Excerpts >Spring 2006

Amelia M. L. Montes

Diane Abu-Jaber, Crescent, W. W. Norton

Reviewed by Amelia M. L. Montes

Crescent is Diana Abu-Jaber’s second novel. It is a story of exile, a search for identity both individual and collective. Sirine, a thirty-nine year old Iraqi-American lives with the uncle who raised her after her parents died when she was quite young. Her life is one of cooking and academia. She is the main cook at Nadia’s Café, a stone’s throw from the University of California Los Angeles campus where her uncle, a professor in the Near Eastern Studies Department, has taught most of his life. The clientele at the Iraqi-Lebanese café is primarily Middle Eastern and here is where stories are told, news and issues about the Middle East are discussed, argued. It is also where Sirine, at the encouragement of her uncle, begins a romantic relationship with Hanif Al Eyad, an Iraqi immigrant. Hanif, a new hire in her uncle’s department, is deeply troubled by his separation from his family in Iraq.

Through this courtship between Sirine and Hanif, the reader receives a very different Iraq from the current media descriptions. In getting to know one another, they share their familial and geographic memories and losses. The reader is privy to an intimate world only lovers can share, about not only their childhood but the memory of place. Reading this novel now is poignant especially during scenes where Hanif reconstructs cities like Baghdad before the bombings, before Hussein. His nostalgia comes from a raw “recent immigrant” experience whereas Sirine has no knowledge, no point of recognition for a country which she can only claim as her ethnic heritage. Their juxtaposition in this novel is what cultural critic Svetlana Boym describes as the meaning of nostalgia when she says, “‘Algia’ – longing – is what we share, yet ‘nostos’ – the return home – is what divides us.”

The spice-filled aromas within Nadia’s Café bring expatriates, immigrants into a place that allows for a respite from longing as well as a matriarchal community of sorts. Um-Nadia, the owner, and the strong-willed Mirielle round out the close-knit environment of women supporting women. In Abu-Jaber’s hand, these characters defy common stereotypes of Arab-American women. The details in scenes that focus on their daily lives are not the CNN-type media portrayals of Middle-Eastern women as submissive, quiet, and hidden. When Sirine joins the Women in Islam group, we also witness welcome contradictions to the stereotypes. Rana is a colorful and powerful presence. The strongest writing happens within the confines of the café. Here Abu-Jaber delights in the sensual and sacred act of cooking. Sirine’s ruminations as she prepares the baklava or lamb dishes are poetic and broaden the plot’s development.

The novel’s other main connecting link is the uncle’s story telling. We enter the intimate world of Abdel ahman Salahadin who “carries himself like a handful of water.” The uncle’s Salahadin story is woven throughout the novel so that it becomes a subtext of the main plot. Late in the novel, the narrator notes that these stories which come from “the collective unconscious of a family” are a “reflection of reality.” And so the story of Salahadin indeed reflects Sirine and Hanif’s loss of home and the slow return which may or may not be a literal one. Embedded in the theme of return to one’s home is the new moon – the crescent – which signifies the beginning of the Islamic month as well as the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting and of reflection. To Salahadin, who is the first to see this new moon or Crescent, it is a calling of return.

There are some sections of the book that could have undergone further tending. For example, Nathan becomes too shadowy a character so that by the time the reader finds out the truth about him, it feels post-denouement. Too much has occurred and the reasons for his silence can seem far-fetched. The last half of the book also could have benefited from one more session of editing. However, these small problems do not take away the rich depth of Abu-Jaber’s development of characters, smooth ease, and pace of scenes, as well as the lovely intersections of mythical story.

On September 11, 2001, Abu-Jaber was not quite finished with the writing of Crescent. She thought about abandoning the book, but then realized the importance of its presence post 9/11. The novel Crescent, then, is a prescient gift to American readers and yet it is not heavy handed. In her first novel, Arabian Jazz, Abu-Jaber included a profusion of characters that at times occluded the main plot. In Crescent, she hones her craft, cuts down on the number of characters and paces the scenes well. Her growth as a novelist is apparent with this work. Crescent is a quiet meditation and rendering of place, characterization, and plot. She is able to weave these vital ingredients into a beautiful braiding of story. Her previous novel was set in New York while this one, set in Los Angeles, is a good backdrop to the mythical and realistic aspects of the story. Crescent is also a novel Americans should be required to read. The 2004 PEN West Award Judges agreed with this assessment and gave Abu-Jaber first place for this fine novel.

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