Diana Abu-Jaber's vibrant, humorous memoir weaves together stories of being raised by a food-obsessed Jordanian father with tales of Lake Ontario shish kabob cookouts and goat stew feasts under Bedouin tents in the desert. These sensuously evoked repasts, complete with recipes, in turn illuminate the two cultures of Diana's childhood--American and Jordanian--while helping to paint a loving and complex portrait of her impractical, displaced immigrant father who, like many an immigrant before him, cooked to remember the place he came from and to pass that connection on to his children. The Language of Baklava irresistably invites us to sit down at the table with Diana's family, sharing unforgettable meals that turn out to be as much about "grace, difference, faith, love" as they are about food.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Raising an Arab Father in America
It's a murky, primordial sort of memory: a cavelike place, bright flickering lights, watery, dim echoes, sudden splashes of sounds, and--hulking and prehistoric--TV cameras zooming in on wheeled platforms. A grown man in a vampire costume clutching a microphone to his chest is making his way through rows of sugar-frenzied, laugh-crazed kids. He attempts to make small talk with the children through a set of plastic fangs. "Hello there, Bobby Smith!" He chortles and tousles a head. "How are you, Debbie Anderson!" I'm sitting in a television studio in a row full of cousins and sisters, not entirely sure how I got here--this was my aunt Peggy's idea. She'd watched The Baron DeMone Show for years and finally decided to send away for studio tickets.
He stalks closer and closer: I can see tiny seeds of sweat sparkling along his widow's peak. He squints at our oversize name tags: "Farouq, Ibtissam, Jaipur, Matussem . . ." I see his mouth working as he walks up our row of beaming, black-eyed kids. Eventually he gets to me. "Diana!" he cries with evident relief, then crashes into my last name. But apparently once this man starts going, he must see the thing through. He squints, trying to sound it out: "Ub-abb-yuh-yoo-jojee-buh-ha-ree-rah . . ." This guy's a scream! I can't stop laughing. What an idiot! I've got green eyes and pale skin, so evidently he feels I must speak English, unlike the rest of the row. He squats beside me, holds the big mike in my face, and says, "Now, Diana, tell me, what kind of a last name is that?"
This guy slays me! I can barely stop laughing enough to blast, "English, you silly!" into his microphone.
He jumps, my magnified voice a yowl through the studio, then starts laughing, too, and now we're both laughing, but at two different jokes--which must happen quite a bit on children's programming. He nods approvingly; they love me and my exotic entourage--later we'll be flooded with candy, passes, and invitations to return to the show. But at the moment, as the Baron stands to leave, I realize I'm not quite done with him yet. I grab him by the back of his black rayon cape and announce on national television, "I'm hungry!"
I'm six and I'm in charge; the sisters are just getting around to being born. Bud, my father, carries me slung over one shoulder when he cooks; he calls me his sack of potatoes. Mom protests, pointing out safety issues, but Bud says it's good for me, that it'll help me acclimate to onion fumes. I love the way his shoulder jumps and his whole back shakes as he tosses a panful of chopped tomatoes over the flames while the teeth rattle in my head.
My father is a sweet, clueless immigrant--practically still a boy. He keeps getting fooled. He saw TV for the first time when his boat stopped in Italy en route to Ellis Island. It was flickering in a hotel lobby. On the screen he saw a lady in a pretty blue dress singing to a cat dressed in a tuxedo. "Look at that," he marveled to his brother. "They've got a whole theater inside that box!" After he'd been in America a couple of months, a door-to-door salesman convinced him to spend three weeks of pay on a TV that didn't have any working parts. He told Bud it needed some time to "warm up." Bud hopefully switched it on and off for weeks before an American friend visited and explained that this TV would never be warm.
Bud learns English not from books, but from soaking in the language of work, of the shops and restaurants after he arrives in this country. I don't know where he learns how to hail strangers, but whenever my father needs...
The Language of Baklava
By: Diana Abu-Jaber