Diana Abu-Jaber’s The Language of Baklava

cover artThere are memoirs, and there are cookbooks. A few authors have combined the two, but none that I’ve read have been so successful at it as Diana Abu-Jaber with her delightful The Language of Baklava.

Abu-Jaber has previously written two novels, Arabian Jazz and Crescent. She teaches at Portland State University in Oregon, and is an occasional book reviewer for The Oregonian, which is where I first encountered her writing. Born in New York, she is an Arab-American of mixed ancestry. Her mother is a Catholic of European heritage, her father a Jordanian Muslim of Christian (Syrian Orthodox) heritage.

This is really the story of Diana and her father Ghasan (or Gus, or Bud), who taught her to love food and cooking. Bud grew up in a huge family in Jordan, with uncles who still lived as nomadic Bedouins. He and most of his brothers moved to upstate New York in the mid-20th century, but he was the only one who stayed for long. He spent much of his adult life — which was most of Diana’s youth — torn between the two places, the two cultures, occasionally uprooting his family to return to Jordan for a few years, then giving in to the pull back to America. He’s always planning, constantly scheming, looking for a way to fulfill his frustrated dream of owning a restaurant where his wife and three daughters would work with him, whether in Jordan or America.

Diana deals with the disruptions, the moves and her father’s constant restlessness by immersing herself in the comfort of food. Food is the one common thread that runs through all of her sometimes chaotic life: her father’s spicy lamb, comforting lentils and rice and puffy pita; her mother’s beloved grilled cheese sandwiches; going out for “Oriental” food with her grandmother; swapping lunchbag treats with her multi-ethnic friends whose parents were also recent arrivals, from Russia, India, Africa.

Abu-Jaber writes of all this with a clarity and immediacy that are remarkable. She describes trips to the Jordanian desert so that you can see, feel and smell what she experienced. And she injects large doses of humor (often at her own expense), which at times was the only thing besides food that helped her survive. It’s not without its moments of horror, too, such as the time her father and uncles decided to reclaim their Bedouin heritage by killing and butchering their own lamb; or the suicide of one of her friend’s fathers, a Holocaust survivor; or Diana’s turning into a wraith-like punk after graduating from high school early and starting college at 16. Or the tale told by one of her Jordanian uncles when she visits as an adult, of the disastrous escape attempt by their all-but-enslaved maid.

Because she inherited her mother’s light skin and eyes and even had blonde hair, she was exotic to her Jordanian schoolmates and relatives. On her first trip to visit her Bedouin relatives at the age of about 8, she astonishes the women by spouting off in Arabic.

…”Why does she speak like that?” the first woman says. “Like a cat eating a bone.”
Munira (her family’s live-in maid) shrugs. “They all talk like that in the city.”
“Come on, child,” the crone urges me. “Say more!” They swivel back toward me.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t born with the ability to think on the spot. I open my mouth, take a deep breath, and blurt out, “Bread! Table! Mouse!”
The women bleat with laughter and the crone doubles over, almost toppling onto the heated rock. I glow with this unexpected triumph. “Milk, moon, tree! Feet, water, lizard! Bus, neighbor, napkin!” I gesticulate a little for emphasis.
The crone reaches over and pats Munira’s knee. “What a bizarre child,” she says, and wipes her eyes. “Truly God is great.”

Interspersed with the text are recipes for many of the dishes that figure in the story. Again, they’re leavened with humor, such as “Amazing Arabic ice cream,” “Magical Muhammara,” “Sentimental hot chocolate,” and “Poetic Baklava, for when you need to serenade someone.”

The recipes sound good; in fact I hope to try some of them. But the stories about the food, the family and the emotional rollercoaster that this shy but fiesty female grew up on are the real meat of this tale. You’ll be left hungering for more from Diana Abu-Jaber.

(Pantheon, 2005)

About Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.