Food and stories to grow into: the pastiche of inclusions in Diana Abu-Jaber's writings.
The literary corpus of Diana Abu-Jaber encompasses a memoir, and three novels which are respectively entitled Arabian Jazz (1993), Crescent (2003), The Language of Baklava, a Memoir (2005), Origin (2007), besides the unpublished Memories of Birth and a few short stories. (2) Of these works, the current essay examines Crescent, a romance, and The Language of Baklava, a memoir, both of which are set between the Middle East and the United States. It reads into the coalescent pastiche of food and stories along the considered titles from the perspective of inclusion, rather than exclusion. In fact, the foundation of Crescent and The Language of Baklava on storytelling-next to feeding and its related register as a parallel leitmotif and via a powerful mixture of the high and the low- articulates, among other implications, the resistant response of Arab Americans to an exclusionary politics. (3) Consequently, it tries to put to the front a hopeful side of the Arab American experience or presence in the United States.
In consideration of this twofold interplay, the subtitle of the essay borrows, in part, from Abu-Jaber's forewordto The Language of Baklava and its reference to the writer's memoiras an assemblage of family stories tracing "the ways we grew into ourselves" (xi). Its choice tries to capture the overarching prominence of telling and feeding as integral components in the formation of an Arab American identity and literary tradition. As it is also suggested through the prefatory citation at the onset of this article, the interwoven communication between food and art in Abu-Jaber's texts entails special meanings turning around the issue of inclusion and partakes in the self-fashioning of an Arab American collective self in cultural and political terms.
As to the account for the titles which are selected as subjects of this essay, it has much to do with temporal and generic considerations. On the one hand, Crescent and The Language of Baklava were published consecutively which already prompts a question of intertexuality. On the other hand, they involve two different genres in female fiction writing, that is, a novel and what is dubbed a food memoir. However, this last aspect about generic disparity is not all the time conditioned by the use of different motifs. Indeed, although both textsbelong to seemingly incompatible literary modes, their manifest inclusions of food and stories are among the most outstanding dialogical features of cultural inclusion.
This paper will discover the extent to which the intertwinement of these two realms in Abu-Jaber's selected narrativescommunicates an intertextual denominator and shows their importance in the construction of a multilayered Arab American vision of oneself. At one level, the central goal is to demonstrate that the notion of a mutual concocting of food and stories foregrounds a mnemonic strategy of masquerade. At another level, we endeavour to explain the implication of the oral and the culinary in grounding the Arab American experience in the principle of a cross-cultural or collective identity. In this process, there is an emphasis on the incorporation of feeding and telling as a political act that expresses a strong sense of resistance to a predominant experience of exclusion in the United States. That is why, throughout the discussion of such manifestoes of inclusion, there is an equal reference to the urge to humanize Arab Americans, instead of perpetuating their diabolization.
The approach of the dovetailing uses of food and stories through Abu-Jaber's narratives, that is, as a means to construct an Arab American identity on the basis of a hybrid composite, is indebted theoretically to two major sources. Its main argument departs from the centrality of food as a cultural emblem in Arab American writings. The list of writers exploring food as a genre category is quite noticeable in the literary and critical heritage of Arab Americans. As a major instance, Joanna Kadi is the editor of a whole anthology of Arab American writings significantly entitled Food for our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab Canadian Feminists (1994). Her anthology is formed of a variety of essays, poems, fiction excerpts and personal records; all of them are enmeshed in the world of food. Diana Abu-Jaber, in turn, suggests a connection between feeding, belonging and subject-making, particularly, upon indicating that food is "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" ("The Only Response to Silencing"). Her standpoint turns feeding into a tool or tradition that ensures the collectivity, also coalition, of Americans from an Arab origin.
In addition to the prevalent literatures and criticisms evoking food as a component of identity formation, this article hinges back to an essay by Carol Bardenstein entitled "Transmissions Interrupted: Reconfiguring Food, Memory, and Gender in the Cookbook-Memoirs of Middle Eastern Exiles". In this work, Bardenstein emphasizes food as a whole system of signification, rather than a sheer drive. Indeed, Bardenstein calls attention to the awareness that for humans "'eating is never a 'purely biological' activity but, rather, one of many arenas in which we invest 'a basic activity with social meanings' that are 'symbolic, [...] communicated symbolically,' and that 'also have histories'" (355). (4) In her eyes, the resurgence of food in scholarly writings is intrinsically related to the participation of this metaphor "in the social, religious, and cultural lives of people", hence, the reference to "the ways food consumption, preparation, and transmission of knowledge about food has figured in how individuals conceive of themselves, affiliate and identify with home, homeland, and a range of social groupings" (356). (5) What follows from this reading is the view that food amounts to a means of communion, revolving around sharing, intimacy and longing for reunion.
