Welcome to the luscious flavors of Crescent and a meal from Nadia’s Cafe. As the Arabs say: You are twice welcomed!
What is the dish that first lures Hanif to Sirine? It’s her tabbouleh salad, of course. You wouldn’t think that such a basic, sturdy dish would have such magnetic attraction. But such is the power of a few fresh vegetables when they’re chopped finely, dressed with just the right amounts of lemon and oil, and allowed to do their work.
Nobody ever wants to make the tabbouleh salad when they’re throwing a party, because you’ve got to wash all that parsley and then mince and mince and mince until you think you’re going to go mad. But then all the company comes over in their nice clothes, and they’re so glad to see the good, simple tabbouleh salad on the table. Then they know that everything is going to be fine, the conversation will be witty, the women charming and the men flirtatious. Because once you combine the elements of tabbouleh together, you can’t imagine that they should ever be separate.
1/4 cup medium bulgur (available in Mediterranean specialty stores)
3 bunches of parsley washed thoroughly and minced (take care not to bruise), stems discarded
3–4 scallions, finely sliced in rings
2 medium tomatoes, finely diced
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, and finely diced
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
salt to taste
Rinse bulgur, then cover with cold water and soak in a bowl for one hour. Change the water or add more if necessary (it will absorb some water and there should be water left over). Drain completely (you can even squeeze it out with your hands).
Toss ingredients together in a nice bowl. Stir in dressing.
Some people think of this dish as peasant food—it has no ornate sauces or intricate spices to elevate its status. But in Crescent, as in the everyday world, it is one of the dishes that people end up craving the most—especially when they move away from their countries and homes and families. It is the sort of dish that allows you to taste the deep flavor of its elemental ingredients: lentils, onions, and rice. And through these flavors, it seems that you taste the delicious notes of the earth itself, the place where you were born and raised, where you remember kicking a ball around until your mother was hollering for you—for heaven’s sakes—to come in for dinner, already.
When you cook mjeddrah, its scent fills the whole house and notifies all the children and all the company exactly what you are making. Gradually, they follow the entrancing fragrance into the kitchen where they lean over the counter and won’t leave you alone until you put the plates in front of them, and then the flavors of childhood wash over everyone.
1 cup uncooked rice
1/2 cup dried brown lentils, soaked for one hour, rinsed several times, and drained
a pinch or two of cumin
1 beef bouillon cube
salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp butter
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
In a medium saucepan mix the lentils into the uncooked rice, add 1-1/2 cups water, the cumin, and the bouillon cube. Add salt and pepper and the butter. Bring to a boil then cover and lower the heat to simmer. Fry the onion in the olive oil until golden brown. When the rice is done, take it off the heat, let it rest for twenty minutes, then fluff it with a fork, put it on a nice platter, and place the onions on top.
Serve with a chopped cucumber and mint yogurt mix on the side.
Roasted Leg of Lamb Stuffed with Garlic
All cooks need a signature dish: the dish that you make to impress visiting dignitaries or for the first time you meet your mother-in-law or for when you need to bribe someone with something extra wonderful. This is the meal that everyone talks about when they discuss dinner at your house, and they sigh and fan themselves and say, “Did you taste her leg of lamb? It’s incredible!” And they feel very smug indeed, knowing that you only prepare it for VIPs.
I didn’t taste roasted leg of lamb until I was nine years old. I can still remember discovering the embedded pockets of garlic that roasted with the meat, turning butter-soft and mellow, perfect for slathering over the fork-shreddable lamb. I was actually angry that my father had made me wait till I was nine before serving it to me. But a leg of lamb is an expensive cut of meat and sometimes people forget that children like to eat well too.
1 lean leg of lamb, 5–7 lbs
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
5 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup wine vinegar (or red wine)
4–5 carrots, peeled and cut in chunks
2 lbs small potatoes
1/2 lb mushrooms, peeled and quartered (if big)
Trim fat from the lamb. Mix the garlic with the salt and pepper. Put several slits in the lamb all over and stuff with the garlic mixture.
