The timing of Diana Abu-Jaber's new novel, Crescent, is absolutely uncanny. Ten years after her debut novel, Arabian Jazz, became the first Arab-American novel to reach broad popular and critical acclaim, Crescent tells the story of Sirine, an Iraqi-American chef in Los Angeles, and her burgeoning relationship with Hanif, a professor of Near Eastern Studies who is an exile from Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The convergence of the novel's subject with today's headlines could be seen as a publicist's dream, but Abu-Jaber is more ambivalent.
"I feel very -- I don't know -- I kind of hate [the timing] because I feel I'm always going to associate the book with the war now," she says. "But I hope the book will raise consciousness about the people involved. I'm hoping maybe people will start to get curious about Middle Eastern culture and how we got here."
Like most Arabs and many Americans, Abu-Jaber understands the pain of the Iraqi people, who've suffered for so long at the hands of a dictator, while at the same time feeling tremendous sadness for the pain inflicted by sanctions and the latest war. But Iraqi politics remain mostly in the background of Crescent, while the richness of Arab culture -- told through stories, poems, food, family and friendships -- takes center stage. Abu-Jaber's writing is lush and filled with complex and contrasting flavors, just like the comforting Arabic food she recreates so lovingly on the pages.
"I grew up in this crazy, multi-ethnic and completely food-obsessed family," she laughs. "While working on the book, I talked to my parents a lot about the traditional dishes."
As the eldest child of a Palestinian-Jordanian father and an Irish-American mother, Abu-Jaber divided her childhood years between upstate New York and Amman, Jordan. Fluent in both Arabic and English, she understands all too well the bi-culturalism of hyphenated Americans, and the complications when the hyphen separates Arab from American. In Crescent, she wanted to show images of Arabs and Arab-Americans -- as lonely students, loving families and thoughtful intellectuals -- that would contrast sharply with the stereotypes of angry young Arab men now saturating American mass media. Her Arabs are a diverse bunch, but the humor mixed with a sense of fatalism that's common across Arab cultures comes through clearly.
"I really wanted to try to counter the image that they're always terrorists," she says. "You never get to see them at the dining room table. To me, it's so clear, because when I see pictures of Arab men, I see my beloved uncles and cousins, my wonderful father. I feel so fortunate that I grew up with this great big gang of delightful and educated uncles who had a strong impact on me. And my father is one of the most convivial and hospitable people I know."
The idea for the novel germinated when Abu-Jaber was teaching a class on Middle Eastern culture as a guest lecturer at UCLA in 1995. Many of her students were the children of immigrants, wanting to learn about their parents' culture. "They have a vibrant Arab-American community in L.A.," she says. "I had a bunch of Iraqi students, and they threw the best parties. I became entranced by the culture and the food."
In Crescent, the food that Sirine prepares becomes a kind of secular communion, a way to bridge the gulf between her own white-blond American experience and the dark mysteries of the Arab students and their professor, Hanif.
When she's not writing or touring, Abu-Jaber continues to speak out about her own experience as an Arab-American woman and writer. On Monday and Tuesday, she'll be taking part in this year's Borah Symposium at the University of Idaho, where the topic is "Propaganda and Conflict: 'True Lies' about Islam and the West."
Abu-Jaber's own writing has sparked angry letters and even instances of censorship from all sides of the political and cultural spectrum, and she has resigned herself to attracting such reactions. But she feels th e only way to respond is to keep speaking and writing.
"There are endless struggles when you tell a story, whenever you speak from an identity," she says. "There will always be people saying you don't have the right to speak. I don't try to speak for all Arab-Americans. I just write about what I can tell people from my personal, immediate and intimate perspective."