Almost the same thing can be said of storytelling and its determining impact on shaping and reshaping an Arab American identity. In the framework of Arab American narratives, Gregory Orfalea points out,
[a]n Arab American did not have to go too far for inspiration on that account. He only had to sit and listen to an uncle cough out how he had survived the starvation in Lebanon by hauling a chandelier over the snowy mountain; she had to listen to her mother's long tale of woe at the hands of the Israeli or Iraqi or Libyan guard; they only needed to open their jug-like ears to a whole tradition of converting everyday life into verbal drama to know that story was very much as part of an Arab's way of finding and making meaning in the world. (115-6)
According to this passage, storytelling almost runs like blood in the veins of the Arab writer. Its appeal feeds on its dramatic encompassment of pain, suffering and oppression as common sagas in the Arab world and history.
As with the theoreticians cited above, Diana Abu-Jaber emphasizes the concurrent prominence of the oral/culinary tradition in her Arab legacy. For instance, she states that "storytelling, along with food, was one of the great pillars of my own cultural education" ("A Prophet in her Own Town" 221). In the same interview and in a reinforcement of the merging of feeding and telling, Robin E. Field refers to Crescent as a "story of love, jealousy, and betrayal, of searching for belonging in a new country and for roots in the old, and of the importance of food and storytelling to the body and the soul" (208). The statement reveals the crucial intermittent relationship in this combined examination of food and stories, as long as it is possible to perceive food and feeding as being doubly anchored to the physical and spiritual/symbolical kingdoms as are stories. It is in this sense that this work refers to the criss-crossing of both strategies, with storytelling as one form of feeding the mind and the spirit.
Having accounted for these central issues, the following paper considers, in more depth, the textual indicators of embedding storytelling both in feeding and in Abu-Jaber's narrative schemata to the extent of using the two as emblems of specularity, i.e. as reminders of a mirroring relationship. For this reason; only at the start of the analysis will telling and nourishing be used independently of each other. Soon, however, attention will be drawn to the ways they lapse into one another, hence, the treatment of their implications, not interchangeably, but in connection to each other. Their interdependence is based on the common purpose of their symbolic functions in Abu-Jaber's literary world, putting emphasis on a hybrid or metis identity which hovers between, at least, two cultures.
As a matter of fact, it should be noted that the reinforcement of the exchange between food recipes and stories has much to do with the consistence of the textual evidence on their interdependence. Amid other illustrations, the statement by Diana's aunt that "'eating is a form of listening'" can be termed the most prominent suggestion of interweaving feeding and telling as self-reflexive images (TLOB 191). "The stories were often in some way about food", Abu-Jaber notices, explaining that "the food always turned out to be about something much larger: grace, difference, faith, love" and so do the stories (Foreword xi). In terms of criticism, however, an exemplary echo of this concomitant re-integration is best captured in Lorraine Mercer and Linda Strom's discussion of Naomi Shihab Nye's poetry and Abu-Jaber's Crescent in an interesting essay, subtitled "Cooking Up Stories of Love and Loss". Such alternating references to food and stories always in connection to each other, let alone to their central determinations of oriental cultures, enhance the investigation of both acts of inclusion as reverberations of each other and their outstanding role in organizing Abu-Jaber's writings.
With this strong liaison in view, this discussion of the considered texts demonstrates the ways in which telling and feeding, beyond forming a pivotal intertextual dimension, also determine Abu-Jaber's configuration of each text and its internal structure. For instance, Crescent is structurally divided into a frame narrative that incorporates parts of Arabian Nights and a central love story inspired by William Shakespeare's Othello (Abu-Jaber, "A Prophet in her Own Town" 208). The frame story has strong affinities with fairy tales, that is, traditional stories "chanted down by oral transmission [...] from the past" and whose "subject matter consists in a general way of elements arising out of the idea of magic" (Collingwood 115). It should also be pointed out that the frame narrative in Crescent is not utterly "a classic text of the Middle eastern literary tradition", but rather a fusion of Arabic tales and Hollywood movies featuring Arab nomads and film stars such as Omar Sherif in Lawrenceof Arabia (Donadey 64).
