Even though Nadia's Café is in the middle of an Iranian neighborhood, there are few Iranian customers. After the long, bitter war between Iraq and Iran, some of Um-Nadia's Iranian neighbors refused to enter the café because of Sirine, the Iraqi-American chef. Still, Khoorosh, the Persian owner of the Victory Market up the street, appeared on Sirine's first day of work announcing that he was ready to forgive the Iraqis on behalf of the Iranians. He stood open-mouthed when he saw white-blond Sirine, then finally blurted out, "Well, look at what Iraq has managed to produce!" He asked if she knew how to make the Persian specialty khoresht fessenjan, his favorite walnut and pomegranate stew, and when she promised to learn, he returned later in the day and presented her with a potted pomegranate tree.
Sirine wears her hair tied back but still it hangs in damp tendrils all over, in the corner of her mouth, in her eyes. She works and listens to the bells ringing over the door, the door banging, conversations surging into argument and back again. There is always so much noise; there are birds arguing in the tree outside the kitchen window. Life is an argument! Um-Nadia says. When Sirine laughs and asks, what are they fighting about? Um-Nadia says, what else? The world.
Sirine looks up, past the hood of the heat lamp, watching customers fill the tables. More students, stripling-thin, faces narrowed with exhaustion, loneliness, and talking. She is frying onions and working on two dishes at once, chopping eggplant and stirring the leben-a delicate mellow yogurt sauce that needs constant stirring or it will break-and she watches the argument at the latest table. Four of them, including Hanif Al Eyad, have just come in. Rectangles of light pass over them from the windows in the door as it opens and closes. There are voices blurring and unblurring, complicated gestures, winding hands and arms. It sounds like the same sort of argument the students are always having-about America, the Middle East, and who is wronging whom-this time it's in Arabic, sometimes it's in English, usually it's a little of both.
She's noticed that Hanif frequently has an entourage of students in his wake, young men-and some women-who tentatively follow him, asking his opinion of things. Her main impressions of Hanif are of his hair, straight and shiny as black glass, and of a faint tropical sleepiness to his eyes. And there is his beautiful, lightly accented, fluid voice, dark as chocolate. His accent has nuances of England and Eastern Europe, like a complicated sauce.
Sirine has just turned from the leben to the eggplant when Hanif bursts into English, "Of course I love Iraq, Iraq is my home-and there is, of course, no going home-" and then back into Arabic.
She looks at him, the white of his teeth, the silky dram of skin, cocoa-bean brown. He's well built, tall, and strong. He laughs and the others follow his laughter. Um-Nadia has stationed herself beside him. Standing, one hip against the table, she holds her hand out as if she will curl her knuckles right through his hair. She sighs, tilts one foot on its shiny worn heel, then pats the puffed top of her own hair. She looks over, still smiling, to Sirine behind the counter, and says, "Roasted lamb, rice and pine nuts, tabbouleh salad, apricot juice." Then she blows a kiss.
Hanif glances at Sirine. She looks down, quick, a bunch of parsley pinched in her fingertips, rocks the big cleaver through a profusion of green leaves, onions, cracked wheat. Suddenly she remembers the leben and hurries to the big potful of yogurt sauce, which is just on the verge of curdling.
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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