An Iraqi Love Feast Spiced with Despair ; A Culinary Romance Set in a Middle Eastern Cafe

Article excerpt

Xiana Abu-Jaber couldn't have imagined that we'd be reading her lush romance about lonely Iraqis by the light of Baghdad burning. Her publisher must be nervous about the political climate, but it's refreshing to see Iraqis outside "the axis of evil." In "Crescent," they're struck by Cupid's arrows instead of Tomahawk missiles.

The story takes place in Los Angeles, but like the rest of us at the moment, every character is fixated on the Middle East. Arab students and professors congregate at Nadia's Cafe, a Lebanese restaurant where they can linger over foreign newspapers, argue about poetry, and drink coffee without being cautioned, "This Beverage Is Extremely Hot!"

"Everything about these young men seemed infinitely vulnerable and tender," Abu-Jaber writes, in one of many passages rendered more poignant by the current crisis. They're all consumed with loneliness, and they're all bashfully in love with the chef, Sirine. "She is so kind and gentle-voiced and her food is so good that the students cannot help themselves - they sit at the tables, leaning toward her."

She hasn't left West Hollywood for years, but from her Iraqi father, she learned how to conjure up the aromas of their lost desert home. Cookbooks have been her only travel guides. At 39, she knows far more about spices than politics. Orphaned as a little girl, she's been living with a kindly uncle who teaches in the Near Eastern Studies department at the university.

In his own gentle way, he encourages her to get married, and her distressingly slow progress in that direction is the subject of considerable discussion and analysis by the cafe staff. "She's always had more men in her life than she's known what to do with," the narrator explains, but somehow nothing ever comes of it. "She's never broken up with anyone, she just loses track of them."

Then, as must always happen when we've established that the woman is beyond reach, in walks The One. In this case, he's Han, a strikingly good-looking, moderately famous Near East scholar. But as soon as Sirine spots him, she "thinks spinster and hugs her elbows." This modest cafe chef would never dream of attracting the attention of a world-renowned intellectual who leaves devoted followers in his wake. But he's captivated by her, and before long, they're cooking together.

That's not a Monitoresque euphemism: They're actually cooking together. But one of the great pleasures of this sensitive novel is the way Abu-Jaber stirs these culinary metaphors. "The ingredients inside Han and herself called to each other," she writes, "like the way ingredients in a dish speak to each other, a taste of ginger vibrates with something like desire beside a bit of garlic, or the way a sip of wine might call to the olive oil in a dish." Indeed, when Abu-Jaber describes them making baklava together, it's a lot more erotic than what passes for love scenes in most modern novels.

With a little more zaniness, this could have been "My Big Fat Iraqi Wedding," but Abu-Jaber prepares a more complex dish that's equal parts romantic comedy, political protest, fairy tale, and cultural analysis. As one of the cafe patrons notes, in Iraq "everything's sort of folded up and layered. …