Through these myriad adaptations, what is important is proving the oral-culinary thread running between text and pretext or para-text. In Recasting Postcolonialism: Women Writing Between Worlds, Anne Donadey indicates that, rather than being a true border, the para-text mostly serves as "a threshold, or a "vestibule". [...] "An undefined zone" between inside and outside, [...] on the fringe [...] between text and hors-texte" (98). (6) Of the threshold, Donadey says that not only does it "mark the boundary between inside and outside, but at the same time, it deconstructs the opposition between the two terms by allowing the passage from one to the other" (98).
This essay is not concerned with the adaptationof Othelloper se, but instead with the enclosure of text and para-text, that is, with the ways the legendry exploits of Abdelrahman Salahadin and his mother speak to the love story of Sirine, an American of Iraqi and Irish origins, and Hanif, an Iraqi exile (Abu-Jaber, "A Prophet in her Own Town" 209). In this vein, Sirine's uncle calls Salahadin's folkloric tale, which he recounts in the pre-text of Crescent, "the story of how to love" (15). The criss-crossing here between text and pre-text, or frame and kernel, establishes a bridge to the central romance between Hanif and Sirine. As such, the prefatory story in Crescent becomes imbued with what we might call a specular essence, given its "function as a kind of looking glass" for the lovers in the essential plot of Abu-Jaber's novel ("A Prophet in her Own Town" 221).
In conjunction with the dialogical dimension between the text and the para-text, it is crucial to comment on the identity of the story-teller in the pretext i.e., Abdelrahman Salahadin's tale. The writer refers to Sirine's uncle, who functions as the surrogate father in the novel, as "a consummate storyteller of Arabic folklore and proverbs" ("A Prophet in her Own Town" 215)(emphasis mine). Already, the mixed oral-culinary metaphor, referred to through the italicized phrase in the previous quotation, enhances the idea of letting feeding cross over to the art of telling or narrating a story. To draw on Mercer and Strom afresh, this mingled image creates a sort of communion between "Sirine's focus on food and her uncle's focus on storytelling. These trajectories intersect in the kitchen, where she feeds him the Arabic food he loves, and he feeds her the Scherazade-like tale of his great Aunt Camille and her son Abdelrahman Salahadin's adventures in a fantastical Arabian landscape" (40). In this specific example, the motifs of feeding and telling interact as aesthetic strategies of connecting text and con-text.
In a similar process that consolidates the philosophy of Sirine's uncle about telling and feeding as interferential scopes, Sirine demonstrates that, from the simple act of tasting different flavours and smelling aromas, she can identify the essential ingredients of almost every meal with precision. Her proper philosophy is that "food should taste like where it came from. I mean good food especially. You can sort of trace it back [...] so the best butter tastes a little like pastures and flowers [...] Things show their origins" (Crescent 69). Even when Aziz, a Syrian poet appointed as a visiting professor in L.A. campus, asks her "to consider the difference between looking at a person and looking through their eyes'", Sirine picks up on his analogy, commenting, "'that's how I feel about eating'" (Crescent 196). She explains that "tasting a piece of bread that someone bought is like looking at that person; but tasting a piece of bread that they baked is like looking out of their eyes'" (Crescent 196-7). Beyond evincing that feeding and telling could be used as mirrors, such instances transcend the conventional attitude about food as only a basic need, affirming its possible implication of a lucid world-view which sees through nourishment a form of situating oneself from inside and outside.
Even Abu-Jaber's structural and thematic conception of The Language of Baklava harkens back to Crescent by intertwining myriad food expressions, descriptions and metaphors to convey that "the body is the place of the spirit" ("A Prophet in her Own Town" 224). In the same interview, Abu-Jaber explains that her memoir "is about how a family is born, about the creation of and the development of the life of a family. Our family is a character in that sense, and it's a character that's formed around food: food as a way of instructing us and containing our cultural legacy" (225). To account further for the genesis of her memoir and explain its arrangement, Abu-Jaber comments that 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" ("The Only Response to Silencing"). As such, the choice of food is embedded in the notion of a cultural identity as much as it provides Abu-Jaber with a significant scheme of outlining her narrative and concocting an adequate chapter division. More than this, while food-obsession anchors the memoirist to her roots it seems to have the liability of isolating her from an immediate milieu.
