In an essay discussing the history of Arabic prose and prose fiction after 1948, literary critic Edward Said wrote that “[r]eading is inevitably a complex, comparative process. A novel in particular, if it is not to be read reductively as an item of sociopolitical evidence, involves the reader with itself not only because of its writer’s skill but also because of all other novels.” And in a week when seven American soldiers have been reprimanded for the abuse of their Iraqi prisoners, it is clear that Diana Abu-Jaber’s novel Crescent, in its undermining of traditional American stereotypes of the Middle East generally, and of Iraq in particular, is timely and important—one such item of sociopolitical evidence.
Sirine, half-American and half-Iraqi, is 39, never married, and lives with her story-telling uncle in the Arab community of Los Angeles. As a chef in a Lebanese restaurant, Sirine extends the sensuality of Arabic cooking to her own burgeoning feelings for Hanif, an Iraqi exile and professor of Arabic literature. Through the romance, Hanif’s troubled history—a history that is inextricably linked to the turbulent polemical situation in Iraq—compels Sirine to reassess her own identity as an Arab-American. Indeed, though permanently ensconced within the Middle Eastern community by both home and vocation, Sirine is an Iraqi descendent who speaks no Arabic, has no relationship with Islam, and seems mostly disconnected from Iraqi history and politics. Until she falls in love with Han.
During an art opening, one American graduate student displays photographs he took while traveling through Iraq, and here Sirine’s confusion and attachment to Hanif is tangibly recognized: “Sirine returns to the photographs…[t]hey’re gray dreams, full of accusation and a lingering sense of emptiness. Sirine notices that the other people in the room seem to bend and look closely at the images, then quickly step back. The murmuring gets louder; people look unsettled.” When the photographs are revealed as portraits of Hanif’s family, images he hasn’t seen since he fled Iraq as a young man, the distress that accompanies his surprise confuses everyone, especially Sirine: “‘None of these people gave you permission, did they? This is an absolute violation,’ Han says loudly enough so several people look up. Sirine wants to touch his shoulder but she’s also afraid…‘It’s a violation of my family’s privacy…It’s not bad enough that your country is bent on systematically destroying mine? Must you also use my family for your personal amusement as well?’”
The poignancy of the scene reveals another complexity the novel means to uncover: that of the American relationship with the Middle East. When the confused graduate student stammers, “I was going to tell him. I meant this to honor them,” the reader can certainly understand the confusion, yet still read into Han’s criticism of the pitiful and invasive gesture.
There is no question that Abu-Jaber has a difficult task in Crescent. The writer of the modern Arabic-American novel takes on—for better or for worse—the current debates, contested interpretations and actual conflicts in the Islamic world as that world interacts with the United States and Europe. The consciousness of being part Arab, as in Sirine’s case, must come into play along with the accompanying facets of the post-Second World War environment of independence, when Arab nationalism, the 1967 War, the rise of the Palestine national movement, the 1973 War, the Lebanese War, and the Iranian Revolution produced an extraordinary series of highs and lows which has neither ended nor allowed the Western world a full understanding of the remarkable impact of the Middle East.
It is difficult, surely, to try to understand a region of the world whose principal features seem to be that it is in perpetual flux, and that no one trying to comprehend it can, by an act of pure will, stand outside that flux. The point outside that flux, then, must be the writer’s skill at aesthetic deployment. And here Abu-Jaber often falls short of the mark. Through a depiction of the sensual Arab world, her prose often too-consciously invokes an exoticized stereotype of the Middle Eastern World. Where prose used to describe a character’s gesture is often illustrative enough, Abu-Jaber feels the need to go a step further to over-emphasize, lest we forget she is writing about Arabic characters: “Han ticks back his head—the sad, Arab gesture.” When we are told that Han’s gesture is “Arab,” it undermines the individual identity of the character and communicates a more general, less unique assessment that holds the hand of the Western reader. By not paying more attention to the specifics of language that aesthetically, rather than culturally, render a character, Abu-Jaber runs the risk of reducing her novel to the aforementioned item of socio-political evidence, rather than a work of literature capable of asking questions of culture and identity in a subtle and reflective manner.
Western representation of the Middle East—and all non-European countries in general—depends on a flexible superiority that puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Middle East without ever losing the upper hand. The Western world then becomes the center of the meaning that defines and fixes the “other.” Representation, and consequently identity, are based on a binary opposition, with the West as the center and the Islamic world as the periphery and Other. Though Diana Abu-Jaber explores the vast differences between cultures in a manner that is timely and irreplaceable, the exploration of identity in Crescent is often too fixed and defined in essentialist terms.
Diana Abu-Jaber will read on Tuesday, May 11, in the Governor’s Room of the Florence Hotel. The reading will be preceded by dinner (for which the registration deadline has passed), but those wishing only to hear Abu-Jaber can stop by around 7 PM. Call 721-2881 for more information.