I just finished reading The Language of Baklava: A Memoir by Diana Abu-Jaber. Abu-Jaber’s story of trying to find where she belonged – America or Jordan – resonates with anyone who’s grown up hearing about “back home” from immigrant parents. Often, the harsh realities of the now (here in America or Canada or Britain) cause the castaway from the East to paint a mythical glow and proportions to the realities of “back home”. As a child, I remember playing to the soundtrack of my mother on the phone to her friend, also from “back home”. The words I would hear over and over was “they way we did it back home was…”

Abu-Jaber’s father, Ghassan or Bud as he is otherwise known, is the castaway in her story. His homages to Jordan cause Diana to live with half her heart suspended – to be retrieved when she begins her life whole with both her Americaness and Arabness merged. Bud moves his family – with his American wife and 3 daughters – to Jordan periodically and then just as abruptly brings them back. When the family goes back to the place of Bud’s ancestral roots with the Bedu, Abu-Jaber writes with such love and authenticity, I was able to see why it is essential to write from the experiences bottled within you. I don’t believe others – outsiders – could write so movingly about the interplay between ancestral pride and current Arab angst as Abu-Jaber has done.

Abu-Jaber’s writing is soothing in its ability to transport the reader to cozy settings full of family love and larger-than-life characters. Each of the chapters is dotted with recipes for foods mentioned therein – both Middle Eastern and American. These recipes punctuate the book at appropriate times with titles such as “‘Distract the Neighbors’ Grilled Chicken” and “Cowboy Kibbeh” and my favorite, “Fattoush: Bread Salad – which everyone loves and everyone can pronounce”. So for those of us who have always wondered about how to cook “Barbaric Lamb Kofta” and ” Poetic Baklava”, it’s all in there.

It’s telling that Abu-Jaber chose to use a food theme to connect her book; with the myriad of fusion cuisine taking over the restaurant scene, perhaps one’s identity could be easily translated through food labels. I just went to an Iranian-Italian restaurant last week. In Toronto, Indo-Chinese cuisine is all over the place as is Indo-Somali-Italian. If I were a restaurant, identity/ethnicity wise I would be a Canadian-Malayali place (given there is such a thing as Canadian cuisine). I’m waiting for a Japanese-Lebanese-Mexicana joint.

In The Language of Baklava, Diana’s father was forever on a quest to find, buy and run the perfect restaurant to present his identity to the world – Jordanian. He doesn’t fully succeed and finally one day, the date of which Diana records on a napkin, concedes to an old friend that he is… “an American”. He had finally accepted his fusion identity: Arab-American. And after a year spent on her own in Jordan, Diana accepts hers as well: American-Arab.

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Book: The Language of Baklava, 2006

Author: Diana Abu-Jaber

Publisher: Pantheon Books

Rating: * * * * (out of * * * *)

Comment:

If it got me back to reading “the whole thing” in the midst of a hectic time (report cards et all), it’s got to be engrossing, riveting and extraordinary.

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