Overall, The Language of Baklava turns out to be a pastiche of Arab classic food recipes and others which are American. The former include shish kabob, Arabic ice cream, mensaf lelben, lamb kofta, maglouba, tabbouleh, muhammara, falafels, bamia, baklava, araq, baba ghanouj, spinach-stuffed fetayer, fattoush, mezza, garlic-stuffed roasted leg of lamb and roasted fish in tahini sauce. Abu-Jaber puts these names side to side with pita bread, grilled Velveeta sandwiches, grilled chicken, civilized panna cotta and roast beef. This selection of dishes could trigger a connection between the urge to inspire from a combination of an oral culinary tradition and the endeavour to familiarize the American reader with the Arabic names of these meals. The prominence of this selection requires further thought upon the rationale behind the leitmotif of eating and its connecting thread with telling for the Arab American.
With particular reference to The Language of Baklava, the food recipes, their components, preparation, being complex and infinite, and shifting placements are integrated as reverberations of the slippery, unstable aspect of the very act of remembering or retrieving the family's past lore. As Abu-Jaber suggests, "one of the barriers that I came up against in writing The Language of Baklava was that our memories and our lives don't seem to fall into neat, narrative arcs [...] Memory tends to be fragmentary; it tends to be diffuse" ("All Things Considered"). Beyond an ethnic ornamentation of the narrative, the representation of food recipes as a pastiche best embodies the fragmented process of re-collecting personal memories. In the same way, this choice could serve the memoirist to get through the fear of self-revelation. Abu-Jaber takes such a strategic patterning of recipes as a form of a poetic licence that allows self-protection against the troubles of honest, overt, at times, embarrassing family revelations and gives the author "something to hang it on, or hide behind" ("A Prophet in her Own Town" 224). This way, the description of food rituals helps underestimate the stakes of the venture to tell about the personal.
In line with the deliberate masquerade through food recipes, the concept of juxtaposing a wide range of American and Arab recipes, through Crescent and The Language of Baklava, or also adapting Eastern and Western traditional sources in the fable forwarding each single chapter of Crescent seems to work towards manifesting the arbitrariness and volatility of borders. In fact, the structural asset of culinary, even oral, inspirations should not lead to downplaying their combined focus on instability at the level of identity representation. Mercer and Strom focus on a prevalent trait of Abu-Jaber's considered writings, the portrayal of characters resistant to "categorization as Arab, American, [...] Arab American" or other (40). Aziz emerges out as a major instance of this impossibility, especially, as he comments "I am Aziz, I am large, I contain multitudes. I defy classification" (Crescent 93). Similar multitude is also typical of other Arab American characters such as Sirine, an olive fair-skinned half Arab with "almond-shaped, and sea-green" eyes (Crescent 17), or even Rana, a university student at UCLA wearing the hijab, but also a woman activist affiliated with a Women in Islam group (168-71). Liminality extends to apply to the covered man who kidnaps Abdelrahman and is, actually, a covered woman who, unveiled, becomes the mermaid Queen Alieph (Crescent 326). Mercer and Strom push the argument of fluid representations further, noticing that the "Los Angeles police officers wander into Um-Nadia's Cafe, not to harass the Middle Eastern proprietor and clientele, but in search of hummus and to catch up on their favourite Arabic soap operas on T.V". (41). The statement points out Abu-Jaber's commitment to opposing binaries and interweaving cultures, initially, heralded with the publication of Arabian Jazz. (7)
Integral to this issue is the emphasis on cross-culturalism. On her forty-first birthday, Sirine receives two cookbooks from her uncle, On the Delights and Transfigurations of Food (Crescent 314) and Kitab al-Wusla Ila 'L-Habib, or The Book of the Link with the Beloved (342). Mercer and Strom observe that, going through its recipes, Sirine figures out that food "can serve as common denominator", for such staples of middle-eastern cooking as olives, garlic, lentils, and other foods "are also the main ingredients in the foods of other cultures". Indeed, they "migrated with travellers throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, [...] illustrating the illusory nature of borders and nationality" (43). In fact, Sirine, herself, purchases her favourite spices from an Iranian shop whose proprietor is willing to tolerate the Iraqi infringements of the Iranian border in the eighties in gratitude for Sirine and in a tribute to her exquisiteness (Crescent 20). Right here, food is a metaphor of the writer's inclusion in her immediate time and place.
