An Iraqi love feast spiced with despair

A culinary romance set in a Middle Eastern cafe

Diana 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 Café, 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."

Indeed, the sweet humor that "Crescent" delivers so deftly is richly complemented by its exploration of loneliness.

With her characteristic melodrama, the cafe owner says, "The loneliness of the Arab is a terrible thing; it is all-consuming. It is already present like a little shadow under the heart when he lays his head on his mother's lap; it threatens to swallow him whole when he leaves his own country, even though he marries and travels and talks to friends 24 hours a day."

Abu-Jaber whips up a troubling argument about the way American efficiency aggravates that despair.

Sirine's uncle complains that in the US, "people just talk all day long on their phone, their computer, and no one ever lays eyes on each other." A patron in the cafe asks, "Why does no one in America recite poetry? They go to the coffeehouse and they just drink the coffee."

As Sirine gets closer to Han, she comes to realize how starved he is for the sustenance of his homeland. "I miss everything," he tells her in a moment of anguish, "absolutely everything. The fact of exile is bigger than everything else in my life. Leaving my country was like - I don't know - like part of my body was torn away. I have phantom pains from the loss of that part - I'm haunted by myself."

Slowly, she gathers pieces of his tragic history, his escape from Iraq and his family's ghastly fate under Saddam Hussein. Even knowing she can't fill that void, she makes an attempt, grasping after pieces of her father's Iraqi past, investigating Islam, and struggling to immerse herself in the political news she's always ignored.

Han assures her, "You are the place I want to be - you're the opposite of exile," but her uncle warns her that the cure for such loneliness is not so easy. "When we leave our home," he says, "we fall in love with our sadness." Indeed, the demons pulling at Han are stronger than she feared, and the novel begins to veer away from its comic tone toward the horror of Saddam's rule and the ferocity of America's response.

At the same time, Abu-Jaber broadens her exploration of exile to include all the various ways we're bereft of home - by the death of parents, the separation from lovers, the hunger for lost childhood. Gradually, we come to see that every character in this story - Iraqi, American, and Arab-American - is banished by guilt, exiled to sadness by a sentence that can't be lifted by imperial decree or regime change.

Abu-Jaber captures this despair with exquisite care, but her heart belongs to romance, not tragedy. The allusions to "Othello" that waft through the story eventually give way to the uncle's outlandish fairy tale. This is a tough time to consider the artistic and culinary beauty of Iraq, but as one of the cafe patrons says, "Americans need to know about the big, dark, romantic soul of the Arab." Readers stuffed on headlines but still hungering for something relevant will enjoy this rich meal.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail

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