A timely fiction about Iraqi intellectuals in Los Angeles blends the whimsy of Scheherazade-style storytelling with the urgency of contemporary politics.
Sirine lives an unruffled life in Los Angeles, winning the hearts and stomachs of the homesick Arab students who frequent the Middle Eastern restaurant where she is chef. At 39, she still sleeps in her childhood bed, in the home of her kindly uncle. When she was nine, Sirine’s parents (Iraqi father and American mother) were killed on the job as Red Cross relief workers, and Uncle’s home, filled with Arab scholars from the university where he teaches, has been her haven ever since. A new colleague of his begins frequenting the café—the handsome and kind Hanif. The two begin a passionate (and flavorful: much of the story is concerned with cooking) affair, but Uncle warns Sirine that Arabs are lonely people, exiled Arabs lonelier yet. Having escaped his beloved Baghdad just as Saddam Hussein came to power, Hanif hasn’t seen his family in 20 years and believes that his sister’s death is the result of his own subversive essays. Others give context to the romance: Um-Nadia, who owns the café, is always ready to read Sirine’s coffee-grounds; the poet Aziz, full of mischief, has an eye for Sirine himself; and Nathan, an American photographer who lived in Baghdad, may have more of a connection to Sirine and Hanif than anyone knows. Woven throughout is Uncle’s tall tale of Auntie Camille, who sells herself into slavery, journeys down the Nile to speak with the Mother of All Fishes, meets a mermaid, and then travels the desert with the Blue Bedouins, all in the hope of finding her naughty son, cousin Abdelrahman Salahadin (who may or may not have changed his name later to Omar Sharif). When Hanif grows withdrawn, there is the fear that he may return to Baghdad, to home, and to almost certain death.
What might have been the stuff of any romance is forged into a powerful story about the loneliness of exile and the limits of love. An impressive second outing by Abu-Jaber (Arabian Jazz, 1993).