Crescent, by Diana Abu-Jaber
Diana Abu-Jaber currently teaches at Portland State University's Department of English.
Diana Abu-Jaber's new book, Crescent, combines romance, folk tales and current events to illustrate the Arab-American immigrant experience. Set against the backdrop of a Los Angeles community of Iranian and Iraqi immigrants and exiles, the story is about an Iraqi-American woman, Sirine, who falls in love with Hanif, an Iraqi exile. NPR's Renee Montagne speaks with Abu-Jaber about her novel and its inspirations.
One of those inspirations is clearly food. Abu-Jaber suffuses Crescent with dishes and aromas from the Middle East. "I do believe that food is one of the most immediate and most convincing ways of explaining cultural experience to another person, " she tells Montagne. "I could speak whole paragraphs about the Middle East, but I'd rather give somebody a shish-kabob... I would rather feed someone, because I do feel that you can't help but have a kind of insight that comes, not only intellectually, but also emotionally and physically, from that experience of breaking bread together."
Below is an excerpt from the first chapter of Crescent.
Sirine learned how to cook professionally working as a line cook and then a sous chef in the kitchens of French, Italian, and "Californian" restaurants. But when she moved to Nadia's Café, she went through her parents' old recipes and began cooking the favorite — but almost forgotten — dishes of her childhood. She felt as if she were returning to her parents' tiny kitchen and her earliest memories.
And the customers quickly returned to the restaurant, only this time there were many exchange students and immigrants from the Middle East. Sirine rolled out dough early in the morning in her open kitchen behind the counter and discreetly watched the students sipping coffee, studying the newspapers, and having arguments. Everything about these young men seemed infinitely vulnerable and tender: their dense curling lashes, soft round noses and full lips, winnowed-away faces and chests.
Sometimes she used to scan the room and imagine the word terrorist. But her gaze ran over the faces and all that came back to her were words like lonely, and young.
Occasionally, a student would linger at the counter talking to Sirine. He would tell her how painful it is to be an immigrant — even if it was what he'd wanted all his life — sometimes especially if it was what he'd wanted all his life. Americans, he would tell her, don't have the time or the space in their lives for the sort of friendship — days of coffee-drinking and talking — that the Arab students craved. For many of them the café was a little flavor of home.
At Nadia's Café, there is a TV tilted in the corner above the cash register, permanently tuned to the all-Arabic station, with news from Qatar, variety shows and a shopping channel from Kuwait, endless Egyptian movies, Bedouin soap operas in Arabic, and American soap operas with Arabic subtitles. There is a group of regulars who each have their favorite shows and dishes and who sit at the same tables as consistently as if they were assigned. There are Jenoob, Gharb, and Schmaal — engineering students from Egypt; Shark, a math student from Kuwait; Lon Hayden, the chair of Near Eastern Studies; Morris who owns the newsstand; Raphael-from-New-Jersey; Jay, Ron, and Troy from the Kappa Something Something fraternity house; Odah, the Turkish butcher, and his many sons. There are two American policemen — one white and one black — who come to the café every day, order fava bean dip and lentils fried with rice and onions, and have become totally entranced by the Bedouin soap opera plotlines involving ancient blood feuds, bad children, and tribal honor. There are students who come religiously, appearing at the counter with their newspapers almost every day for years, until the day they graduate and disappear, never to be seen again. And then there are the students who never graduate.
Even though Nadia's Café is in the middle of an Iranian neighborhood, there are few Iranian customers. After the long, bitter war between Iraq and Iran, some of Um-Nadia's Iranian neighbors refused to enter the café because of Sirine, the Iraqi-American chef. Still, Khoorosh, the Persian owner of the Victory Market up the street, appeared on Sirine's first day of work announcing that he was ready to forgive the Iraqis on behalf of the Iranians. He stood open-mouthed when he saw white-blond Sirine, then finally blurted out, "Well, look at what Iraq has managed to produce!" He asked if she knew how to make the Persian specialty khoresht fessenjan, his favorite walnut and pomegranate stew, and when she promised to learn, he returned later in the day and presented her with a potted pomegranate tree.
Sirine wears her hair tied back but still it hangs in damp tendrils all over, in the corner of her mouth, in her eyes. She works and listens to the bells ringing over the door, the door banging, conversations surging into argument and back again. There is always so much noise; there are birds arguing in the tree outside the kitchen window. Life is an argument! Um-Nadia says. When Sirine laughs and asks, what are they fighting about? Um-Nadia says, what else? The world.
Sirine looks up, past the hood of the heat lamp, watching customers fill the tables. More students, stripling-thin, faces narrowed with exhaustion, loneliness, and talking. She is frying onions and working on two dishes at once, chopping eggplant and stirring the leben — a delicate mellow yogurt sauce that needs constant stirring or it will break — and she watches the argument at the latest table. Four of them, including Hanif Al Eyad, have just come in. Rectangles of light pass over them from the windows in the door as it opens and closes. There are voices blurring and unblurring, complicated gestures, winding hands and arms. It sounds like the same sort of argument the students are always having-about America, the Middle East, and who is wronging whom — this time it's in Arabic, sometimes it's in English, usually it's a little of both.
She's noticed that Hanif frequently has an entourage of students in his wake, young men — and some women — who tentatively follow him, asking his opinion of things. Her main impressions of Hanif are of his hair, straight and shiny as black glass, and of a faint tropical sleepiness to his eyes. And there is his beautiful, lightly accented, fluid voice, dark as chocolate. His accent has nuances of England and Eastern Europe, like a complicated sauce.
Sirine has just turned from the leben to the eggplant when Hanif bursts into English, "Of course I love Iraq, Iraq is my home — and there is, of course, no going home — " and then back into Arabic.
She looks at him, the white of his teeth, the silky dram of skin, cocoa-bean brown. He's well built, tall, and strong. He laughs and the others follow his laughter. Um-Nadia has stationed herself beside him. Standing, one hip against the table, she holds her hand out as if she will curl her knuckles right through his hair. She sighs, tilts one foot on its shiny worn heel, then pats the puffed top of her own hair. She looks over, still smiling, to Sirine behind the counter, and says, "Roasted lamb, rice and pine nuts, tabbouleh salad, apricot juice." Then she blows a kiss.
Hanif glances at Sirine. She looks down, quick, a bunch of parsley pinched in her fingertips, rocks the big cleaver through a profusion of green leaves, onions, cracked wheat. Suddenly she remembers the leben and hurries to the big potful of yogurt sauce, which is just on the verge of curdling.
Reprinted from Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber. Copyright (c) 2003 by Diana Abu-Jaber. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.