Reading guide for Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber

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Crescent

By Diana Abu-Jaber

Crescent

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

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Discussion Questions

  1. Most love stories cast very young women as the "love interest," or else they feature older married women looking for an escape. The protagonist of Crescent, Sirine, is thirty-nine and unmarried. Do you think the author chose this age and situation deliberately? Why? Did it surprise you? What does it imply for the rest of the story?

  2. Could you tell, from the way this love story unfolds, t
    hat the author is a woman?

  3. What is the purpose of the tale that Sirine's uncle tells? Did you find it a distraction or did it help to inform the rest of the story? What do the tales of Abdelrahman Salahadin's several different slaveries and "drownings" mean or evoke?

  4. Diana Abu-Jaber has been a restaurant reviewer for the Portland Oregonian. Do you think making her main character a chef was just an opportunity for the author to weave in her own love of food and cooking? Or is there something else going on here?

  5. Both Han and Nathan have pasts in Iraq that remain shadowy for much of the novel. Does this make Han more attractive or more threatening? What about Nathan? Did you find yourself filling in the blanks of their past, and were your guesses right or wrong?

  6. When Han finally tells the story of his childhood in Baghdad, the emotional gravity of the novel suddenly shifts. Why? What has changed? How does it affect your sense of involvement with the characters? How does exile affect Han's sense of identity?

  7. The relationship between Sirine and Rana is complicated and highly charged. What do you think each of these women really thinks about the other? Why does each of them seem to see the other woman as some sort of challenge to her own identity? Do women actually use each other this way-as mirrors to reassure or to challenge their images of themselves? Is that good or bad?

  8. Virginia Woolf once said that literature would change once two women in a novel could actually be together in a room, without any men, talking to each other. Crescent is full of such moments. What role do they play in the novel? How would you compare the relationships between the women, between the men, and between the women and men in this novel? Are they all convincing? Are they equally important? What about the relationships between members of different generations?

  9. What was your reaction to Sirine's memories of her parents' death? How do you feel about her parents' desire to save the world, and its effect on Sirine? Combined with the story of the American woman in Baghdad, and the film crew in the desert in Sirine's uncle's tale, do you think the author is sending us a message or messages about Americans abroad, or about how Americans are perceived in other countries? What is she saying and do you think it's true?

  10. Do you have a different view of the Middle East after reading this novel? A different view of America?

  11. What are the various ways in which the title is echoed through the book? What does it evoke for you, in the end?

Welcome to the luscious flavors of Crescent and a meal from Nadia's Cafe. As the Arabs say: You are twice welcomed!

Tabbouleh Salad

What is the dish that first lures Hanif to Sirine? It's her tabbouleh salad, of course. You wouldn't think that such a basic, sturdy dish would have such magnetic attraction. But such is the power of a few fresh vegetables when they're chopped finely, dressed with just the right amounts of lemon and oil, and allowed to do their work.

Nobody ever wants to make the tabbouleh salad when they're throwing a party, because you've got to wash all that parsley and then mince and mince and mince until you think you're going to go mad. But then all the company comes over in their nice clothes, and they're so glad to see the good, simple tabbouleh salad on the table. Then they know that everything is going to be fine, the conversation will be witty, the women charming and the men flirtatious. Because once you combine the elements of tabbouleh together, you can't imagine that they should ever be separate.

1/4 cup medium bulgur (available in Mediterranean specialty stores)
3 bunches of parsley washed thoroughly and minced (take care not to bruise), stems discarded
3–4 scallions, finely sliced in rings
2 medium tomatoes, finely diced
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, and finely diced

Dressing:
1 lemon
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
salt to taste

Rinse bulgur, then cover with cold water and soak in a bowl for one hour. Change the water or add more if necessary (it will absorb some water and there should be water left over). Drain completely (you can even squeeze it out with your hands).

Toss ingredients together in a nice bowl. Stir in dressing.


