them wrong? Why have outsiders misjudged Iraqi cuisine?
- Discuss the theme of hospitality in Day of Honey. How
does Annia react to this Middle Eastern tradition? Annia learns early on
to "never, ever turn down a meal" (p. 113). What kinds of homes, meals,
and dangers does Annia encounter as a result?
- Consider the story of Roaa, Annia's translator who grew up in
war-torn Iraq. How does Roaa feel about her country's history and its
prospects for the future? Do you think Roaa and her husband, now living
in Colorado, will ever be able to "make" themselves settle down, as Roaa
puts it (p. 318)? Why or why not?
- According to Annia, "My idea of paradise is more like Mutanabbi
Street, in Baghdad's old city: an entire city street with no cars, just
books and cafÉs" (p. 105). How does Mutanabbi Street demonstrate
Iraqis' love for the written word? What solace does Annia find on
Mutanabbi Street, and why must she eventually stop going there? Have you
ever encountered a city, street, or place that felt like your idea of
- Annia was living in Baghdad when Saddam Hussein was finally
captured. How do Annia's Iraqi friends respond to this historical event?
Annia writes, "The flavor of freedom was more complex, more bitter than
we imagined" (p. 120). Did Annia's account of the United State's
occupation of Iraq change your perspective or understanding of current
- Discuss the unique challenges that women—the "face of
Iraq"—must contend with (p. 140). Why is Dr. Salama, a popular female
politician, a complicated spokeswoman for women's rights in Iraq? What
does Annia learn about Iraqi women and politics from her conversations
with Dr. Salama? How did you react to these events in the book?
- Consider the strong personality of Umm Hassane, Annia's
mother-in-law. What are Annia's first impressions of Umm Hassane, and
how does Annia's opinion of her mother-in-law evolve over the course of
the book? What can we learn about Umm Hassane's character from her
cooking style? How does Annia find "the real story" of the war by
cooking with Umm Hassane (p. 275)? Does Umm Hassane remind you of anyone
- Discuss the early years of Annia and Mohamad's marriage. What
are the main sources of tension in their relationship? Were you able to
relate to their everyday squabbles? Why or why not? Why do you think she
includes these incidents in her accounts of historic events?
- Why does Annia return to Beirut in the fall of 2007, after
Mohamad finds a job in New York? What do you think Mohamad means when he
says, "the war would never end...you ended it yourself" (p. 313)? How
does Annia manage to end her dangerous attachment to Beirut?
- Move your book club to the kitchen and try out one of Annia's
delicious recipes! Decide in advance which dish to try, and ask each
member of your book club to bring ingredients. When it's time to eat,
wish everyone "Sahtain!"
- Annia imagines an "edible map" of Beirut, with all her favorite
shops and restaurants marked (p. 178). Make an "edible map" of where
you live by marking your top food spots on a map of your town. Compare
your edible map with other member's maps from your book club.
- Annia states that every city has its own question—Beirut's is
"How do you like Beirut?" while New York City's is "What do you do?"
Discuss this idea with your group and decide on a question that embodies
your own city or countryside.
- Donate to a charity that helps citizens in Iraq. For a list of
effective organizations working in Iraq, visit the website of the
American Institute of Philanthropy: http://www.charitywatch.org/hottopics/iraqaid.html. You can also volunteer to help Iraqi refugees in America by contacting the International Rescue Committee.
- To read more by Annia Ciezadlo, including many of the articles she wrote in Baghdad and Beirut, visit her website at http://www.anniaciezadlo.com.
A CONVERSATION WITH ANNIA CIEZADLOPlease
tell us how you chose the title for your book. What does the Arabic
proverb "day of honey, day of onions" mean to you? Where did you first
learn or hear of this saying?
It's from an old Arabic saying that goes youm aasl, youm basl
of honey, day of onions. I don't remember exactly where I first heard
it, but I've seen people use it in a multitude of ways: sometimes to
comfort each other, at other times ironically. It's hopeful and cynical
at the same time.
One day might be sweet, the next bitter, but
you keep going. You taste the honey while you can. For me, it sums up a
wise, beleaguered optimism that the Palestinian writer Emile Habiby
: that no matter how bad things get, you don't
lose your faith in human nature. Or your deep conviction that something
disastrous is just about to happen. When did you start writing Day of Honey? How did you decide to focus your book on the struggles of everyday life in Beirut and Baghdad?
was July of 2005. I was standing at the sink—the tiny little sink I
wrote about in the book—washing dishes and thinking about how different
Lebanon was from how I'd pictured it. Our tiny kitchen was stuffed with zaatar
and wild arugula that I'd bought from Umm Adnan, the woman who sold
wild greens on the sidewalk in our neighborhood, and gorgeous little
intense tomatoes, and it suddenly struck me: What if Americans could see
this side of life in Lebanon, not to mention the entire Middle East?
