The next month, Um-Nadia found Sirine, they scraped years of yellow grease off the walls, and reopened with a menu that claimed to be "Real True Arab Food." The two men in sunglasses promptly reappeared at the counter, but Um-Nadia, who said she'd seen worse in Beirut, chased them off the premises flapping her kitchen towel at them.
Um-Nadia says the loneliness of the Arab is a terrible thing; it is all-consuming. It is already present like a little shadow under the heart when he lays his head on his mother's lap; it threatens to swallow him whole when he leaves his own country, even though he marries and travels and talks to friends twenty-four hours a day. That is the way Sirine suspects that Arabs feel everything-larger than life, feelings walking in the sky. And sometimes when she is awake in the center of the night, the night cool and succulent as heart of palm or a little chicken kabob, Sirine senses these feelings rushing in her own blood. But she was also born with an abiding sense of patience, an ability to live deeply and purely inside her own body, to stop thinking, to work, and to simply exist inside the simplest actions, like chopping an onion or stirring a pot.
Sirine learned how to cook professionally working as a line cook and then a sous chef in the kitchens of French, Italian, and "Californian" restaurants. But when she moved to Nadia's Café, she went through her parents' old recipes and began cooking the favorite-but almost forgotten-dishes of her childhood. She felt as if she were returning to her parents' tiny kitchen and her earliest memories.
And the customers quickly returned to the restaurant, only this time there were many exchange students and immigrants from the Middle East. Sirine rolled out dough early in the morning in her open kitchen behind the counter and discreetly watched the students sipping coffee, studying the newspapers, and having arguments. Everything about these young men seemed infinitely vulnerable and tender: their dense curling lashes, soft round noses and full lips, winnowed-away faces and chests.
Sometimes she used to scan the room and imagine the word terrorist. But her gaze ran over the faces and all that came back to her were words like lonely, and young.
Occasionally, a student would linger at the counter talking to Sirine. He would tell her how painful it is to be an immigranteven if it was what he'd wanted all his lifesometimes especially if it was what he'd wanted all his life. Americans, he would tell her, don't have the time or the space in their lives for the sort of friendship-days of coffee-drinking and talking-that the Arab students craved. For many of them the café was a little flavor of home.
At Nadia's Café, there is a TV tilted in the corner above the cash register, permanently tuned to the all-Arabic station, with news from Qatar, variety shows and a shopping channel from Kuwait, endless Egyptian movies, Bedouin soap operas in Arabic, and American soap operas with Arabic subtitles. There is a group of regulars who each have their favorite shows and dishes and who sit at the same tables as consistently as if they were assigned. There are Jenoob, Gharb, and Schmaal-engineering students from Egypt; Shark, a math student from Kuwait; Lon Hayden, the chair of Near Eastern Studies; Morris who owns the newsstand; Raphael-from-New-Jersey; Jay, Ron, and Troy from the Kappa Something Something fraternity house; Odah, the Turkish butcher, and his many sons. There are two American policemenone white and one black-who come to the café every day, order fava bean dip and lentils fried with rice and onions, and have become totally entranced by the Bedouin soap opera plotlines involving ancient blood feuds, bad children, and tribal honor. There are students who come religiously, appearing at the counter with their newspapers almost every day for years, until the day they graduate and disappear, never to be seen again. And then there are the students who never graduate.
From Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber. Copyright 2003 by Diana Abu-Jaber. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton.
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No Man's Land
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