by Diana Abu-Jaber
An Iraqi love feast spiced with despair
A review by Ron Charles
Diana Abu-Jaber couldn't have imagined that we'd be reading her lush romance
about lonely Iraqis by the light of Baghdad burning. Her publisher must be nervous
about the political climate, but it's refreshing to see Iraqis outside "the
axis of evil." In Crescent, they're struck by Cupid's arrows instead
of Tomahawk missiles.
The story takes place in Los Angeles, but like the rest of us at the moment,
every character is fixated on the Middle East. Arab students and professors
congregate at Nadia's Café, a Lebanese restaurant where they can linger over
foreign newspapers, argue about poetry, and drink coffee without being cautioned,
"This Beverage Is Extremely Hot!"
"Everything about these young men seemed infinitely vulnerable and tender,"
Abu-Jaber writes, in one of many passages rendered more poignant by the current
crisis. They're all consumed with loneliness, and they're all bashfully in love
with the chef, Sirine. "She is so kind and gentle-voiced and her food is
so good that the students cannot help themselves they sit at the tables,
leaning toward her."
She hasn't left West Hollywood for years, but from her Iraqi father, she learned how to conjure up the aromas of their lost desert home. Cookbooks have been her only travel guides. At 39, she knows far more about spices than politics. Orphaned as a little girl, she's been living with a kindly uncle who teaches in the Near Eastern Studies department at the university.
In his own gentle way, he encourages her to get married, and her distressingly
slow progress in that direction is the subject of considerable discussion and
analysis by the cafe staff. "She's always had more men in her life than
she's known what to do with," the narrator explains, but somehow nothing
ever comes of it. "She's never broken up with anyone, she just loses track
Then, as must always happen when we've established that the woman is beyond
reach, in walks The One. In this case, he's Han, a strikingly good-looking,
moderately famous Near East scholar. But as soon as Sirine spots him, she "thinks
spinster and hugs her elbows." This modest cafe chef would never
dream of attracting the attention of a world-renowned intellectual who leaves
devoted followers in his wake. But he's captivated by her, and before long,
they're cooking together.
That's not a Monitoresque euphemism: They're actually cooking together.
But one of the great pleasures of this sensitive novel is the way Abu-Jaber
stirs these culinary metaphors. "The ingredients inside Han and herself
called to each other," she writes, "like the way ingredients in a
dish speak to each other, a taste of ginger vibrates with something like desire
beside a bit of garlic, or the way a sip of wine might call to the olive oil
in a dish." Indeed, when Abu-Jaber describes them making baklava together,
it's a lot more erotic than what passes for love scenes in most modern novels.
With a little more zaniness, this could have been My Big Fat Iraqi Wedding,
but Abu-Jaber prepares a more complex dish that's equal parts romantic comedy,
political protest, fairy tale, and cultural analysis. As one of the cafe patrons
notes, in Iraq "everything's sort of folded up and layered."
Indeed, the sweet humor that Crescent delivers so deftly is richly complemented
by its exploration of loneliness.
With her characteristic melodrama, the cafe owner says, "The loneliness
of the Arab is a terrible thing; it is all-consuming. It is already present
like a little shadow under the heart when he lays his head on his mother's lap;
it threatens to swallow him whole when he leaves his own country, even though
he marries and travels and talks to friends 24 hours a day."
Abu-Jaber whips up a troubling argument about the way American efficiency aggravates
Sirine's uncle complains that in the US, "people just talk all day long
on their phone, their computer, and no one ever lays eyes on each other."A
patron in the cafe asks, "Why does no one in America recite poetry? They
go to the coffeehouse and they just drink the coffee."
As Sirine gets closer to Han, she comes to realize how starved he is for the
sustenance of his homeland. "I miss everything," he tells her in a
moment of anguish, "absolutely everything. The fact of exile is bigger
than everything else in my life. Leaving my country was like I don't know
like part of my body was torn away. I have phantom pains from the loss of
that part I'm haunted by myself."
Slowly, she gathers pieces of his tragic history, his escape from Iraq and
his family's ghastly fate under Saddam Hussein. Even knowing she can't fill
that void, she makes an attempt, grasping after pieces of her father's Iraqi
past, investigating Islam, and struggling to immerse herself in the political
news she's always ignored.
Han assures her, "You are the place I want to be you're the opposite
of exile," but her uncle warns her that the cure for such loneliness is
not so easy. "When we leave our home,"he says, "we fall in love
with our sadness." Indeed, the demons pulling at Han are stronger than
she feared, and the novel begins to veer away from its comic tone toward the
horror of Saddam's rule and the ferocity of America's response.
At the same time, Abu-Jaber broadens her exploration of exile to include all
the various ways we're bereft of home by the death of parents, the separation
from lovers, the hunger for lost childhood. Gradually, we come to see that every
character in this story Iraqi, American, and Arab-American is banished
by guilt, exiled to sadness by a sentence that can't be lifted by imperial decree
or regime change.
Abu-Jaber captures this despair with exquisite care, but her heart belongs
to romance, not tragedy. The allusions to Othello that waft through the
story eventually give way to the uncle's outlandish fairy tale. This is a tough
time to consider the artistic and culinary beauty of Iraq, but as one of the
cafe patrons says, "Americans need to know about the big, dark, romantic
soul of the Arab." Readers stuffed on headlines but still hungering for
something relevant will enjoy this rich meal.
is the Monitor's book editor. Send
comments about the book section.
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