The side of Lebanon that's ridiculously generous, down-to-earth, and
lush—the side we so rarely see depicted, because we're focusing on
militants and conflict. I had been writing mostly political analysis out
of Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, because that's what most editors wanted.
But readers are always interested in the little details that make up the
fabric of everyday life: What do people look like? What do they eat?
What do they talk about over the dinner table? What are their hopes,
fears, and dreams? I realized that if I wrote about these things it
would translate the abstraction of Middle Eastern politics into
something that people would be able to relate to. So the idea for the
book literally came from the kitchen sink. When did you first realize that you had a personal story to tell?
kept a diary the whole time I was in the Middle East (some days more
faithfully than others). But I was always more interested in other
people's stories than my own—which is probably why I became a
journalist. With Day of Honey,
I realized that I had to tell my
own story in order to write about the people whose lives I shared in
Beirut and Baghdad. As an American woman married to a Lebanese man, I
had access to a world of families and domestic life that most foreigners
never get to see. Food was a window into that world: the dinner table
was where I would learn new words, hear new opinions, where people would
open up. Writing about meals was a way of letting readers get a glimpse
of this unseen world, which I had the unique privilege of being able to
see as both an insider and an outsider at the same time. Telling my own
story was a way to introduce other people's stories and points of view
in a way that was more natural, and more honest, than pretending to be a
fly on the wall. Although most of your memoir takes
place in the Middle East, many of the problems you face will sound
familiar to American readers, from apartment hunts to in-laws. How much
of Day of Honey do you think your readers will be able to relate to?
lot, I think. America is going through a wave of foreclosures right now
that is unlike anything we've seen since the Great Depression. There's a
big difference between losing your home in a war and losing it in a
financial collapse, but there are some similarities too. You have to
move, perhaps to a strange city, and re-adjust. You or your children
have to start new schools, make new friends, and go through the
homesickness of that lonely adjustment period. So I think that aspect of
the book is something a lot of Americans will be able to relate to
right now. During my teenaged years, when I was moving around a lot, I
would go to the public library and stock up on books about the American
civil war, or ancient Greece, or World War II, or even novels like The Lord of the Rings
trilogy. Reading about people living through times of upheaval made me
feel less alone—less singled out by hard times or disaster, and more in
awe of people who had much bigger problems than mine. So if readers have
a similar reaction to Day of Honey
, that would make me very happy. Day of Honey
includes so many voices in addition to your own. Which of your
relatives and friends in the Middle East will be getting a copy of the
book? Has anybody objected to the way you portrayed him or her?
will get a copy, but not all of them can read it. Umm Hassane doesn't
speak any English, so we'll have to translate or paraphrase it for her.
But I think she'll like seeing the beautiful cover photo (which was
taken by my friend Barbara Massaad, the fabulous Lebanese cookbook
writer). After the manuscript was finished, but before it came out, I
showed it to some of my friends from Beirut and Baghdad. They loved it,
but it was hard for them to read. It brought back memories of wars they
had lived through. A couple of them called me in tears while they were
reading it. It was a good reminder for me that words have a great deal
of power, and you have to be mindful of their impact on other people. Besides the rich data of your personal experience, what kind of research did you conduct before writing Day of Honey?
too much! This is probably thanks to my background as a journalist,
where it's normal do about ten times more research and reporting than
what you actually end up putting in your article. If I've learned
anything from living through these historic events in the Middle East,
it's that you have to know the history in order to understand the latest
headlines coming out of the Middle East. That's part of the reason I
put so much history in Day of Honey
So in addition to the
hundreds of people I interviewed in my years in the Middle East, I also
spent three years researching food and Middle Eastern history. I read
books about the topography of medieval Baghdad, classical Arabic food
poetry, and ancient Mesopotamian beer. I went on a history bender. I
read a history of salt (by the magnificently obsessive Mark Kurlansky)
and a history of sugar (Sidney Mintz's brilliant Sweetness and Power
A lot of these books are included in the bibliography; if you want to
geek out on Middle Eastern food and history, it's a good place to start.What
surprised you most about Beirut and Baghdad? How did your view of the
Middle East change after living there for over six years?
get most of our images of the Middle East from wars. A bomb goes off,
the television crews go film it, and we see people jumping up and down
and shouting and waving their fists. No wonder we think they hate us.
But most of the ordinary people I met, with a few exceptions, didn't
hate Americans. Quite the reverse—they would often ask me, with genuine
puzzlement, why we
hated them. It was such a perfect reversal of the stereotype that sometimes I almost had to laugh.
people in the Middle East are deeply angry about U.S. foreign policy.
