Cooking and Writing Arab America

By Pauline Homsi Vinson

The Language of Baklava: A Memoir
By Diana Abu-Jaber
Anchor Books, 2005

Diana Abu-Jaber’s latest book, “The Language of Baklava: A Memoir,” presents a series of delectable recipes and dramatic vignettes drawn from the author’s experiences growing up with an Arab immigrant father in America. The variety of foods and episodes depicted in the memoir are fittingly personal and so reflect a highly individualistic view of what it means to grow up with an American mother and a Jordanian father.

Those who reach for this book in search of a tribute to Arab culture and food, however, will most likely be disappointed, as the book presents a hybridized version of Arab culture, one filtered through the perspective of an American daughter who has not always found it easy to claim her Arab heritage. On the other hand, those interested in a well-crafted, bitingly humorous look at the trials and tribulations of growing up biculturally will appreciate Abu-Jaber’s attention to detail, her evocation of taste and texture, and her ability to mingle food recipes with storytelling as well as Arab with American culture.

Through a mélange of American and Arab settings and sensibilities, Abu-Jaber recreates vivid scenes from her childhood that include not only sights and sounds, but distinctive tastes as well. In ways reminiscent of Laura Esquival’s “Like Water for Chocolate,” but without the magic realism, each chapter in Abu-Jaber’s memoir presents significant scenes of childhood served with an emotionally-charged recipe. By mingling food recipes with reminiscence, Abu-Jaber seems to be suggesting that the foods we eat and the stories we tell are mutually indicative of who we are.

“The Language of Baklava: A Memoir” revisits and re-examines themes and concerns that were present in Abu-Jaber’s previous two works, “Arabian Jazz” (1993) and “Crescent” (2003). These recurring themes have to do with storytelling, the rituals of eating and preparing food, and growing up with an American mother and an Arab father. As in “Arabian Jazz,” Abu-Jaber’s narrative style is often satirical, sometimes humorous, at times even lyrical. As in “Crescent,” she masterfully evokes the flavors of the foods she describes while also denoting the emotive and social values of preparing, serving and sharing food.

Diana Abu-Jaber’s attitude toward her Arab background in her memoir also seems to combine elements present in both her previous works. On the one hand, her memoir re-enacts a daughter’s conflicted feelings of attraction to, as well as alienation from, resistance to, and even misunderstanding of her father’s Arab background in ways similar to those in “Arabian Jazz.” On the other hand, Abu-Jaber’s preoccupation with cooking – especially Arab food – with storytelling, and with both her father and his family, display an almost visceral connection to a rich Arab heritage of the type evoked in “Crescent.” The memoir thus both recreates the feelings of disorientation that often accompany a bicultural upbringing and offers possibilities for harmonizing the seemingly disparate elements of a bicultural background.

In “The Language of Baklava” Abu-Jaber talks openly about her childhood and what it was like for her to grow up in upstate New York with a Jordanian immigrant father. His Bedouin roots and boisterous, imposing personality contrast greatly with the calm and seemingly self-effacing nature of her blue-eyed “Irish, German, maybe Swiss” American mother. As is often the case, however, the fictions that people tell are based on some aspect of their lives, while the autobiographical stories that they relay are infused with a good deal of fiction. Refreshingly, Diana Abu-Jaber is quite candid in her forward about the fact that “most of the events in this book are honed and altered in some fashion, to give them the curve of stories.” The truth-value of those stories, Abu-Jaber maintains, “lies not in their factual precision, but in their emotional core.”

By framing her memoir as a series of fictionalized life narratives that revolve around some aspect of food, Abu-Jaber hints at the mutually transformative potential of food and art in a multicultural setting. In the process, she proves herself an accomplished storyteller, with a somewhat acerbic wit and a special talent for presenting exaggerated, often endearing characters in what frequently turn out to be tragi-comic situations.

The characters, stories and foods that Abu-Jaber presents for her readers are eclectic and idiosyncratic. With a special talent for bringing her characters alive through brief sketches, Abu-Jaber presents an array of figures, some of whom appear larger than life while others seem diminished to the point of caricature. For example, she presents a loving picture of her maternal grandmother, whom she depicts as ladylike but somewhat naively ethnocentric. When the grandmother fails to distinguish the differences between Japanese and Chinese cultures, lumping both together as “Oriental,” we squirm right along with the young Diana, who sits with her elegant grandmother at a Chinese restaurant and listens as her grandmother commits one faux pas after another with the solicitous Chinese waiter, who seems either willfully unaware or generously forgiving of the grandmother’s cultural ignorance.

