Reviewed by Pamela Constable
Sunday, July 6, 2003


By Diana Abu-Jaber | Norton. 349 pp. $24.95


By Khaled Hosseini | Riverhead. 324 pp. $24.95


By Laila Halaby | Beacon. 220 pp. Paperback, $13

The past decade has produced a rich lode of soul-searching fiction by hybrid Americans, many of them second-generation immigrants from Latin America and Asia. Their backgrounds vary widely, but all have explored similar terrain: the cultural tensions between Here and There, the tugs of old-world tradition and new-world opportunity, the search for identity in transit.

Now it's the Muslim Americans' turn, and none too soon. There are more than 5 million people with roots in the Middle East and other Muslim societies living in the United States today, yet they remain among the most insular and mysterious of all immigrants. Since Sept.11, 2001, they have also become widely mistrusted and feared -- a serious problem that only proximity, exposure and, perhaps, literature can change.

With varying degrees of stylistic success, these three novels -- one by an Afghan-American man and two by Arab-American women -- all make valuable contributions to bridging that gap. Not only do we meet sympathetic Muslim characters and briefly inhabit their close-knit communities in California, Arizona and New York, but -- far more important -- we get a sharp, unforgettable taste of the trauma and tumult they fled in Kabul, Baghdad and Gaza.

The most timely of the trio is Diana Abu-Jaber's Crescent, a sensual feast that surrounds us with a comforting cushion of romantic and culinary delights in contemporary ethnic Los Angeles, then shocks us when the tentacles of Saddam Hussein's regime reach into this free-spirited world and drag one of the central characters back into Iraq's malevolent maw.

Abu-Jaber works Proustian charms on the reader. Her protagonist, a sybaritic chef named Sirine, entices us with her aromatic word-confections into kitchen and bedroom, tossing salads that taste like oceans, dreaming of her lover's dark-chocolate voice, and feeling his fingertips "as if he were drawing warm butter all over her skin."

Sirine symbolizes the completely assimilated immigrant: sexually independent, at ease in American culture, a lapsed Muslim who rarely prays and barely glances at news from the Middle East. And yet she is also of its roots: steeped in Arabic food and literature and music, surrounded by lonely exiles and deeply attracted to Hanif, an Iraq-born professor with a secret link to his homeland. Ultimately, Hanif's unquenchable longing for home, and his guilt at having escaped while others still suffer, draw him back to Hussein's Baghdad despite his love for Sirine -- and the probability that he will be arrested or killed. "I can't stop myself . . . my country won't let go of me," he writes her from Heathrow Airport, en route to confront his fate.

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