But almost everyone I met in Baghdad, Damascus, or Beirut—with a few
notable exceptions—made the crucial distinction between our country's
government and its people. That's a distinction we don't always make
with them. But I think we should. And that's why I focused on the
ordinary people whose voices are often drowned out by militants or
demagogues.Did you have culture shock on moving to the Middle East?
was a fascinating place because it was frozen in time—under Saddam
Hussein, it was cut off from the rest of the world for decades. After
the American invasion, it was opened up to the rest of the world, and in
a sense everyone in Iraq had culture shock. Beirut is different. It's
wordly, sophisticated, and yet traditional
at the same time. In Beirut, my friends would always warn me not to be taken in by the city's cosmopolitanism.
example, I would often be surprised to hear young people with college
degrees, who were intelligent and well-traveled, and otherwise liberal,
speak against interfaith marriage. And I heard this from both Christians
One of the hardest things was reminding myself that
even though people might look familiar, sound familiar, and eat grape
leaves that taste like my grandmother's, they had completely different
histories and associations than mine. People all over the world want the
same things: to grow up, get an education, get married and have kids
and give them a good life. But they want them in different ways. I might
not agree with a Muslim woman who wants Islamic law, or a Christian man
who's opposed to interfaith marriage. But I think it's important to
understand why they might want these things, and that it doesn't
necessarily make them bad people.What was it like being an American woman in the Middle East?
ask me that a lot. I'd like to say that I struggled terribly, but the
truth is that, for a reporter, being female was actually a tremendous
competitive advantage. People find you less threatening. They're quicker
to let their guard down and reveal what they really think. They're more
likely to invite you into their homes and introduce you to their
families. Being female gives you incredible access to that unseen world
of private life that most Americans never glimpse. When was the last
time you read a substantial article about Iraqi women's political
rights? Or a long magazine profile about someone like Dr. Salama
al-Khafaji—and trust me, the Middle East is full of women as remarkable
as her? I see them as the real story, and I think a lot of Americans
want to read that untold story. Which is why I wrote this book.It's
clear in the memoir that your Greek- and Polish-American heritage
influenced both your point of view and your palate. Have you considered
writing more about the experiences and recipes of your life before the
Yes, absolutely. I never started out thinking "I
want to go cover wars in the Middle East." I began my career as a
journalist writing for a tiny community-based newspaper in upstate New
York. We covered everything from housing scandals and local government
to parking tickets. I went to journalism school because I wanted to keep
doing that kind of reporting—about city politics, and small-time
corruption, and the daily struggles of ordinary people against the
forces of bureaucracy and greed. These are stories you can find
anywhere, all over the world, including here in the USA. I could write a
whole book just about my grandparents, never mind the extraordinary
people I've met over the years. I'll keep writing these kinds of stories
as long as people want to read them. How do you describe
your varied writing career—do you identify yourself as a memoirist, a
journalist, a food writer, a war correspondent, or something else?
All of the above. In
the mouth-watering recipes you provide at the end of your book, you
encourage the reader, "Invent your own (p. 337)." How much have you
strayed from tradition in these Middle Eastern recipes? What do you find
rewarding about inventing your own versions?
I like to improvise. When I'm cooking for myself, I'll try anything. But I've changed the recipes in Day of Honey
only very slightly from the originals—enough to make them a little more
familiar, and to suggest variations. For example, Umm Hassane doesn't
put carrot and celery in her chicken stock, only onions. And people in
Lebanon, with some exceptions, don't use nearly as much spice or hot
pepper as we're accustomed to in the United States. But I kept
alterations to a minimum—far, far less than I would normally do at
home—because I wanted readers to taste the flavors that I write about in
But while these are mostly Umm Hassane's traditional
recipes, I think it's important to note that no tradition is set in
stone. There is no one "Lebanese" version of mjadara
: Umm Hassane's mjadara
is different from Aunt Khadija's, which is different from Batoul's, and
that's just the variation within one family. People from two different
parts of Lebanon will disagree passionately over the true, correct, and
"traditional" way to make kibbeh nayeh
—and each may say the other
is wrong, but in fact they're both correct. I was sitting at a table
once with some friends in Beirut, and I asked them what their definition
was. There were five of us at the table, and each one
of us had a completely different version. It was a perfect illustration
of the old saying about four Lebanese having five opinions—equally true
with politics or food. You chronicle all sorts of flavors in Day of Honey, from delectable meze to celebratory pudding. Of the recipes you provide to readers, which do you make most often?
I make it all the time. I change it according to what's in season,
what's in my pantry, and how I feel that day. In the spring I might
throw in shaved fennel or red bell peppers. In the winter I make it with
pomegranate seeds instead of tomatoes. Or maybe avocado. Just don't
tell Umm Hassane!