Mjeddrah

Some people think of this dish as peasant food—it has no ornate sauces or intricate spices to elevate its status. But in Crescent, as in the everyday world, it is one of the dishes that people end up craving the most—especially when they move away from their countries and homes and families. It is the sort of dish that allows you to taste the deep flavor of its elemental ingredients: lentils, onions, and rice. And through these flavors, it seems that you taste the delicious notes of the earth itself, the place where you were born and raised, where you remember kicking a ball around until your mother was hollering for you—for heaven's sakes—to come in for dinner, already.

When you cook mjeddrah, its scent fills the whole house and notifies all the children and all the company know exactly what you are making. Gradually, they follow the entrancing fragrance into the kitchen where they lean over the counter and won't leave you alone until you put the plates in front of them, and then the flavors of childhood wash over everyone.

1 cup uncooked rice
1/2 cup dried brown lentils, soaked for one hour, rinsed several times, and drained
a pinch or two of cumin
1 beef bouillon cube
salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp butter
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil

In a medium saucepan mix the lentils into the uncooked rice, add 1-1/2 cups water, the cumin, and the bouillon cube. Add salt and pepper and the butter. Bring to a boil then cover and lower the heat to simmer. Fry the onion in the olive oil until golden brown. When the rice is done, take it off the heat, let it rest for twenty minutes, then fluff it with a fork, put it on a nice platter, and place the onions on top.

Serve with a chopped cucumber and mint yogurt mix on the side.


Roasted Leg of Lamb Stuffed with Garlic

All cooks need a signature dish: the dish that you make to impress visiting dignitaries or for the first time you meet your mother-in-law or for when you need to bribe someone with something extra wonderful. This is the meal that everyone talks about when they discuss dinner at your house, and they sigh and fan themselves and say, "Did you taste her leg of lamb? It's incredible!" And they feel very smug indeed, knowing that you only prepare it for VIPs.

I didn't taste roasted leg of lamb until I was nine years old. I can still remember discovering the embedded pockets of garlic that roasted with the meat, turning butter-soft and mellow, perfect for slathering over the fork-shreddable lamb. I was actually angry that my father had made me wait till I was nine before serving it to me. But a leg of lamb is an expensive cut of meat and sometimes people forget that children like to eat well too.

1 lean leg of lamb, 5–7 lbs
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
5 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup wine vinegar (or red wine)
4–5 carrots, peeled and cut in chunks
2 lbs small potatoes
1/2 lb mushrooms, peeled and quartered (if big)

Trim fat from the lamb. Mix the garlic with the salt and pepper. Put several slits in the lamb all over and stuff with the garlic mixture.

Heat the oil in big pot, add the onion and any excess garlic. Turn the heat to high and sear the lamb on both sides, about five minutes per side. Add the water and vinegar, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and cover. Bring to a simmer on medium heat. Cook 1-1/2 hours, turn the lamb, test the seasoning, and cook about 1/2 hour. Add the carrots and cook another 1/2 hour. Peel the potatoes, fry in a pan with olive oil and sautí until brown. Add the potatoes and mushrooms to the lamb and carrots in the pot and cook for another 1/2 hour.

Bring the leg out on a beautiful platter with the vegetables scattered around the meat, and the juice served on the side. Slice the meat against the grain and it will fall apart into fragrant, succulent pieces.


Stuffed Grape Leaves with Lamb Shanks

Sirine the chef rolls her grape leaves alone by the light of the moon because it's just that sort of dish: you have to be patient and have a nice long afternoon or evening laid out in front of you. It's the sort of task you lose yourself in: the mild, easy-going boredom of laying out the grape leaves, placing the rice filling just so, and seeing how neat and narrow you can roll them. There's a competition among certain members of my family about who makes the skinniest stuffed grape leaves, and one of my relatives likes to brag that hers are rolled tighter than cigarettes.

I can neither confirm nor deny such claims. Some say that the leaves are more tender if you roll them under a full moon. And my parents insist that the best leaves come from California. I can only say that if you give yourself to the gentle meditation of stuffing grape leaves, they will reward you with a luscious, juicy, beautiful meal.