Accordingly, the descriptions of food ingredients, their migratory origins and transcultural clients amount to "a kind of contact zone" or "the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations" and overcome cultural entities (in Mercer, Strom 39). (8) However, it should be asserted that "the contact zone formed in Crescent is a domestic one, situated in cafes, kitchens, and homes; it establishes the theme of the world-as-home and the theme of the personal as political" (39). To the extent that the contact zone suggests fusion and goes beyond conflicting encounters, it also hinges back to Gloria Anzaldua's description of metissage as a state of in-betweeness which is replete with myriad possibilities, rather than troubles. Anzaldua argues,
[a]t some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes. Or perhaps we will decide to disengage from the dominant culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory. Or we might go another route. The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react. (100-1)
In a similar way to Anzaldua, Abu-Jaber seems to uproot all hegemonic discourses of binary thinking and take issue with exclusive frontiers, in favour of anchoring every cultural aspect or sense of identity affiliating with as many layers of subjectivity as it is possible.
As described by Abu-Jaber, this alternative identity-formation makes sense only in the context of her father's faith in constant movement. "My father and his brothers fly back and forth, back and forth, whisking over the oceans and continents. They live their lives in the air, in the ether of in-between, the borderlands" (TLOB 326). Abu-Jaber goes so far as to depict her status as an ever-shifting self or a metis, living between Jordan and the United States, as an appealing fate:
We grow into the curve of what we know; for me, that was my family's rootlessness and my father's control and scrutiny-movement and confinement. I am surely a Bedouin as anyone who have travelled in a desert caravan. A reluctant Bedouin-I miss and I long for every place, every country, I have ever lived-and frequently even the places my friends and my family have lived and talked about as well-and I never want to leave any of these places. I want to cry out, to protest: why must there be only one home! Surely there is one as bad, as heartbroken, as hopeless at saying good-bye as I am. The fruits and vegetables, the dishes and the music and the light and the trees of all these places have grown into me, drawing me away. And so I go. Into the world, away. (TLOB 327-8)
The passage makes clear the embrace of cross-culturalism and the endeavour to break free from the restrictions of ethnocentrism, including the archetypal tendency to dissolve in the WASP melting pot.
In another respect, the best manifesto of incorporating food in order to transcend cultural and racial boundaries lies in the "Arablish" (Crescent 264) Thanksgiving dinner which is concocted by the Arab American chef (193-200). Of pertinence to the hybrid idea behind this nomenclature is the notion that even in the Abu-Jaber family the writer conceives of Thanksgiving as "a way of being American and having an American tradition that also seemed to make room for our difference" ("A Prophet in her Own Town" 217). In view of the fact that the writer grew up in a family where food amounts to "the metaphor for cultural memory", Thanksgiving can be considered "the apotheosis, the place where we could have long-standing American traditions: my mom's traditions, and what she knew about Thanksgiving and being American, accompanied with my dad's great love of cooking and food and the memory that comes through his dishes" ("A Prophet in her Own Town" 217-8).
In Mercer and Strom's investigation of Crescent, there is a pointer to the considered feast as "a hybrid holiday" matching a wide range of origins, nationalities and cultures (43). Unrelated by blood, the guests and acquaintances come up from diverse backgrounds ranging from Europe to Elsalvador, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Palestine. In a similar way, their names range from Shark (East) to Gharb (West), Schmaal (North), Jenoob (South), Eliazar, Cristobal and so on. All of them partake in an unconventional Thanksgiving celebration with seemingly disconnected contributions, including "a big round fatayer-a lamb pie-that Aziz brought from the green-eyed girl at the Iranian bakery; six sliced cylinders of cranberry sauce from UmNadia; whole roasted walnuts in chilli sauce from Cristobal" and "three homemade pumpkin pies and a half-gallon of whipping cream" from Victor Hernandez (Crescent 193). To this cocktail Sirine adds her personal preparations for the feast by looking "up Iraqi dishes, trying to find the childhood foods that she'd heard Han speak of, the sfeehas-savoury pies stuffed with meat and Spinach-and round mensaf trays piled with lamb and rice and yogurt sauce" (Crescent 191). Once presented altogether on the dinner table, the banquet becomes an icon of cultural fusion and cross-culturalism, in turn, re-affirming cooking as a political gesture (Mercer, Strom 43). (9)
Moreover, it is interesting to note that the range of meals which are prepared on this occasion is no less trespassing or transcendent of boundaries than the dinner conversation. The latter progresses from gossiping about the cafe customers, the students and the teachers at California university, Los Angeles to politics about the Middle East and, more essentially, food and poetry (Crescent 196-7) and questions of identity such as what it means to be American or to be in America (Mercer, Strom 44). The same critics rightly note that the sharing of the bounty of food and the generosity of the community that gathers to cook, eat, and share their stories plays a major role in alleviating the losses suffered due to death and exile (45). That is, cooking and eating together become both commemorative acts and variables of translation, which brings in Hanif's expertise as a translator of Arabic and English literatures. More than this, they provide an antithesis to the false split between the private and the public.
