(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie JAN 29, 2006)
Sirine is the superb chef at Nadia's Cafe, a Lebanese restaurant in a small Near Eastern community in Los Angeles, near UCLA. The menu proclaims "Real True Arab Food," and the ethnic cuisine, scented with exotic spices and tasting of home, comforts and inspires the Arab and Iranian expatriates who eat here and live, work and study nearby. The food is actually so delicious that non-Middle Easterners frequent the restaurant also.
Sirine is a lovely, intelligent woman, who could have married at many points in her life. However, at age thirty-nine she is still single and not looking to change her civil status. Her father was Iraqi, her mother American. Together they worked for the Red Cross, and together they died in Africa when Sirene was just nine years-old. Her beloved Iraqi uncle, her father's brother, has cared for her ever since. Although she doesn't speak Arabic, is not a Muslim - nor a member of any religion for that matter, and has never been outside the US, she feels connected to Iraq and curious about her cultural and ethnic identity. Her few memories of her parents are painful. They always seemed to be saying good-by to her, or returning as strangers. When they failed to return that last time, she closed her heart against further loss.
Life is good, though. Sirine is independent and works at a job she loves. Her uncle, who provides his niece with enough love to equal a large family's worth, is also a professor and a teller of tales and fables which would put Shaharazad to shame. His "moralless" story, "the story of how to love," runs parallel to the actual narrative. It is about Aunt Camille and son, Abdelrahman Salahadin, who had an "incurable addiction to selling himself as a slave and faking his own drowning." Sirene has a coterie of good friends, including: King Babar, the dog, cafe owner, Um-Nadia, Mireille, Nadia's daughter, Nathan, a brilliant but reclusive photographer - who has spent a good deal of time in Iraq, Aziz Abdo, a Syrian poet, (and somewhat smarmy), and the homesick cafe regulars who believe Sirine is a God send. Um-Nadia understands the loneliness of the immigrants. She says, "The loneliness of the Arab is a terrible thing; it is all-consuming....it threatens to swallow him whole when he leaves his own country, even though he marries and travels and talks to friends twenty-four hours a day."
When Sirine is sought out by exiled Iraqi Arabic literature professor Hanif Al Eyad, she is unable to deny the strong emotional and physical attraction she feels. Although they are well into adulthood, they both experience the wonder, confusion, excitement and passion of first love. He even helps her prepare baklava! Han, as the professor is called, went into exile as a young boy, when Saddam Hussein came into power. He was much too immature at the time to understand the enormity of his decision, and the repercussions if he should want to return to his homeland. He hasn't seen his brother, sister or parents in over twenty years. He had no idea when he left how much he would miss them and his country. He longs for his people - the sights, smells, food, of his native land. With Sirine, Han does not feel like an exile. "You are the place I want to be - you're the opposite of exile." Yet Han's past remains a mystery. Why did he leave Iraq at so young an age? Why does he put-off answering Sirine's questions, telling her he will eventually give her answers, and not doing so?
The pain of exile, and loss, are themes which run through the storyline of this beautiful novel. Sirine's Iraqi uncle asks an Italian waiter in a Los Angeles restaurant, "Wouldn't you say that immigrants are sadder than other people?" To which the waiter responds, "Certo! When we leave our home we fall in love with our sadness." The uncle explains to Sirine why he doesn't like talking about his former home, back in Iraq - the home he shared with Sirine's father and their parents. "It means talking about the differences between then and now, and that's often a sad thing. And immigrants are always a bit sad right from the start anyway..... but the big thing is that you can't go back. For example, the Iraq your father and I came from doesn't exist anymore. It's a new scary place. When your old house doesn't exist anymore, that makes things sadder in general."
Another major theme is the importance of keeping one's native culture and traditions alive through food, memory, language, and storytelling/legends. For this reason, food and its preparation are so important in "Crescent." Sirine is an American but she learned to cook the foods of the Middle East from both her mother and father. Her favorite memory of them is watching them both make baklava. They moved together like in a dance. And then they taught her to take her part in the preparation of this dessert.
And, of course, love and intimacy are important ingredients here also.
Author Diana Abu-Jabar's prose is lush and lyrical. It awakens the senses, evoking exotic imagery, sounds, tastes, smells - even textures. For political and cultural reasons, this is a good book for Americans to read. We all know what an evil person Saddam Hussein is. However, the novel gives a realistic idea of how the Iraqis suffered under the Post Gulf War embargo, and continue to suffer in the current situation - without blaming any one person, government or country. The rich Iraqi culture is also discussed, which many of us are not as informed about as we should be. I don't think there is a part of this novel that I didn't thoroughly enjoy. Although nothing is perfect, I am still too immersed in the whole gestalt of Crescent to come up with any flaws at the moment. And isn't that the best feeling to be left with when finishing a book?
- Amazon readers rating: from 60 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Crescent at W. W. Norton
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Language of Baklava (2005)
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- Official website for Diana Abu-Jaber
- SF Gate interview with Diana Abu-Jaber
- Beatrice.com on the road with Diana Abu-Jaber and more
- Reading Guide to Arabian Jazz
- Reading Guide for Crescent
- Curled Up interview on The Language of Baklava
- MostlyFiction.com review of Origin
- MostlyFiction.com review of Birds of Paradise
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About the Author:
Diana Abu-Jaber ws born in upstate New York and lived there until her family moved to Amman, Jordan when she was seven-years-old. Her father is Jordanian and her mother is American, and she has lived between America and Jordan ever since.
She received her doctorate in English literature from the State University of New York. She has taught literature and creative writing at the University of Michigan, the University of Oregon, and UCLA.
Her first novel, Arabian Jazz won the Oregon Book Award and was a finalist for the national PEN/Hemingway award. Crescent won the Pen Center Award
She currently teaches at Portland State University and divides her time between Portland, Oregon and Miami, Florida.