1-1/2 cups Uncle Ben's rice
1/2 lb lean hamburger
1/2 cup finely minced parsley
6 fresh mint leaves, finely minced
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp cumin
salt and pepper to taste
1-1/2 cups water
1 large jar of (California) grape leaves
3 fresh lamb shanks, trimmed of fat
8 garlic cloves, cut in half
1 large can diced peeled tomatoes and juice
4 tsp olive oil
2 lemons

In a small bowl mix by hand the rice, hamburger, parsley, mint, cinnamon, cumin, salt and pepper, and 1 cup water. Mix thoroughly; it will have a thick, soupy consistency.

To stuff grape leaves: rinse the leaves carefully, then spread a leaf flat on a work surface. (My father says to use about 1/2 tsp stuffing if the leaf is small or 1 tbsp if the leaf is about the size of a woman's hand. Adjust accordingly!) Place the stuffing at the base of the leaf, roll once to cover, fold in the sides, then finish rolling.

Place the lamb shanks in the bottom of a large Dutch oven and sprinkle with 8 garlic clove halves. Place half the stuffed grape leaves on top of the shanks, line them in rows, folded side down. Sprinkle with the rest of the halved garlic. Top this with the rest of the stuffed grape leaves. Top with tomato, 3 tsp olive oil, 1/2 cup water, and the juice of two lemons.

Bring the pot to a boil, then lower to a simmer (check the juice after one hour and add water if dry). Simmer for a total of three hours. Eat with fresh yogurt. If you feel fancy you can stir a little chopped cucumber and minced garlic into the yogurt.

Serves 12.


Gh'rayba Cookies

We used to shape these cookies into crescent moons. It is also traditional to make sambusik cookies in the shape of crescents, but those are a lot more work, requiring a filling, etc. The beauty of gh'rayba is that they're so simple that a child can make them in the time it takes for your mother to have a good talk on the telephone before she notices you've messed up the kitchen. And they're made of the sorts of ingredients you usually have around, at the front of the cupboard where they're easy to reach. When it came time to name my novel, I thought of these tender cookies of my childhood, the purity of their ingredients, and their buttery sweetness with the exotic suggestion of orange blossom.

1 cup clarified butter
1 cup confectioner's sugar
1 tsp orange blossom water
2-1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup blanched almonds

Preheat oven to 325º.

Beat the butter, sugar, and orange blossom water together until fluffy. Add the flour gradually, and mix well.

Roll walnut-sized pieces of dough into finger shapes, then curve into crescent moons. Place one blanched almond in the center of each cookie.

Bake 20–25 minutes but avoid browning. Let cool on trays before transferring to rack.

Makes about 25.


Arabic Coffee

In Crescent, Sirine is forever bringing coffee to her customers and friends, and there is an important reason for this: in Middle Eastern cultures, coffee is a marker of transition. It signals beginnings and endings. It welcomes guests to your home, it is a stimulus to conversation, and it is a balm for the close of a long day. It is the best way to finish a wonderful meal and a graceful way for friends to offer one another something small yet full of flavor and feeling. One must always accept the offer of coffee in a Bedouin's home.

As the supposedly best Arabic coffee maker around, I was required to make the coffee for my father after dinner. Every night it was the same thing: I'd get out the blue enameled rakwi coffee pot with the long handle, tip in one tablespoon of coffee per cup, and then stand there, stirring and stirring by the stove, staring down in the deep brown liquid, waiting for the foam to rise. The last step was to drop a single saccharine pill instead of sugar into Dad's cup so he didn't feel so bad about eating baklava with his coffee.

2 tbsp fine ground Arabic coffee
1 cup water
1 cardamom seed (optional)
2 tsp sugar (as it is no longer easy to find saccharine pills)

Place the coffee in a small, open-mouth pot. Add the water and stir to mix. Bring o a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat. Add the cardamom and sugar and stir. Bring to a second boil, let it settle, then bring to a third and final boil—watch it closely; it rises quickly! Pour in demitasse cups, giving each a topping of foam—a clear indicator of an accomplished coffee maker.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of W.W. Norton & Company. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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