Heat the oil in big pot, add the onion and any excess garlic. Turn the heat to high and sear the lamb on both sides, about five minutes per side. Add the water and vinegar, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and cover. Bring to a simmer on medium heat. Cook 1-1/2 hours, turn the lamb, test the seasoning, and cook about 1/2 hour. Add the carrots and cook another 1/2 hour. Peel the potatoes, fry in a pan with olive oil and sautí until brown. Add the potatoes and mushrooms to the lamb and carrots in the pot and cook for another 1/2 hour.
Bring the leg out on a beautiful platter with the vegetables scattered around the meat, and the juice served on the side. Slice the meat against the grain and it will fall apart into fragrant, succulent pieces.
Stuffed Grape Leaves with Lamb Shanks
Sirine the chef rolls her grape leaves alone by the light of the moon because it’s just that sort of dish: you have to be patient and have a nice long afternoon or evening laid out in front of you. It’s the sort of task you lose yourself in: the mild, easy-going boredom of laying out the grape leaves, placing the rice filling just so, and seeing how neat and narrow you can roll them. There’s a competition among certain members of my family about who makes the skinniest stuffed grape leaves, and one of my relatives likes to brag that hers are rolled tighter than cigarettes.
I can neither confirm nor deny such claims. Some say that the leaves are more tender if you roll them under a full moon. And my parents insist that the best leaves come from California. I can only say that if you give yourself to the gentle meditation of stuffing grape leaves, they will reward you with a luscious, juicy, beautiful meal.
1-1/2 cups Uncle Ben’s rice
1/2 lb lean hamburger
1/2 cup finely minced parsley
6 fresh mint leaves, finely minced
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp cumin
salt and pepper to taste
1-1/2 cups water
1 large jar of (California) grape leaves
3 fresh lamb shanks, trimmed of fat
8 garlic cloves, cut in half
1 large can diced peeled tomatoes and juice
4 tsp olive oil
In a small bowl mix by hand the rice, hamburger, parsley, mint, cinnamon, cumin, salt and pepper, and 1 cup water. Mix thoroughly; it will have a thick, soupy consistency.
To stuff grape leaves: rinse the leaves carefully, then spread a leaf flat on a work surface. (My father says to use about 1/2 tsp stuffing if the leaf is small or 1 tbsp if the leaf is about the size of a woman’s hand. Adjust accordingly!) Place the stuffing at the base of the leaf, roll once to cover, fold in the sides, then finish rolling.
Place the lamb shanks in the bottom of a large Dutch oven and sprinkle with 8 garlic clove halves. Place half the stuffed grape leaves on top of the shanks, line them in rows, folded side down. Sprinkle with the rest of the halved garlic. Top this with the rest of the stuffed grape leaves. Top with tomato, 3 tsp olive oil, 1/2 cup water, and the juice of two lemons.
Bring the pot to a boil, then lower to a simmer (check the juice after one hour and add water if dry). Simmer for a total of three hours. Eat with fresh yogurt. If you feel fancy you can stir a little chopped cucumber and minced garlic into the yogurt.
We used to shape these cookies into crescent moons. It is also traditional to make sambusik cookies in the shape of crescents, but those are a lot more work, requiring a filling, etc. The beauty of gh’rayba is that they’re so simple that a child can make them in the time it takes for your mother to have a good talk on the telephone before she notices you’ve messed up the kitchen. And they’re made of the sorts of ingredients you usually have around, at the front of the cupboard where they’re easy to reach. When it came time to name my novel, I thought of these tender cookies of my childhood, the purity of their ingredients, and their buttery sweetness with the exotic suggestion of orange blossom.
1 cup clarified butter
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 tsp orange blossom water
2-1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup blanched almonds
Preheat oven to 325º.