Likewise, this diverse gathering on Thanksgiving can be accounted for as having everything to do with Abu-Jaber's conviction in the merits of inspiring ethnic solidarity from the coalition of Arab Americans not only with each other but, more importantly, with other minorities. As Abu-Jaber puts it,
we need to do more broadly-based identity building. If people from Arab countries in America want to have a stronger presence and a stronger voice, probably the most practical option is to band together and to do it under a broader rubric. Just saying "Egyptian" or "Syrian" is not going to do it. I think that's been part of the problem for many of Middle Eastern extraction-tribal differences have broken down any kind of coalition-building. We really need to band together, not only within the Arab countries, but also within other Middle Eastern countries and all different kinds of minority and cultural affiliations. We should be reaching out to Asian Americans and African Americans and so on, in order to allow their trajectories to inform our own. ("A Prophet in her Own Town" 223-4)
The writer seems to say that a real inclusion of Arab Americans in the United States is contingent on their communal efforts and cross-cultural bonds with Asian, African and Latin Americans as well as on following in the footsteps of their activism.
Interestingly, the idea of interweaving two cultures without losing one's difference grows with Abu-Jaber until amounting to the status of a creative project which turns on criss-crossing at least two cultures. Speaking highly of this scheme, Abu-Jaber says "[m]y grant proposal describes a novel that I will write about characters undergoing ambitious self-excavation, recovery, and reconciliation as they move between countries. It is set in both America and the Middle East, and it is meant to draw together my own deep cultural ambivalences-to try to look right at the conundrum of being Arab-American. Arab and American" (TLOB 235). Similar admissions express the power of cross-culturalism on Abu-Jaber's literary and conceptual world, one that rejects ethnocentrism in favour of a more universal transcontinental enhancement of identity. This way, they legitimate the idea of re-interpreting Abu-Jaber's creative fusion of oriental food and stories as "a form of oppositional discourse" to standardization (Donadey 118).
This very argument remains inseparable from the merging of eating and telling as being intrinsically encompassed in a striking hunger "for home, for family, for the old smells and touches and tastes" (TLOB 6). In fact, in commenting on the loving gesture of Abu-Jaber's Jordanian American father sharing the pleasure of a communal meal with his numerous brothers back in Jordan, the writer holds that "the greatest form of affection, actually, is to feed a guest or a friend from your own hand. And it's very sensuous, very all-encompassing way of eating and involving yourself in food, involving yourself in family and community" ("All Things Considered"). Described with caution and succinctness, the same food ritual sets up the deep connection between food and memory and recuperates a nostalgic fragment in the childhood of Ghassan Abu-Jaber, the writer's father, and his siblings back in Jordan as they feed each other with their hands (TLOB 326). In this sense, the scenes of habitual feeding are integrated in the memoir to weave a narrative "of origin and belonging", as Lisa Suhair Majaj puts it (266).
It follows from this that reconciling with one's mother culture through food is as overarching as self-compromise on the grounds of a tactile view of the world. In this respect, Crescent transforms food into a significant means to making peace with oneself, one's past and present, the world around and its system of signification. Thus, if there is something that saves Sirine from total surrender to the despair resurgent after her parents' death it is the staying power that she is able to derive from cooking to others or eating together with them. Suffice it to scrutinize her ability to grasp the life, the love and the richness that could be enveloped inside a forkful of sweet potatoes into her mouth:
The potatoes are soft as velvet, the gravy satiny. It is as if she can taste the life inside all those ingredients: the stem that the cranberries grew on, the earth inside the bread, even the warm blood that was once inside the turkey. It comes back to her, the small secret that was always hers, for years, the only truth she seemed to possess-that food was better than love: surer, truer, more satisfying and enriching. As long as she could lose herself in the rhythms of peeling an onion, she was complete and whole. And as long as she could cook she would be loved. (Crescent 194)
Hence, as long as Sirine cooks and nurses her culinary expertise as a chef she grasps her sense of being and, even, turns what sounds mere commonsense into something further meaningful. In this same sense, the fact that Hanif eats the meals prepared by Sirine is what enables him to realize the emotional essence that the language of cooking serves for Sirine. As the latter tastes the outcome of her recipes, she ponders upon "the small secret that was always hers, for years, the only truth she seemed to possess--that food was better than love: surer, truer, more satisfying and enriching. As long as she could lose herself in the rhythms of peeling an onion, she was complete and whole. And as long as she could cook, she would be loved" (Crescent 194).
