Diana Abu-Jaber, Author . Norton $24.95 (349p) ISBN 978-0-393-05747-8

Abu-Jaber (Arabian Jazz) weaves the story of a love affair between a comely chef and a handsome, haunted Near Eastern Studies professor together with a fanciful tale of a mother's quest to find her wayward son in this beautifully imagined and timely novel, which explores private emotions and global politics with both grace and conviction. Green-eyed, 39-year-old Sirine cooks up Arab specialties in a bustling cafe in Los Angeles where Arab students gather for a taste of home. When her doting uncle, who raised her after the death of her relief-worker parents 30 years ago, introduces her to his colleague Hanif, the placid surface of her life is disturbed. Their affair begins quickly and ardently, as Sirine, who has heretofore equated cooking with love, discovers the pleasures of romance, and the exiled Han struggles to feel grounded in a place far from the Baghdad he loved as a boy. In Abu-Jaber's sensuous prose, the city is as lush and fragrant as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and her secondary characters, like the wry, wise cafe owner Um-Nadia and the charmingly narcissistic poet and satyr Aziz, are appealingly eccentric. But a darkly troubled photographer drawn to both Sirine and Han, news of Saddam Hussein's latest atrocities and Han's painful memories of his imprisoned brother and his disappeared sister, for whose fates he feels responsible, cloud their affair, perhaps dooming it. Abu-Jaber's poignant contemplations of exile and her celebration of Sirine's exotic, committed domesticity—almond cookies, cardamom, and black tea with mint—help make this novel feel as exquisite as the "flaming, blooming" mejnoona tree behind Nadia's Café. Agent, Joy Harris. (Apr.)

Reviewed on: 04/07/2003
Release date: 04/01/2003
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