Diana Abu-Jaber’s novel Crescent is set in contemporary Los Angeles. The main focus of the novel is on a multi-cultural love story between an Iraqi exile and an Iraqi-American chef. The novel explores universal human themes connected with exile and the search for identity. The novel highlights the love story of an Iraqi immigrant chef named Sirine with an Iraqi immigrant. Sirine cooks in an Arabic restaurant in Los Angeles where she meets an Iraqi teacher, who teaches linguistics at UCLA. Diana highlights in the novel the painful feelings of people who leave their countries and live in exile. In many places, she refers to the pain of immigrants and what may happen to them in the countries they settle in. She further laments the real process of loss of those people who leave their countries.
Her emphasis on the humanistic, creative and nurturing side of Arab and Islamic culture strikes a timely blow against the stereotyping lens through which most Americans view the Middle East. It is this distorted view that has allowed the United States government to preside over years of war, sanctions and unfulfilled rights in Iraq, Palestine, with the minimal domestic opposition.
Keywords: exile, identity, immigrants, culture, Middle East.
When Diana started writing Crescent, she had the idea of working from the Othello story. She says, “I wanted to sort of retell Othello, where instead of having Othello be the Moore, he is Arab. So, I really had the idea of the race very strongly in my head. The Iraqi professor I described as being very dark. However, I rewrote it and I took all of that out.”
When she wrote Crescent the first time, she really was trying to rewrite Othello. But it is very hard to transplant a story to a modern version because it is so dramatic and it relies so much on the idea of villainy and heroism. When shaping it in a modern context, it’s almost like Freud wrecked it for everybody. She is in an interview (2006) says, “After Freud, there are no more villains. She adds, we understand each other too much-unless of course, you are Arab. We have too much understanding about the unconscious and about family history, so everything has to be subtler and more complex. And so the closer I go to the characters, the more I saw, well, the villain really is not a villain, actually he is suffering too. And the hero is not great. It all just sort of dissolved as I was working on it. But the vestiges that I kept of Othello were that the Iraqi professor was dark, that he looked dark, and the Iraqi American chef was very white an American. She also had an Arab father and an American mother, so she was doing that kind of straddling. And I went to talk about …..And I do this in the novel…..about her conflicting feelings if I don’t look like it, does that mean that I am not it? It is the curse of the first generation- the children of immigrants. You are straddling generations and you straddle cultures. And like so many people who are cultural mixes, we kind of submit to the lie that is the whole nation of the race- because race is based on appearance. And appearance is tenuous at best. I happened to come out looking like this. My sisters look much more traditionally Arab…….but actually I’m the only one among my sisters who can speak Arabic. The race has nothing to do with who we are and it’s not a reality. It is a complete social construction, but we cling to it. We cling to it as some ‘kind of a signifier, and basically signifies nothing.”
In the novel, Diana Abu-Jaber combines romance, folk tales, and current events to illustrate the Arab American immigrant experience. The novel is set against the background of a Los Angeles community of Iranian and Iraqi immigrants and exiles. The main characters are an Iraqi-American woman, Sirine, who falls in love with Hanif, an Iraqi exile.
The motifs of Diana Abu-Jaber’s new novel denote the sensual pleasures of life-food first and foremost, but also rain, flowers, storytelling, and music. However, the themes she weaves among these motifs are of a much more serious and sometimes dark nature: love, doubt, betrayal, loneliness, exile, and social and political repression. In both cases, whether building on the sensual motifs or the underlying themes, the author’s descriptions are intense and powerful. Carol (2002) remarks, “Abu-Jaber affirms the precious fragility of life, love, family, and the human community in meaningful ways.”
Throughout the novel, Abu-Jaber demonstrates her ability to keep the reader hanging in suspense: the story is seldom what it seems and, moreover, ends. This makes Crescent a bridge between the myths and folktales of classical storytelling and contemporary realistic fiction. Each chapter contains an installment of a reinvented Arabian Nights-type story, followed by the modern-day story of Sirine, an American with an Iraqi father. It is not until close to the end of the book that the link between the two narratives becomes apparent. Nor does the reader have an inkling of what will become of Sirine’s romance with Hanif, the talented but troubled Iraqi exile.
While characters in the reinvented myth travel from Aqaba to the Nile to Dhofar and finally Hollywood, the setting of the story of Sirine and Hanif rotates between flashbacks to Baghdad and the meat of the story in Los Angeles. Sirine is the chef of an Arab-owned restaurant on Westwood Boulevard, an Iranian neighboring near UCLA, which attracts a mixed crowd of Middle Eastern students, expatriates and locals-Angeles and Latinos- all of whom thrive on her handcrafted and carefully seasoned, and Arab-inspired cuisine.
At the café, Sirine sympathizes with the loneliness of the immigrant clientele, and their frantic following of the usually bad news from ” back home”, but she also has loneliness of her, a feeling of homelessness, sometimes she feels invisible.
Raised by her uncle because her parents’ work as relief agents took them on constant journeys and finally to a timely death, Sirine feels like an American in many ways. She is so absorbed in her cooking and relationship with her uncle that she has, so far, resisted love and marriage, yet sometimes is missing. “I guess I’m always looking for a home, I have this feeling that my real home is somewhere else somehow,” she confides to Hanif as he tells of his bitter exile from Iraq. Hanif presents Sirine with the chance of love and to come to terms with her Iraqi descent, but like the story itself, he is not always what he seems, and it is hard to know how their love affair will end The timing of the publication of the Crescent is important. Never has the need been so great for Arab-American to tell the human side of their story. Abu-Jaber uses her storytelling prowess to highlight the suffering of the Iraqi people and the precarious situation in which may immigrant communities find themselves in the United States today.