At a larger scope, nobody should miss the function of embracing the collective feeding/eating rituals as an integral part of what we can term as corrective strategies that run counter to the misrepresentations of Arab Americans which are dominant in American media. "In this country", one of Diana's cousins complains, "the Arabs are seen only through the lens of politics. The TV says we're oil sheikhs or fundamentalists or terrorists or all three at once. It's all stereotypes! We have no charm or texture! When do we get to have homes and parties and jokes and children? We need a strong national identity! We're held hostage by ideology, by things like Hollywood and politics and Palestine" (TLOB 128-9). In opposition to these discursive misconceptions, the notion of leaning back on the tactile should be viewed as being indivisible from a community project towards humanizing Arabs for a US white audience (Mercer, Strom 39). In her interview of Abu-Jaber, Andrea Shalal-Esa refers to the impulse "to put a human face on people who are culturally erased and provide human histories, family life, the day-today things that people can relate to, food, family, love, loss" ("The Only Response to Silencing").
In this same context and on the basis of "the issue of 'gender shifts'", Abu-Jaber provides outspoken instances in which her own father "becomes engaged in a traditionally 'female' cultural sphere" (Bardenstein 258-9). "On his days off', Ghassan Abu-Jaber "cooks and croons in Arabic to the frying liver and onions songs about missing the one you love" (TLOB 20). "In the end", Diana notices in reference to her own father, "the type of food doesn't matter so much to Bud; it's cooking it and feeding people and watching them eat, keeping them alive in the desert of the world-that is all he really cares about" (TLOB 325). Having eventually fulfilled his dream of establishing his own restaurant, Ghassan Abu-Jaber grasps the inevitable relationship between cooking for others, compromising with himself and his food-obsessed roots.
A similar implication of mutuality interwoven in feeding can be reached out in Crescent. As a matter of fact, there is a great deal of emotions encompassed in the act of preparing meals. Involved in the processes of transmission and creativity, eating and cooking together emerge out as the best revelation of the lovers' private language of desire. Principally, Hanif realizes the implications of cooking and feeding lovingly, particularly, considering how he feeds Sirine a "morsel of lamb from his fingers" (Crescent 299). More than this, Abu-Jaber brings to the fore a joint awareness of food as a means to communicate love through the collaborative making of baklava, a sweet cake based on almonds and other fruits (Crescent 59-61). During this particular episode, focus is on Hanif and Sirine fumbling through the layers of dough together. Such examplessend out a sense that "food is such a great human connector, it's so intimate" ("The Only Response to Silencing"). Thus, a joint preparation of meals turns out into a metaphor for a state of intimacy.
At the heart of humanizing the Arab father, in particular, and endowing him with a great deal of sympathy and admiration, we also place his portrayal as a resourceful storyteller. In this regard, Abu-Jaber states: "Storytelling was very important when I grew up. My father and uncles are all great storytellers, and they regaled us with jokes, fables and reminiscences about their growing-up years" ("A Prophet in her Own Town" 221). A similarly powerful message runs through The Language of Baklava wherein the memoirist describes her father's interest in telling stories as follows:
Bud is a great talker in our family of mostly listeners. He soliloquizes on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, beginning with the Bible; delivers a dissertation on free will versus destiny; and offers several exhortations addressing the nature of animals, the difference between men and women, and the meanings of the universe. He tells endless jokes and instructional stories starring his favourite classic Arab character--Jeha the joker. (153)
Time and again, emphasis is placed on Ghassan Abu-Jaber as an archetypal joker and a powerful storyteller. Also depicted as an expert cook, Diana's father contributes in undermining the stereotype of the Arab terrorist.
As such, the incorporation of folkloric tales and traditional/hybrid meals, either in The Language of Baklava or in Crescent, is not just the best embodiment of the crucial impetus of both as a rich and principal muse for the Arab American writer. More than this, it is, in certain respects, an illustration of a resistant valorization of one's humanity and cultural legacy as an American-born Arab. It also shapes the argument in favour of inclusion, to the detriment of and in response to exclusion, with the aim of registering the oppositional nature of interweaving food and stories as counter-manifestoes and strategies of resisting the exclusion of Arab communities in the United States as "The Most Invisible of the Invisibles" (Kadi, Introduction xix). "In the United States and Canada", Joanna Kadi observes, "it is not only white people who refuse to see us, it is other people of color--Latinos, Africans, Asians, Natives-who do not acknowledge our existence" (Introduction xix-xx). Abu-Jaber's works counteract these processes of exclusion by affirming that the "only response to silencing-besides our paranoia-is to keep speaking" ("The Only Response to Silencing"). At the core of this discourse of resistance is situated the positioning of feeding and telling as crucial parallels.
