by Diana Abu-Jaber
by Diana Abu-Jaber
reviewed by Wendy Teller
Crescent is a love story intertwined with a fairy tale.
Sirine, an Iraqi-American, is the chef at a small Arab café in West Los Angeles, near the UCLA campus. Han, who teaches at the university, fled his native Iraq, but is still haunted by what he left behind. The story’s mystery and Han and Sirine’s relationship revolve around Han’s attempt to make peace with his flight from Iraq and Sirine’s never fully successful attempt to understand.
The language of Han and Sirine’s love story draws on the flavors of Sirine’s recipes, evoking Arabia with the scent of lemon peel, the texture of ground walnuts, the steam of sweet tea. It uses settings, sometimes sunny, sometimes foggy California or the blackness of a Baghdad night, to heighten the sense of the scenes.
Han and Sirine are epic characters. He is more handsome and she more beautiful than possible, but the reader understands their desires, fears, and longings. They are believable and likable, and, even though they are flawed, we wish them well.
The fairy tale is told by Sirine’s Iraqi uncle, who brought her up. In it, Aunt Camille goes in search of her wayward and long lost son, Abdelrahman Salahadin. The story is full of humorous absurdity and avuncular observations, perfect for a bedtime story. It is a hodge-podge of brilliant metaphors and silly stereotypes. But as Sirine’s uncle says, “The thing about listening to a story like this, Habeebti, is not to fret over chasing down the details, but to let the spirit of things show themselves.” Through the telling of the story, the spirit of Sirine’s uncle and Sirine’s Iraqi heritage show themselves.
Crescent’s savory stew of love story and fairy tale paints a vivid picture of time, place and culture, from pre-war Iraq, to Baghdad being bombed, and to present day, pleasant Southern California. It shows the warmth of Sirine’s Arab-American community. But perhaps most importantly, it makes understandable the guilt, loneliness, and longing of a refugee who fled his homeland, a place where he was no longer safe and where the family he left behind faces great danger.
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