Beat the butter, sugar, and orange blossom water together until fluffy. Add the flour gradually, and mix well.
Roll walnut-sized pieces of dough into finger shapes, then curve into crescent moons. Place one blanched almond in the center of each cookie.
Bake 20–25 minutes but avoid browning. Let cool on trays before transferring to rack.
Makes about 25.
In Crescent, Sirine is forever bringing coffee to her customers and friends, and there is an important reason for this: in Middle Eastern cultures, coffee is a marker of transition. It signals beginnings and endings. It welcomes guests to your home, it is a stimulus to conversation, and it is a balm for the close of a long day. It is the best way to finish a wonderful meal and a graceful way for friends to offer one another something small yet full of flavor and feeling. One must always accept the offer of coffee in a Bedouin’s home.
As the supposedly best Arabic coffee maker around, I was required to make the coffee for my father after dinner. Every night it was the same thing: I’d get out the blue enameled rakwi coffee pot with the long handle, tip in one tablespoon of coffee per cup, and then stand there, stirring and stirring by the stove, staring down in the deep brown liquid, waiting for the foam to rise. The last step was to drop a single saccharine pill instead of sugar into Dad’s cup so he didn’t feel so bad about eating baklava with his coffee.
2 tbsp fine ground Arabic coffee
1 cup water
1 cardamom seed (optional)
2 tsp sugar (as it is no longer easy to find saccharine pills)
Place the coffee in a small, open-mouth pot. Add the water and stir to mix. Bring o a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat. Add the cardamom and sugar and stir. Bring to a second boil, let it settle, then bring to a third and final boil—watch it closely; it rises quickly! Pour in demitasse cups, giving each a topping of foam—a clear indicator of an accomplished coffee maker.
A Brief Biography of Diana Abu-Jaber
I grew up inside the shape of my father’s stories. A Jordanian immigrant, Dad regaled us with tales about himself, his country, and his family that both entertained us and instructed us about the place he’d come from and the way he saw the world. These stories exerted a powerful influence on my imagination, in terms of what I chose to write about, the style of my language, and the form my own stories took.
People often ask me about my American mother, and whether she also told stories. Actually, my mother is not a native storyteller in the way my father is, but it may be that she has taught me something even more valuable, which is how to listen to stories. She made a space in our home for my father to invent himself, and her attentiveness and focus showed me that sometimes being quiet can be just as transformative as speaking.
I have two younger sisters and we grew up in little snow-bound houses in Syracuse, New York, and then spent some time living among courtyards and trellised jasmine and extended family in Amman, Jordan, before we all moved back to Syracuse again. My father could not make up his mind about which country we should live in. In America, he constantly reminded us that we were good Arab girls; we weren’t allowed to go out to parties or school dances. But then he encouraged us to study singlemindedly, to compete as intensely as any boy, and to always make our own way in the world.
My father’s brothers are doctors and scholars and politicians. And it was determined that I would receive my undergraduate degree from SUNY-Oswego because one of my uncles taught there and could keep an eye on me while I lived in a dormitory. When I finally struck out on my own to do my graduate work, I instinctively sought out mentors—the next best thing to uncles, in my mind—going for my M.A. at the University of Windsor, to study with Joyce Carol Oates, and then my Ph.D. from SUNY-Binghamton, to work with John Gardner.
In school, I started writing stories that I think shared a certain kinship with my father’s stories in that they gave me a way to imagine myself in the world. After graduate school, I taught creative writing, film studies, and contemporary literature at a number of different universities, including the University of Nebraska, the University of Michigan, UCLA, and the University of Oregon. All of these places had something new to teach me about being an American. I moved around for work, but I think I also like to move. While there’s a certain rootlessness and solitude to nomadism, I suppose that I am, as my father asserts, fundamentally a Bedouin. I am driven to exploration and conversation despite my best efforts to sit quietly in one place. I would just as happily host a dinner party as give a reading, and my chronically social nature frequently disrupts anything like a real work ethic.