Similarly, Abu-Jaber provides a strong image of her paternal aunt, Aya, who, unlike the Arab uncles, sympathizes with, instructs, and gains the admiration of her young American niece. Abu-Jaber initially describes her Jordanian aunt as one who possesses “eyes fierce inside thick wings of black eyeliner, lips painted and lacquered an uncompromising red, hair a shimmering, coal black tower, and skin powdered white.” Later, Abu-Jaber reveals that behind this severe exterior is a wise and strong personality. By cooking with her niece, Abu-Jaber’s Aunt Aya teaches her how to handle both food and men, including future boyfriends and her own father. Most specifically, she teaches the young Diana that “once in a while, it’s better to be a mirage” than to “be yourself, whoever that is.” More immediately, she brings about a truce between the rebellious adolescent and her conservative father, teaching her young niece that food can serve as a kind of peace offering. Aunt Aya reminds her brother, Diana’s father, that “eating is a form of listening.”

In contradistinction to such well-developed characters, Abu-Jaber also presents us with near caricatures who seem to provide comic relief in the heavily charged emotional atmosphere between father and daughter. One clear example is her depiction of her American vegetarian friend who visits after she returns to Jordan on a Fulbright fellowship. No sooner does Phinny enter the Jordanian world of Abu-Jaber’s uncles than his name becomes transformed into “Fattoush,” the Arabic word for a salad “which everyone loves and everyone can pronounce.” Fittingly, the recipe that Abu-Jaber provides in that chapter is for fattoush salad.

While most of the recipes in the book are Middle Eastern, many provide instructions for a variety of other types of food, reflecting in the process the multicultural aspects of growing up in America. Thus one chapter reproduces the neighbor’s “Mrs. Manarelli’s Civilized Panna Cotta,” and another offers “Gram’s Easy Roast Beef,” while yet another describes “Bedouin Mensaf Leben.” As indicated by her food choices, Abu-Jaber identifies with her American mother and maternal grandmother, with other immigrants who have come to settle in America, as well as with her father’s Arab background. However, whereas many of the foods associated with her American mother are given soothing names such as “Comforting Grilled Velveeta Sandwiches” and “The Tenderest Angel Food Cake,” the names of recipes associated with her father are often infused with either volatile or nostalgic valences. These are evident in such titles as “Mad Genius Kofta” and “Lost Childhood Pita.”

Negotiating the different aspects of her identity, Abu-Jaber tells us, has not been an easy task. In America, she is seen as different, and sometimes regarded with suspicion, because of her Arabic family name, her father’s cooking, and his traditional Arab attitudes regarding family. In Jordan, however, Diana is seen as not quite Arab but more of an American because of both her fair complexion and weak command of Arabic.

Finding her own space seems to require that Abu-Jaber carefully negotiate not only between the different cultural facets of her identity, but, more specifically, between herself and her father. She clearly alludes to this tension in the title of the opening chapter, “Raising an Arab Father in America.” In many ways, the daughter’s attempts at accommodating the Arab aspects of her American identity are intertwined with the father’s ability to accept the American transformation of his Jordanian personality.

In a chapter titled “Food and Art,” Abu-Jaber plays out the tension and power struggle between her young adolescent self and her father through a dramatization of the difficulties of harmonizing her attraction to Western art and the powerful appeal of her father’s Arab food. When, in defiance of her father, the young Diana tries to recreate a literary picnic in her backyard, inviting boys as well as girls, she finds herself upstaged by the Arab cooking and imposing personality of her father. As Abu-Jaber wistfully remarks, “It seems at that moment that there will never be a way to have both E.M. Forster and baba ghanouj at the same table.” It is interesting that Abu-Jaber evokes Forster in this context, a figure known not only for his skillful handling of the English language and the form of the novel, but also for his complicated literary treatment of the encounters between Western and Eastern cultures and people in India under British colonial rule. Unfortunately, however, Abu-Jaber leaves these loaded connections unexplored.

While reading English literature and eating Arab food is hardly remarkable in many Arab countries, it does seem an almost insurmountable difficulty to the author as a young girl in upstate New York. Abu-Jaber’s solution to her literary-culinary dilemma seems to be writing about her experiences growing up with an immigrant Arab father in America. In so doing, she brings the flavors and accents of Arab food into the pages of American literature. Abu-Jaber not only surmounts the seeming contradictions in her own life between her American and Arab backgrounds, but also suggests that art and food are the very means for connecting people across cultures.