Her emphasis on the humanistic, creative and nurturing side of Arab and Islamic culture strikes a timely blow against the stereotyping lens through which most Americans view the Middle East. It is this distorted view that has allowed the United States government to preside over years of war, sanctions and unfulfilled rights in Iraq, Palestine, with the minimal domestic opposition.
Abu-Jaber gives voice to the reality of exile and broken lives with metaphors accessible in the American context. Describing his exile, Hanif compares his situation to the homeless on the streets of American’s big cities: “Sometimes I think I’ve never felt so close to anyone as those people. They know what it feels like they live in between worlds so they are not really anywhere, exiled from themselves.
In Crescent, Abu-Jaber proves the political potential of literature, for the ultimate political novel is not a polemic but a book that conveys a universal pro-human message via a beautifully told story. Abu-Jaber does this well and she leaves Sirine’s story-ended, to make it real as our own life and future. What will happen next depends on the humanitarian agencies.
Crescent is a love story in exile. Sirine is the chef at Nadia’s Café, a Lebanese restaurant in a small near Eastern community in Los Angeles, near UCLA. The menu proclaims “meal Time 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. In the restaurant, they serve delicious food that people from the Middle East enjoy having meals in it. Sirine feels connected to her homeland and keen about the place where her father was brought up establishing a profound connection to her cultural and ethnic identity. Her few memories of her parents are painful. They always seemed to be saying, good-bye to her, or returning as strangers, when they failed to return that last time, she closed her heart against future loss.
For Sirine life is extremely good as she is independent and runs a job that she is proficient in it. Her uncle, who cares about his niece with enough affection to equal a love that one gets from his biological family. He is also a professor and a teller of tales and fables which would put Scheherazade to shame. He tells a story that is called “moralless story”. It focuses on the theme of how to love. His story runs parallel to the actual narrative. It is about Aunt Camille and son, Abdurrahman, who had an “incurable addiction to selling himself as a slave and faking his own drowning. Sirine has a coterie of good friends including King Babar, the dog, café owner, Um-Nadia, a 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 the homesick café regulars who believes Sirine is a Godsend. 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 to friends twenty-four hours a day.”
When Sirine sought out by exiled Iraqi Arabic literature professor Hanif Al Ayad she is unable to resist the strong emotional and physical attraction she feels. Although they are well into physical love, they both experience the intense pleasure, confusion, excitement, and passion of first love. Hanif went into exile as a young boy, when Saddam Hussein came into power. He is much too immature the time to understand the enormity of his decision, and repercussions if he should want to return to his homeland. He has not seen his brother, sister or parents in over twenty years. He longs for his people-the sights, smells, food, of his native land. With Sirine, Han does not feel like as exile, “You are the place I want to be you are the opposite of exile.” Yet Han’s past remains a mystery. Why did he leave Iraq at so young age? Why does he put off answering Sirine’s questions, telling her will eventually give her answers, and not doing so?
The pain of exile and loss are themes which run through the storyline of this remarkable novel. Sirin’s Iraqi uncle ask an Italian waiter in a Los Angeles restaurant, “Would you say that immigrants are sadder than other people? To which whiter responses, “Certo! When we have our home we fall in love with our sadness.” The uncle explains to Sirine why he does not 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 cannot go back. For example, the Iraq your father and I came from does not exist anymore. It is a new scary place. When your old house does not exist anymore, that makes things sadder in general.”
A striking theme that the writer tries to manifest is connected with keeping one’s native culture, and traditions alive through food, memory, language, and storytelling. In this sense, food plays a vital role in Crescent. Although Sirine is an American citizen, she learned to cook the foods of the Middle East from both her mother and father. She recalls the memories when her parents were engaged in making baklava. Later on, they taught her to take her part in the preparation of this dessert. What is striking is the love and intimacy that they share in making this dessert.
Diana Abu-Jaber’s prose is lush, 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. The novel gives a realistic idea of how the Iraqi suffered under the post Gulf War embargo and continues 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.
Diana Abu-Jaber contributes in Crescent to the inclusion of works by and about Arab Americans in the ethnic studies category, suggesting ways to bridge the barriers separating Arab Americans from other ethnic minorities. In Crescent, Abu-Jaber skillfully establishes a constructive space in which interethnic ties between and within different communities of color could be built and maintained. Crescent a constructive space in which interethnic ties between and within different communities of color could be built and The setting of the novel, which takes place in a part of Los Angeles referred to as “Teherangeles” due to a large number of Iranians living there, gives addition form to the novel’s borderland. As C Fadda-Conrey (2016) states, ” by creating through literature a borderland of ethnic intersections, Abu-Jaber exemplifies a necessary addition to the multiplicity of Borderlands.”
In the novel, Abu-Jaber articulates stories about individuals and group identities, locating strategies by which the ethnic borderland becomes a space of communication for the different minority group, a space that ultimately leads to the transformation of ethnic relations. Nevertheless, the process of making the borders among various ethnic enclaves more fluid should not lead to an uncritical and essentialist form of multiculturalism. As Anzaldua (2002) states, “For the recognition of commonality