She is somehow, thirty-nine and a half years old; her parents are dead; she has never been married,” speaks the narrator in Crescent, Diana Abu-Jaber’s latest novel. While Crescent tells the very real story of a woman nearing 40 who finds herself questioning just how it is she neared this point in her life without once having approached marriage, the author pursues a much larger story, one that explores a life lived between two cultures, Arab and American.
The main character, Sirine, is the child of an Iraqi immigrant. Abu-Jaber, who is Jordanian-American, has interestingly chosen to present an Arab-American character with blonde hair and light eyes, in an attempt to address skin color and race and put a spin on preconceived notions about Arabs and Arab-Americans. This is the platform from which she leaps, intricately weaving the richness of culture, the often unanswerable questions of politics, the social dynamics found in assimilating between two starkly different cultures, and a type of ancient storytelling.
Most of the action takes place at a Los Angeles restaurant called Um-Nadia’s Café, where Sirine works as the sensually appealing chef, a la Laura Esquivel and Like Water for Chocolate. Sirine recalls, “Father and Mother loving through making baklawa,” and the narrator’s voice enhances the memory: “Their concerted movements like a dance; they swam together through the round arcs of her mother’s arms and her father’s tender strokes.” Abu-Jaber continues with tantalizing descriptions of culinary treats that have us reading about grape leaves bursting into mouths.
In Um-Nadia’s Café, we find Sirine in a near-dance state as she prepares food and attends to the tables, placing plates of hummus with pools of olive oil swimming on top in front of the often adoring clientele, made up mostly of Arab or Arab-American students and professors from a nearby university. But the complexities of Middle Eastern politics are ever-present: “Even though Um-Nadia’s Café is in the Iranian neighborhood, there are few Iranian customers,” Abu-Jaber writes. “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.”
Among the clientele is an occasional American, including Nathan Green, the eccentric, tall, thin, strangely quiet photographer whose work affects Sirine in a haunting and unsettling way. “The photos bother Sirine: they remind her of times she’s known she was dreaming and couldn’t wake herself up.” The narrator speaks of Nathan’s floating state in the world, unsure as he speaks, “But now—sometimes it’s like I can hardly sit in this chair, I can hardly walk on the ground. I’m made out of powder… lots of people are like that. Like powder.”
Nathan’s almost ethereal, seemingly ungrounded character is a powerful foil to the strong, dynamic, charismatic Han, the hero of sorts in this novel. The author appears to seek a discourse between two cultures through the dialogue between two friends, one American and one Arab. Nathan is enchanted, entranced, almost hypnotized, with the Arabic traditions. It’s as if he’s looking for a more ancient culture, as if he’s attempting to grab onto the sacredness of lost tradition.
There’s plenty of tradition to latch onto in Um-Nadia’s Café. But there’s also plenty of unsettling discourse. We overhear snippets of conversation about the first Gulf War. We hear Sirine speak of “the mysterious, crumbling monuments,” describing a time when Iran sent over exploding rockets into Iraq. There are flashbacks to Falafel Faraoh’s, an earlier incarnation of Um-Nadia’s Café, and a time when CIA agents showed up to ask the Egyptian owner’s cook “if he knew of any terrorist schemes developing in the Arab-American community.”
“The poor man’s eyes grew round, his hands grew slippery with sweat and grease,” writes Abu-Jaber. “[H]e saw the twin images of his own frightened face in the dark lenses of one of the stranger’s glasses. He’d never heard of such a thing… he thought he was living in America.” After hearing of this story, Sirine “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 the conversation shifts, and we hear Aziz, the Syrian poet from Damascus, and the others, reciting poetry in Arabic and English, volleying lines from Mahmood Darweesh, Adonis, and Whitman while slowly sipping demitasse cups of thick Arabic coffee and smoking an occasional cigarette whenever Um-Nadia, the owner, allows.
It is in this small world of the café that Han and Sirine begin their tentative courtship. Abu-Jaber creates a compelling dialogue when it comes to the tensions of love: the initial glances, the awkward attempts at first conversations, the first movements into a sensual verbal and physical dialogue, and the journeys into seemingly forbidden but all-consuming relationships. Throughout the book, it is this dialogue that resonates the clearest. I often found myself smiling or chuckling in agreement or understanding, recalling similar awkward moments. Though Sirine seems at one moment eager to fall in love with Han, the narrator reminds us that “She’s never quite understood how people could trade in quiet spaces and solitary gardens and courtyards, thoughtful walks and the delicious rhythms of work, for the fearful tumult of falling in love.”
Although the novel is clearly centered around a current-day love relationship, Sirine’s uncle regularly weaves in an oddly associated story about his favorite cousin, Abdelrahman Salahadin. He begins this association by starting his tale, “It’s the story of how to love”; it’s about “the strength and fearfulness of desire.” The ancient love story parallels Han and Sirine’s, though before long, it becomes fable-like and could be perceived as slightly intangible. But children and grandchildren of Middle-Eastern immigrants often hear their fathers or grandfathers enter these extended tales where metaphor is large and realism is nearly forgotten. These swellef are familiar to most Arabs, the long tradition of storytelling, analogies and morals, and seeing the world through a larger scope. Abu-Jaber begins most chapters with this type of story. While some readers may find the parallel intriguing, others may find it a diversion.
Throughout the novel Abu-Jaber is sensitive to the delicacy and artistry of the various languages spoken by her characters. She refers to “the refined cadences of Farsi… it is comforting and delightful and deeply familiar—the immigrants’ special language of longing and nostalgia.” The narrator gracefully explains Sirine’s attraction to Arabic, “She grew up around Arabic conversation and she feels the presence of Arabic somewhere behind her mind, like a ghost language—crisp, clear, and ocean-blank.” Han states, “You stare at the pages and know what everything means, in both languages, and you wonder how on earth to make both languages—with all their history and innuendo—mean the same thing.” Diana Abu-Jaber travels the lines of two cultures, through two stories, in one book. It is Han who reminds us, “Not only do you have to translate the words, you also have to try and translate the feelings and ideas for all kinds of things from one culture to another—like what faith or courage is.” And that’s precisely what Abu-Jaber has done.
Marian Haddad is the author of Somewhere between Mexico and a River Called Home, a collection of poetry to be published by Pecan Grove Press next month. She lives in San Francisco.