Even in my work, I am restless—while I’m prone to write novels, I am also crazy about writing restaurant and film reviews, interviewing politicians and profiling county fairs, and fantasizing about writing a Great Arab-American Screenplay. My new idea is to live beside the ocean with my husband and my nervous little Italian greyhound, and to work outside under an umbrella with a pitcher of lemonade and a plate of cookies. Once again, I will attempt to settle down and write for hours and hours at a time, the way I am told one must. But I suppose that I will end up, as usual, inviting friends or family over so I don’t eat all the cookies myself. We will sit outside together, contemplating our origins and destinations, and begin telling each other stories again.
An Interview with Diana Abu-Jaber, by Andrea Shalal-Esa
Diana Abu-Jaber’s paternal grandmother hailed from Bethlehem; her grandfather came from a Bedouin family that has long called Jordan home. Her father, originally Syrian Orthodox, converted to Islam after moving to America. Abu-Jaber grew up in a little town outside Syracuse, New York, raised with so many of her father’s memories that she felt as if she’d also grown up in Jordan. Life was a constant juggling act, acting Arab at home but American in the street. The struggle to make sense of this sort of hybrid life, or “in-betweenness,” permeates Abu-Jaber’s fiction. These days, she teaches creative writing at Portland State University in Oregon, and she freelances as a food critic, a job that occasionally finds her yearning for a simple bowl of cauliflower. In addition, she writes columns and essays for publications like the Washington Post and the Oregonian.
In a wide-ranging interview conducted in Washington during a conference at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Abu-Jaber discussed Crescent, her new book project, the trials of “Memories of Birth,” and her views on the state of Arab-American literature.
What was the genesis of Crescent?
I was teaching a class in Middle Eastern culture at UCLA as a guest lecturer, in 1995. The class was filled with students who were all either Arab or Iranian Americans and they were all very interested in identity work, in finding out about their cultures or their parents. Almost none of them could speak Arabic or Farsi. They didn’t know, they were just really eager to learn. It was uplifting. I was energized, and that’s when I started writing the novel. . . . There really is this little Lebanese café in the heart of the section of town they called the Tarantula. I remember thinking—How interesting, it’s Lebanese but it’s an Iranian part of town. I started thinking about how caf—s create their own cultural environment, their own micro cultures. I knew I wanted to write about food, I wanted to write about Arabic food. And I’m a food critic too.
Crescent is about a woman who’s Iraqi-American and she’s a chef. She cooks in an Arabic restaurant in Los Angeles and she falls in love with an Iraqi immigrant. He’s kind of mysterious. He teaches linguistics at UCLA. It explores a little bit about the question of exile. That’s one of my literary obsessions—what a painful thing it is to be an immigrant. How when you leave your home country, you don’t really know what it is that’s about to happen to you. What an incredible experience and journey it is. And how for a lot of people it can be a real process of loss.
You’ve written a great deal about food. It seems to be very important to you.
I’ve taught these sorts of classes before, and always the favorite subject is food—always. Belly dancing is up there, but . . . food is such a great human connector, it’s so intimate. And Middle Eastern food, when it’s done well, is amazing. I thought . . . let the food be a metaphor for their experience. And I want people to relate to it through the beauty and the passion of the senses, the sensory joy of the novel and the beauty of Arabic cooking. . . . I’m close to my family, and I find that I have an almost instinctive drive to re-create family, to re-create an intellectual and an artistic gathering. I’ve been trying to explore that in my own writing. And that’s why food has been such an important metaphor. To me, that’s one of the most immediate and powerful ways of creating the metaphor of the hearth and a gathering place, a place where the collective forms.
How do you situate your writing in the context of everything that’s been done globally on exile? What’s the interplay between the concept of exile and immigration?
