The grill at work is so wide Sirine must stand on tiptoes to reach all the way to the back. There are bright pans hanging from an overhead rack and magnetic rows of gleaming knives. Her arms are dashed with red slivers of burns, and as she bends to scrape the grill surface she feels its smell passing into her hair and clothes. Even after a day off, she can still catch whiffs of it as she turns her head. There is a ruby haze beneath the heat lamp, vapors rising from the stove, and everywhere the murmurings of the fans.
Nadia's Café is like other placescrowded at meals and quiet in betweenbut somehow there is also usually a lingering conversation, currents of Arabic that ebb around Sirine, fill her head with mellifluous voices. Always there are the same groups of students from the big university up the street, always so lonely, the sadness like blue hollows in their throats, blue motes for their wives and children back home, or for the American women they haven't met. The Arab families usually keep their daughters safe at home. The few women who do manage to come to America are good studentsthey study at the library and cook for themselves, and only the men spend their time arguing and being lonely, drinking tea and trying to talk to Um-Nadia, Mireille, and Sirine. Especially Sirine. They love her foodthe flavors that remind them of their homesbut they also love to watch Sirine, with her skin so pale it has the bluish cast of skim milk, her wild blond head of hair, and her sea-green eyes. She has the worst kind of hair for a chef, curly and viney and falling all over her shoulders, resisting ponytails and scarves and braids. She is so kind and gentle-voiced and her food is so good that the students cannot help themselvesthey sit at the tables, leaning toward her.
Um-Nadia, the owner of the café and all-around boss, is always tilting her hip against the students' chairs, keeping them company-she wears a flowered pink housedress with a deep V in frontall soft cleavage and dangling gold hoops and high-heeled too-small slipperswhile her daughter Mireille, and Victor Hernandez, the young Mexican busboy hopelessly in love with Mireille, and the Central American custodian Cristobal, and Sirine the chef are in motion around her.
"Paradise," Um-Nadia likes to say. "This life on earth is a paradise, if only we knew it." Sirine has heard her say this so many times she knows how to say it in Arabic.
Victor Hernandez, who looks a little like a short, Mexican Charlton Heston, smiles and raises his eyebrows at Mireille. Mireille looks away from him and frowns at the refrigerator.
Nine years ago, in 1990, the café had been owned by an Egyptian cook and his wife and they called it Falafel Faraoh. They enjoyed a strong following among the impoverished university students, who would rotate in the Friday Falafel Special with their regular diet of burritos, egg rolls, and hamburgers. But the Americans began firing on Iraq in 1991 when Iraqi president Saddam Hussein advanced into Kuwait. And suddenlyamid all the students in their jeans and T-shirts and short shorts, and a smattering of skinny Middle Eastern exchange students in tight slacks who had quickly discovered that Falafel Faraoh tasted nothing like homethere were two grown men in business suits sitting at the counter every day writing things in pads. All they did was glance at the Middle Eastern students and take notes. A cool, impenetrable wall surrounded these two men, separating them from everyone else and growing by the day as they sat there, drinking coffee and speaking quietly to each other. People started whispering: C.I.A. Gradually the students seemed less enticed by the big specials or the colorful advertising banner draped out front. Business began to falter, then fail. One day, after a month of sitting at the counter, the two men took the cook aside and asked if he knew of any terrorist schemes developing in the Arab-American community. The poor man's eyes grew round, his hands grew slippery with sweat and cooking grease, he squeezed his spatula till it hurt his palm; he saw the twin images of his own frightened face in the dark lenses of one of the stranger's glasses. He'd never heard of such a thing in his life. He and his wife liked to watch Columbo at night: that was all he knew about intrigues or crime. He thought he was living in America. That night he called his Lebanese friend Um-Nadia-who used to own a little sidewalk café in Beirut-and asked if she'd like to buy a restaurant, cheap, and she said, sure, why not?
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