The focus of this article has been on tracing the use of telling and cooking back to the vitality of revising cultural roots as assets, rather than a stigma, and exploring the challenges of blending "past with present, the personal with the political" (Mercer, Strom 45). Indeed, the manifest inclusion of scenes and metaphors, adhering to food recipes and tales, stands for a form of ideological commitment which belies the notion of every ethnic story as a non-relational biography i.e., as a purely personal narrative. By registering the intersecting essence of similar acts of self-inclusion at evoking the urgency of integrating Arab Americans in American culture-without uprooting their cultural distinctions from mainstream norms, such an aspect partakes in scrambling the foundational myth of ethnic narratives "as self-expressive of an autonomous individuation" (Smith 114).
What is worth inferring about the comparable insertion considered in this article is that it equally affirms "the boundary markers delimiting the sites of the included and the excluded" (Smith 114). In fact, the cultural components which could exclude a community from a mainstream culture are the same things for which this community could be re-included. At one level, the examples about the deliberate use of Arab dishes, without even translating them, could evince out an impulse of familiarization as much as it speaks for "an avenue for questioning boundaries of culture, class, and ethnicity" and "a natural repository for memory and tradition and [...] the possibility for imagining blended identities and traditions" (Mercer, Strom 33). They are evidence that acceptance does not have to mean melting in the kaleidoscope as a prerequisite. At another level, since the memoirist's traditional recipes re-connect her to her paternal Arabian heritage, it, therefore, can serve as a strong ground for separating the immigrant from the target immediate culture. As such, the same strategies which are twisted in order to rationalize the (in)visibility of Arab Americans in the United States also amount to possible terrains for their visibility when re-examined.
To conclude, this essay has attempted to demonstrate the ways in which Crescent and The Language of Baklava make food metaphors and ingredients a fil conducteur in structural and thematic terms. Indeed, the prominent intersection of culinary and oral dictions, images and contents alert us to the dovetailing of physical and symbolical nurturing as a unifying principle tying texts and pre-texts. Via the myriad layers of weaving the culinary and the oral, Diana Abu-Jaber features a dynamic trajectory in reducing the dichotomous division between fiction and non-fiction in her literary career. It is in this sense that the processes through which Crescent spills over to The Language of Baklava have been pointed out so as the latter two end up foregrounding their dialogical affinities.
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(1) Subsequent citations from The Language of Baklava will figure as TLOB placed between parentheses. However, parenthetical references to Crescent will appear without abbreviation.
(2) Abu-Jaber's short stories include examples like "Sister", "Clean Room", "The Royal We" and "For the Time Being", to name only a few titles.
(3) For an exploration of an American exclusionary history in relation to the experiences of Arab Americans in the United States, see Keith Feldman, "The (Il) legible Body and the Fantasy of National Democracy,"MELUS 31.4 (Winter 2006): 33-53.
(4) See Sidney Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture, and the Past (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996): 7.
(5) Among other voluminous works, Bardenstein bases her thesis on food writings by Goody 1982, Sered 1988; Curtin and Heldke 1992; Bower 1997; Counihan 1999; Korsmeyer 1999 and Van Gelder 2000 (n. 4, 256).
(6) Gerard Genette argues in that the paratext can be seen as "un seuil, ou ... un 'vestibule.' ... 'Zone indecise' entre le dedans et le dehors," "frange" "entre le texte et le hors-texte" (8).
(7) The title itself could be studied as part and parcel of this thrust for opposing cultural boundaries. For an interesting analysis of this thesis, see Michelle Hartman, "'this sweet/sweet music': Jazz, Sam Cooke and Reading Arab American Literary Identities," MELUS 31.4 (Winter 2006): 145-165.
(8) Mary Louise Pratt. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York: Routledge, 1992.6.
(9) It is ironical that Abu-Jaber equally reveals how this harmony is somehow utopian or still impossible, noticing that the same "scene is tainted by Aziz bringing the lamb pie cursed by the evil eye", therefore, suggesting "that this combination is not going to work" ("The Only Response to Silencing").
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|Author:||Abidi, Sihem Arfaoui|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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