I feel that especially in the political gestalt we’re in right now, exile has become a particularly pointed question, more so than immigration. Immigration, at least from the Arab-American point of view, was just more innocent and—I don’t want to say naïve—but it had a kind of hopefulness and optimism that wasn’t as charged by issues of race and politics as it is now. Particularly for Palestinians and Iraqis, a lot of them are not choosing to emigrate, but rather they’re fleeing political persecution or they’ve lost their homes. It’s an act that is not entirely of their own volition. I’m very interested in what the loss of a homeland means for someone.
I haven’t read a lot of people who’ve gone specifically into this question as Arab exiles. There’s a critic whose work I really like who talks about that, Homi Bhabha. Some of the things he said about exile were very meaningful for me. He talked about how for contemporary immigrants and exiles, what you can have in your life, instead of home culture, is a new tribe. That you look to other writers and intellectuals and artists who are experiencing the same sorts of political exigencies and angst and maybe they’re not even literally exiles, but they feel exiled from their communities and they come together in a modern regrouping, a new kind of tribal gathering. That has been a very poignant way of looking at exile for me. When you’re faced with not being allowed to return to your homeland, perhaps there is a way that you can resituate yourself. And Edward Said is very emblematic of someone who does that. He makes a home in his writing and in the academic community, and when I read his work, I feel an intellectual home that’s there. It’s incredibly comforting to me.
How does race play out in your new novel?
It’s an issue. When I started writing it, I had the idea of working from the Othello story. I wanted to sort of retell Othello, where instead of having Othello be the Moor, he’s Arab. So I really had the idea of race very strongly in my head. The Iraqi professor I described as being very dark. However, I rewrote it and I took all the direct allusions to Othello out.
Why did you rewrite it?
When I wrote it the first time, I really was trying to rewrite Othello. But it’s a very hard story to transplant to a modern version because it’s so dramatic and it relies so much on the idea of villainy and heroism. When you try to do that in a modern context, well, it’s almost like Freud wrecked it for everybody. After Freud there are no more villains. We understand each other too much—unless of course, you’re 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 got to the characters, the more I saw, well, the villain really isn’t a villain, actually he’s suffering too. And the hero isn’t that 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 very dark, that he looked dark, and that the Iraqi-American chef was very white and American. She also had an Arab father and an American mom, so she was doing that kind of straddling. And I wanted 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’m not it? It’s the curse of the first generation—the children of immigrants. You’re 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 notion of 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. Race has nothing to do with who we are and it’s not a reality. It’s a complete social construction, but we cling to it. We cling to it as some kind of a signifier, and it basically signifies nothing.
Why did you decide to write a short story about Afghan women for Good Housekeeping?
I feel like the best political work I can do is to try to put a human face on people who are culturally erased. Rather than try to be didactic, or deliver some kind of message, I just try to go for the human element, and try to be really personal and intimate. We had started bombing Afghanistan. Part of the problem is that nobody sees Afghan people on TV. We don’t get to see the culture. We need to have some stories from within. . . . It’s set in America, but it’s really about a family of Afghan women and their experience. You learn to provide editors and readers with a bridge to your subject. That is something that has taken me quite a while to learn how to do. But if you provide the bridge, if you provide the connection—in the Good Housekeeping story it’s an ESL teacher, and I think with Arabian Jazz it was humor—that’s the way to . . . make it accessible. . . .
You seem to provoke a lot of strong reactions.
I have always, always, no matter what I’ve written about, had people who wanted to take hits out on me. There is something about the way I write, or something that just incenses people. There are people who like my writing too. . . . I often feel that it doesn’t even really have to do with what I’m saying, or how I’m saying it. It’s the topic, and also that people perceive me personally—because of my name, or my heritage—as being one of them, one of the troublemakers, one of the scary people.
There’s this great word in German, Nestbeschmutzung, which means, essentially, fouling one’s own nest. And I guess Arabian Jazz struck a nerve.
