As the bombs cease falling on Baghdad, and the world argues over an American presence in Iraq, the publication of Diana Abu-Jaber’s funny, thoughtful second novel, Crescent, seems uncannily appropriate. Although Abu-Jaber can’t have known when she wrote Crescent that history would take such a sudden, violent turn, her story of a love affair between an immigrant Iraqi professor, Han, and Sirine, an Iraqi-American female chef in a Middle Eastern neighborhood in Los Angeles, poignantly symbolizes reconciliation and making peace with the past at a time when the prospects could hardly seem more distant.
At first glance, Crescent appears to be yet another contribution to the burgeoning trend of culinary novels–the recipe-laden magical realism of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, Joanne Harris’s celebratory Chocolat or the macabre short stories in The Devil’s Larder by Jim Crace. And it’s true that the delicate aromas of roasted lamb, rice and pine nuts, tabbouleh and knaffea, a fragrant pastry of layered nuts, sugar and cheese, waft deliciously and authentically through the book, as does some lovely food imagery. A poet’s voice “ticks like a whisk in a copper bowl”; pouring “hot syrup over cold baklava or cold syrup over hot” is a “metaphysical” process; and Sirine’s boss, Um-Nadia, reads Sirine’s coffee grounds as part of the hiring process, seeing “sharp knife, quick hands, white apron, and the sadness of a chef. ‘Chefs know–nothing lasts,’ she told Sirine. ‘In the mouth, then gone.'” Clearly, Abu-Jaber feels passionately about food and has thought deeply about its philosophical implications. (In fact, she regularly writes restaurant reviews for the Oregonian in Portland, where she is currently writer-in-residence at Portland State University.) Just as Virginia Woolf’s classic work Mrs. Dalloway, with its nuanced look at human behavior amid the social upheavals following World War I, is more than a story about an upper-class woman preparing for a party, Crescent goes far beyond menu-planning.
The big issues here are exile, identity and the transformative power of true love, with Saddam Hussein a sinister, looming presence throughout the book, as Han wrestles with his losses under Hussein’s regime, and Sirine slowly comes to terms with her own mixed heritage–themes familiar from Abu-Jaber’s first novel, Arabian Jazz, which focused on an Arab-American family in upstate New York where Abu-Jaber, the daughter of a Jordanian father and an American mother, also grew up, in a town near Syracuse.
Like Woolf, Abu-Jaber does an admirable job of showing how small moments can nudge a person to take large actions, in the domestic as well as the political sphere. Typical is the accumulation of small events that seem to urge Han toward revisiting his home country, even though he knows he may be killed upon arrival. Abu-Jaber shows how patterns emerge out of life’s seeming randomness, naturally and gradually, in the midst of daily routines–the rhythms of Sirine’s cooking life, as she bicycles back and forth from her uncle’s apartment where she lives to her job at the small Lebanese cafe in Westwood–with the same mix of order and chance inherent in a recipe. People may think they’re jumping into something new, Abu-Jaber suggests, but they cannot escape their origins, whether they’re cooking, politicking, falling in love or living in exile. Just as a successful dish retains the flavor of all the original ingredients, she says, a happy life absorbs all its influences. Even a well-lived life’s questions are never entirely resolved, just like a good story.
And how to tell a story is another important strand in a book filled with deep undercurrents, which have come together in a smooth-flowing narrative, enlivened by vivid erotic encounters, good-humored, sometimes laugh-out-loud-funny conversations at the cafe, between Han and Sirine, and between her uncle and his friends, as well as atmospheric descriptions of lush Los Angeles neighborhoods–including the corner of Westwood that is in real life a mix of Iranian, Lebanese, Iraqi and other Middle Eastern stores and restaurants–“Teherangeles,” as Abu-Jaber puts it. But what’s truly endearing and convincing about this book and takes it beyond political allegory is its fairy-tale quality, which manages, paradoxically enough, to ground the story in the real world and to give it the archetypal feeling that characterizes a fable. Because Crescent deals in real despotic rulers (Saddam Hussein) and real (if romantic) love, with all its ups and downs–just as classic fairy tales of old grew out of real stories of cruelty and loss, and the eternal human yearning (not always fulfilled) for redemption and happiness–Abu-Jaber’s story never crosses over into Disney cuteness.
Like the heroines of old whose mothers often died young (stemming from the common reality of death in childbirth), Sirine lost her parents when she was 9, when, as emergency care workers for the Red Cross, they were killed “in a clash between tribes while on assignment in Africa”–which is why she lives with her uncle, a wise old man whose kindness and sense of humor more than make up for her lack of parentage. Sirine, at 39, has all the qualities essential for a career as a good princess. Despite our stereotyped notion of women with mixed Middle Eastern heritage as dark-skinned, Sirine has “skin so pale it has the bluish cast of skim milk,” and a “wild blond head of hair.” And like all good princesses, she not only makes great baklava, she is “so kind and gentle-voiced” and–as her bicycling in the Los Angeles car culture denotes–she has a mix of innocence and common sense that endears her to everyone around her. Especially to the handsome new Iraqi professor, Hanif Al Eyad (a k a Han), in the Near Eastern studies department of a university never named but clearly meant to be UCLA, where Sirine’s uncle also teaches (and where Abu-Jaber taught briefly).
The fairy-tale quality of Han and Sirine’s romance, as well as the symbolic convergence of East and West, is also inherent in the intertwining of literary allusions throughout the book. Abu-Jaber said in a recent interview that she originally planned to write a modern version of William Shakespeare’s Othello, but dropped the idea when she realized that these days “there are no more villains.” (Take that, President Bush!) But there are clear traces of the Othello story throughout. Han is very dark, and Sirine, like Desdemona, very blond. Han is also slightly larger than life, and he tells Sirine stories of his wanderings, as Othello did with Desdemona. And like Othello, despite his commanding and likable presence, Han is at odds with his white surroundings, conflicted about all he left behind in Iraq, teetering between cultures. He is symbolized throughout by the oryx, a gazelle-like creature “always wandering, looking for his lost love, and they say he has to go away before he can find his way home again,” as Han puts it during an early conversation in the cafe. (Significantly, he calls the oryx a “ghazal,” which also is the name of a kind of Persian love poem that uses fragmented stanzas and repetition to effect a searching, obsessive quality.)
The dark side of the fairy tale weaves throughout the book as well. Sirine often has a sense of someone watching her, a sense of menace that mirrors old superstitions about the evil eye, as well as the modern reality of the CIA and the spy networks of despotic regimes–and personal paranoia. There is even a subplot involving the loss of a scarf that echoes the misunderstandings over the handkerchief that set Othello against his wife. The villain who’s not a villain who surely caused Abu-Jaber’s Othello analogy to falter is Nathan, an American friend of Han’s. With his lean and hungry look, Nathan seems a little like Iago, the Machiavellian figure in Othello–he barely eats, in contrast to the other food-loving characters–and he’s an Iago-like spy in that he photographs everything he sees, so much so that he starts to seem voyeuristic, even a little sinister at times, another menacing figure lurking in the book’s watchful shadows. But Nathan is also a complicated, all-too-human figure, an artist struggling to interpret reality photographically; an American obsessed with Iraq in the way that is typical of the falsely romantic Orientalism that obsesses some Westerners; and he’s a tragic figure, symbolic of the real losses in the book–he lost his first great love in Iraq–a man whom pain has shaped into “a monk” with “sunken cheeks, hungry lunar shadow eyes, a body inhabited by an old spirit,” that is, Iago transformed into his opposite, a man of profound feelings. And real feeling, not black-and-white labeling, is the bottom line in Crescent.
Also winding delightfully through the book is a real fairy tale, told in fragmentary fashion like the old Arabic story Thousand and One Nights, not by Scheherazade, the Persian princess of the original, but by Sirine’s uncle, who calls it the “moralless story” of his “cousin” Abdelrahman Salahadin–though it’s clearly not a symbol-less tale–about a sailor who repeatedly sells himself into slavery, steals the money back, and effects a fake drowning, only to resurface elsewhere. The story is of a piece with the book’s recurring water and ocean imagery, of death and rebirth–one of Han and Sirine’s first meetings is at a pool party! Nor is it really a “moralless” tale, since it contains an implied critique of Western imperialism and exploitation, from the adventures of the Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton to the career of film idol Omar Sharif.
The only part of Crescent that feels a touch forced is Abu-Jaber’s delineation of Sirine’s growing awareness of her Iraqi heritage. Suddenly she’s attending an Islamic women’s group meeting, going off to watch whirling dervishes with a poet friend of Han’s. These episodes seem too obviously like lessons. Otherwise, this is a story that unfolds beautifully, as lightly and naturally as a roll of silk.