The culinary and sexual pleasures of a spinster in Westwood, L.A.
Crescent, Portland author Diana Abu-Jaber’s second novel set within the Arab-American community in Los Angeles, has been compared to Like water for chocolate, the masterpiece of magic realism cum recipe novels. I couldn’t resist and, despite the Mills and Boon style cover, I had to read it.
We follow Sirine, a 39.5 years old Iraqi-American spinster (a friend of mine has me convinced that you can be defined as ‘single’ only up until 35) incessantly bicycling from West L.A. to Westwood and return. She comes across as so naïve and clumsy that it is hard to make her our heroine, especially when she receives, and at some point accepts, the advances of slimy poet Aziz. However, she is revered as some sort of Goddess in Café Žadia, where she works as a cook. And that’s partly because she’s a gentle character, but surely also because she prepares, during seemingly endless shifts, every sort of Arab delicacy to please and consol a thick group of immigrants and exiles from the Middle East. Among the regular customers feature shop-owners from the neighbourhood, and students and teachers from the nearby University, amongst which stands out Hanif, a young, clever, intense, captivating, intellectual refugee from Baghdad.
Sirine and the handsome Professor meet, talk, casually flirt at a party, like each other, hang around, make love, have their first scraps, reconcile, make love a bit more, and finally fall in love. When I think of it, the same happened to me and to most couples I know, except the aforementioned friend who likes making distinctions between singles and less politically correct definitions (she flew with her scooter onto her future lover’s car, ruining in the process his date for the night as well as his car, not to mention his next 10 years, until she got him to dump her when she had an affair with his best friend), but hers is a different story, where there are no suspicious Iraqis to muddle things up.
I won’t ruin the surprise for those Three Monkeys Online readers who would like to get the book, by telling you the whole story. Suffice to say that – of course – complications arise, romance triumphs, fate is implacable, etc etc.
The two lovers are surrounded by a line-up of well refined characters, who you end up become fond of: Sirine’s uncle, the Lebanese owner of the café Um-Nadia, and her – spinster – daughter Mireille, Victor and Cristobal, who, too, work at the café, the Persian Khoorosh, the Turkish butcher Odah, and King Babar, Sirine’s affectionate dog. Other characters we love a bit less, such as the afore mentioned Aziz, and Nathan, an American student obsessed with Hanif and photography.
The book, up until Chapter 27, runs almost in real time, that is the descriptions are painfully detailed, the narration is made in present tense and the characters’ dialogue, thoughts and movements are carefully reported. It is a bit like watching a film in slow motion, but this is not to say that the book drags along or that the plot development is boring. Abu-Jaber perhaps wished to make the most of her PhD in Creative Writing, and puts into practice different techniques and styles, including flashbacks, parallel writing and magic realism. In fact, both Sirine and Hanif have an intricate past that surfaces through their night dreams and their discussions together. The icing on the cake is the parallel story of Aunt Camille and her reckless son Abdelrahman Salahadin, “the story of how to love”, says Sirine’s uncle on pg 5, more the story of how to run away after your dreams, under the allure of advertising, one could argue. Nevertheless, the recount of their adventures is truly enjoyable; to remain within the book’s geography and quotes, Sirine’s uncle’s tale (’cause it is him who tells the story) could very well be in the Arabian nights collection, which in fact it does hit-off. Again, I don’t want to ruin the twist of the story going into more details.
Going back to the descriptions, some of Abu-Jaber’s scenes are truly memorable and very ‘Arabian’, such as “Um-Nadia waits until the air is roasted chocolaty, big and smoky with the scent of brewing coffee. Then she knocks the front door latch open. She holds the door wide and lets the older returning students, the immigrants and workingmen in, one by one, morning-shy, half-sleepy, hopeful from dreams, from a walk in the still-sweet air, not so lonesome this early in the day.” (pg 27). Detailed and precise, but then she cocks up so badly when Nathan the student goes into the café and orders tea, he can have his tea, says Um-Nadia (pg 41), he plays with it, but suddenly he surprises you by putting sugar into his coffee (pg 43)! No worries, later on he goes back to playing with his tea (pg 44).
The book cover promises romance, risk and recipes. While the first two are abundantly satisfied, and although the book is permeated of smells, flavours and textures of the fantastic food Sirine cooks and the other eat, the author does not really reveal any of the Middle Eastern secrets on how to obtain falafels that don?t fall to pieces while you deep fry them. An exception is the 5 page long description of how to make baklava, while Sirine and Han start to know each other in Nadia Café’s kitchen. The dessert that almost every country in the Near and Middle East claims as theirs, and which consists of buttery layers of crispy puff pastry, must be Abu-Jaber’s favourite staple, judging from the title of her newest book, a food memoir entitled The Language of Baklava, due to be published in 2005.
Clearly the author has a respect, almost a reverence for the food her Jordanian father and his ancestors ate and eat. And you have to respect her for this, out of the belief that you are made of what you eat. I personally love Arab food and to reciprocate, I’d be delighted to show to Sirine the real Italian midnight treat, seeing that the poor thing is given milky cappuccino (Italians NEVER drink cappuccino after 11 am!) and some sort of dessert that the author calls penne cotta (intending we hope, panna cotta, and not a sweet and overcooked plate of pasta) by a waiter called Eustavio at the local Italian café ¨pg 115-118).
The other themes in the book are the loneliness of Arabs, which is the loneliness of all people forced to leave their country for reasons independent of choice, and Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq, which is explored from different angles, including from that of the American embargo in all its cruelty.
What’s perhaps missing from this 360 degrees illustration of the Arab world is a reference to the Islamic fanaticism which continues to affect so many aspects of politics and cultures in some Arab countries.
All in all Crescent is good summer reading, that keeps reminding you there?s injustice, prejudice and silly and tragic romances going on in this mad world we all have to live in.