You need to find a certain amount of strength or simple self-confidence in order to laugh at yourself. You have to feel at ease. It makes me sad in a way that people do feel this kind of tense fearfulness about the way that they and their culture are written about. I was very taken aback by some of that response. There’s also the sense that . . . Arab-Americans have been so maltreated by the media, their image has been so dark, that I think there’s a real anxiety about the artistic representations that are out there. “Is this just going to make us look worse? You’re exposing us, you’re making us even more vulnerable. What we need to do is be quiet, we need to close ranks. We need to really control what’s being said about us.” I think a lot of that fearfulness was stirred up by the novel. I understand it, I really do.
But silence has a price.
I feel like if there’s a choice . . . between speaking and suppressing yourself that inevitably you have to speak. Audre Lorde once said, “Your silence will not protect you.” That’s a really hard lesson to learn, and sometimes you have to learn that the hard way. It’s an instinct to try to hide if you’re feeling like you’re under attack. And you learn that, unfortunately, what looks like the easy way is often a really bad choice. If you silence yourself, if you try to be good, if you try to be polite, or toe a party line, you end up paying for that in the long run. You pay for it . . . with your homeland, or with your soul, or with your artistic vision.
What are you working on now? Another novel?
I’m actually working on a food book. It’s a food memoir. It’s a memoir told through food. It’s fun to work on. I’ve been really enjoying myself. Each chapter is about a certain kind of Arabic dish. Then I use that dish to talk about my father’s love affair with food and how we were raised in this totally food-obsessed family, and the implications that the dishes had for us. How each one symbolized a different stage in our evolution as a family, as immigrants.
A longer version of this interview appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 8, No. 39 (Spring 2002). Copyright © 2002 by Al Jadid.
- Most love stories cast very young women as the “love interest,” or else they feature older married women looking for an escape. The protagonist of Crescent, Sirine, is thirty-nine and unmarried. Do you think the author chose this age and situation deliberately? Why? Did it surprise you? What does it imply for the rest of the story?
- Could you tell, from the way this love story unfolds, that the author is a woman?
- What is the purpose of the tale that Sirine’s uncle tells? Did you find it a distraction or did it help to inform the rest of the story? What do the tales of Abdelrahman Salahadin’s several different slaveries and “drownings” mean or evoke?
- Diana Abu-Jaber has been a restaurant reviewer for the Portland Oregonian. Do you think making her main character a chef was just an opportunity for the author to weave in her own love of food and cooking? Or is there something else going on here?
- Both Han and Nathan have pasts in Iraq that remain shadowy for much of the novel. Does this make Han more attractive or more threatening? What about Nathan? Did you find yourself filling in the blanks of their past, and were your guesses right or wrong?
- When Han finally tells the story of his childhood in Baghdad, the emotional gravity of the novel suddenly shifts. Why? What has changed? How does it affect your sense of involvement with the characters? How does exile affect Han’s sense of identity?
- The relationship between Sirine and Rana is complicated and highly charged. What do you think each of these women really thinks about the other? Why does each of them seem to see the other woman as some sort of challenge to her own identity? Do women actually use each other this way-as mirrors to reassure or to challenge their images of themselves? Is that good or bad?
- Virginia Woolf once said that literature would change once two women in a novel could actually be together in a room, without any men, talking to each other. Crescent is full of such moments. What role do they play in the novel? How would you compare the relationships between the women, between the men, and between the women and men in this novel? Are they all convincing? Are they equally important? What about the relationships between members of different generations?
- What was your reaction to Sirine’s memories of her parents’ death? How do you feel about her parents’ desire to save the world, and its effect on Sirine? Combined with the story of the American woman in Baghdad, and the film crew in the desert in Sirine’s uncle’s tale, do you think the author is sending us a message or messages about Americans abroad, or about how Americans are perceived in other countries? What is she saying and do you think it’s true?
- Do you have a different view of the Middle East after reading this novel? A different view of America?
- What are the various ways in which the title is echoed through the book? What does it evoke for you, in the end?