In Abu-Jaber’s memoir, the intermingling of food and art transforms both. As the experiences of Arab immigrants and their children in America come to constitute an integral part of modern American literature, their language, foods and attitudes also become Americanized.

This is certainly the case for the Arabic words and recipes that Abu-Jaber includes in her book. Both undergo a type of transformation that distances them somewhat from their Arab regional locales while incorporating them into a more hybridized American setting. For example, when an Arab food is commonly referred to by its Greek name in America, Abu-Jaber opts to use that common name. The word “pita” for example, is not an Arabic word, but it is used in the U.S. to refer to similar-looking and tasting Middle Eastern pocket breads. More pointedly, the word “baklava” that Abu-Jaber uses in the title of her memoir is associated with a Greek pastry. The Arabic version of this pastry is called “baklawa” (with a “w” not a “v”) by Arabs.

Abu-Jaber’s title, and her general preference for Greek to Arabic terms, might be strategically designed to reach an American readership already familiar with and open to such foods and names. On the one hand, Abu-Jaber’s modifications of Arab foods and language might be unsettling to some Arab readers who are too often subjected to Western misrepresentations or erasures of Arab culture as they know it. On the other hand, these very modifications – whether intentional or not – demonstrate how language and food, like people, are necessarily transformed once they cross over from one culture to another, from Arab immigrants to their American children. Such cross-over and its accompanying transformations, Abu-Jaber suggests, are not without merit.

In the chapter that bears the same title as the book, Abu-Jaber recounts how her Jordanian aunt reveals to her that the “baklawa” that so clearly evokes her father’s childhood in Jordan is not only claimed by people of different nationalities, but may have had its origins “in Anatolia,” a name associated more with a region than with the specific country (Turkey) to which it belongs. The origins of food, Abu-Jaber intimates, are just as murky as her own mixed background and slippery attempts at belonging. More significantly, Abu-Jaber suggests that food may serve as a peace offering between nations as well as individuals.

As in all autobiographical writing, there is a good deal that is left unsaid in Abu-Jaber’s memoir. One wonders, for example, how the author’s American mother feels toward her husband’s Arab family and background, and whether the mother’s feelings have somehow influenced the daughter’s. One wonders also about the author’s younger sisters’ feelings toward their father, his cooking and his Arab heritage. We are given tantalizing hints about these relationships, but they are left mostly undeveloped. These omissions stand in contrast to Abu-Jaber’s treatment of her father and his brothers, most of whom she subjects to a good deal of scrutiny and caustic, often unflattering humor.

Similarly, the images of the Arab family that Abu-Jaber presents, like the food recipes she offers, are understandably filtered through her own particular understandings and reactions. While many scenes of family life are depicted lovingly and sensitively, others are presented in a rather biting tone. This style may seem somewhat harsh to some Arab readers, who may chafe at the satirical exposés and irreverent treatment of what are usually deemed private family matters in the Arab world. It is this irreverent style, however, that distinguishes Abu-Jaber’s writing from a good deal of Arab-American literature.  The style captures the complexities of growing up with a part-Arab background in America, reproducing both the attraction and repulsion that her heritage poses for the writer in her youth, and perhaps even into her adulthood.

Having inherited her American mother’s love of books and her Arab father’s love of cooking, his penchant for storytelling, and his sense of restless longing for the places he has left behind, Abu-Jaber confesses that even though she is firmly rooted in America, she nonetheless finds herself a “reluctant Bedouin,” unable to rest in one place, yet equally nostalgic for all the places she’s been to and left behind. As with other Arab-American writers such as Lisa Suheir Majaj (who also happens to have an American mother and an Arab father, but whose identification with her Arab background seems more harmonious), reconciliation and a true sense of belonging can only come through writing. For Abu-Jaber, that sense of belonging is itself tenuous, one she describes as a “wilderness of the interior, the ungoverned consciousness of writing.”

“The Language of Baklava” is an important contribution to the burgeoning field of “Arab-American” literature. Crossing genres as well as cultures, this collection of autobiographical vignettes and eclectic recipes firmly establishes the experiences and flavors of an Arab-American heritage as part of a multicultural American landscape.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 54/55 (Winter/Spring 2006)

Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid