The Language of Baklava– Diana Abu-Jaber

Caution: Reading this book will make you hungry.

Our literary airplane has taken us back to the Middle East. This time to the country of Jordan. I’m very curious about Jordan because my best friend’s partner has been studying there for a year, and he had the opportunity to visit her a few months ago. I’m always excited to hear about another country, and his account has subsequently moved Jordan up on my list of places to visit. As much as I’d love to share some of what he told me, it’s his story to tell. He did let me use a photo of his for this post thought. 🙂

So, let’s get into The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber. In this book, Diana tells the story of growing up in the United States (with a brief stint in Amman, Jordan) in a mixed Jordanian-American family. As Diana recounts old memories, her stories are fed by the food of her childhood. She literally includes these recipes, sometimes with silly names, within the chapters of her book. (I tried to make the falafel one but failed miserably.) Although this book mostly takes place in the United States, I think it still embodies a lot of Jordanian culture, values, and food.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book! Reading about Jordanian food and culture reminded me of my own Greek heritage. This formed the basis of a connection I felt with the author. As I flipped through the pages, I found myself scribbling down random similarities that we both shared. We grew up in the same geographical area: Diana in Syracuse and me between Buffalo and Rochester. Her many descriptions of Lake Ontario and the brutal winters were something I fully understand. There’s even a scene where she talks about her family grilling out in a storm and I laughed because my family has done the same thing. Diana also talks about a time during her adolescence where she was in a long war with her father. I completely understand that and experienced similar battles. She’s also a writer. (Obviously, because she wrote a book.) And, I like to think of myself as an amateur writer. (Obviously, because I write a blog.) As these similarities added up, I felt like I could really feel, see, smell, hear, and taste the scenes she described.

One of the most interesting themes in Diana’s book was her struggle between being Jordanian and American. As a young child she gravitated towards being American because she lived in Upstate New York and was socializing with people in the United States—especially young Christian girls at school. But at about 7 years old, her father moves them to Jordan for a brief period of time. Here, she leaves being American behind and embraces being Jordanian, even learning to speak Arabic. When she ultimately moves back to the States she again wants to revert back to being American but finds it difficult. This struggle between worlds is stronger when she’s younger but rears its head at different points while growing up. I don’t have this struggle, but I’m sure this is common for people who are first generation American or come from a mixed family.

Everyone won’t connect to the story Diana stirs up in The Language of Baklava, but I think we can all agree how food plays such a unique role in our lives. Of course it’s part of nature and critical to our survival, but food can mean so many things. For me, it can be comforting, relaxing, and calming. Or sometimes it’s vibrant and exciting. It can transport me to places I’ve been or flash back to experiences I’ve had. It can make me feel far away or right at home. But most importantly, a good meal with good people, can make memories that last a lifetime.

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