Beacon Press: Reading Guide: Once in a Promised Land
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Reading Guide: Once in a Promised Land

Once in a Promised Land by Laila Halaby
Author: Laila Halaby
Binding Information: Paperback 
Price: $14.00
January 2008

Once in a Promised Land by Laila Halaby
Author: Laila Halaby
Binding Information: Hardcover 
Price: $23.95 

"Set in the early days of post-September 11th America, Once in a Promised Land draws its structure from Arabian folklore and the western fairy tale, turning both inside out to illuminate the mythic search for home and identity, the universal hunger of the soul for the genuine, and the wounding yet redemptive nature of love itself. In this timely and utterly original novel, Laila Halaby has crafted a deeply resonant tale of our tangled and common humanity."
—Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog

"Once in a Promised Land is an intricate braid of secrets, some intimate, some the brutal and nasty ones abroad these days in a land whose promise and promises have been shattered by suspicion and hostility. Laila Halaby, who still dares to dream of an intact culture, has written a forceful novel that catches innocence and the hope for wholeness in the web of its complex plot and squeezes them until they bleed."
—Rosellen Brown, author of Before and After and Half a Heart

"Halaby has created a beautiful, poignant tale about America in a dark time and peopled it with exquisitely crafted characters who wring our hearts."
—Chitra Divakaruni, author of Queen of Dreams and Mistress of Spices

"Halaby's timely second novel details the painful crumbling of a marriage mired in prejudice, cultural displacement, and deceit in the days following 9/11…Halaby perceptively examines the everyday realities of the immigrant experience through convincingly drawn characters who reflect Salwa's deep-seated belief that in America, 'wishes don't come true for Arabs.'"
—Deborah Donovan, Booklist

"Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries, this novel would make a thought-provoking book club choice."
Library Journal


About the Book

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Once in a Promised Land tells the story of a married couple, Jassim and Salwa, who have left the deserts of their native Jordan for those of Arizona, each of them chasing their own dream of opportunity and freedom. Although the two live far from Ground Zero, in the aftermath of 9/11 their peace is disturbed by the community's suspicion and hostility. Salwa, a banker and a part-time realtor grappling to put down roots in an inhospitable climate, becomes pregnant against her husband's wishes and then loses the baby. In her anguish, she is drawn into an affair with Jake-a young coworker of hers who moonlights as a drug dealer. Jassim, a hydrologist specializing in rainwater harvesting, is dedicated to making water accessible to all people, but his work is threatened by an FBI witch hunt for domestic terrorists. Another crisis unfolds when Jassim hits and kills a teenage boy in a terrible car accident. Even though he is cleared of all wrongdoing, he is consumed by guilt, which, however, he cannot confess to his estranged wife. Their marriage, already made fragile by the trials of exile, begins to unravel as Salwa and Jassim both cling onto their painful secrets and are no longer able to find comfort in each other. As their feeling of disconnect with the American dream intensifies, so does their yearning for the soothing warmth of their homeland. This intimate account of two parallel lives offers an achingly honest look at what it means to straddle cultures, to be viewed by suspicion, and to struggle to find safe heaven.

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About the Author

Laila HalabyLaila Halaby was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a Jordanian father and an American mother. She speaks four languages, she studied folklore in Jordan as a Fulbright scholar, and she holds masters degrees in both Arabic literature and counseling. Her first novel, West of the Jordan won the prestigious PEN Beyond Margins Award. She lives with her family in Tucson, Arizona.

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Questions for Discussion

  1. Salwa and Jassim find themselves surrounded by hostility after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Did you notice a change in attitude towards Arabs in the U.S. after 9/11? Are there other groups in your community that are discriminated against because of their ethnicity or religion? Have you ever been subject to discrimination?
  2. Jassim kills a teenage boy in a car accident. What would your reaction be if you hit and killed someone? Would you go visit the victim's family, as Jassim did, or avoid them? What if you were the parent of a child who was killed in an accident-would you want to meet the person who was responsible, even if accidentally, for your child's death?
  3. Salwa doesn't tell Jassim that she is pregnant. Why not? How would you have handled this situation?
  4. Halaby tells the story from two very different points of view: Salwa's and Jassim's. Is one of them more compelling for you, or easier to identify with? Do you find that at different times in the story you are sympathizing or siding with either Salwa or Jassim?
  5. Every aspect of Jassim's life is splitting apart: he kills a boy in a car accident, he gets fired from his job as hydrologist, and his wife is becoming distant and secretive. How does he handle these three crises? If you were in his place, would you have done anything differently? Can you think of a time in your own life when you had to deal with frustrating circumstances that were outside your control?
  6. Marcus, Jassim's boss, fires Jassim because his clients are scared off by the FBI investigation and the company is losing contracts. Marcus knows that Jassim is the innocent victim of a witch hunt, but lets him go nonetheless. Do you think he did the right thing? What else was nagging at Marcus? How would you have dealt with the situation if you were in Marcus's place?
  7. How does Salwa get drawn into the affair with Jake? Can you identify some of Jake's traits or qualities that she is attracted to? Why can't Salwa see the negative side of him that is so obvious to other people (Petra and Randa for example)?
  8. Compare Salwa's affair with Jake and Jassim's relationship with Penny. Are Salwa and Jassim looking for similar things in their extramarital relationships? What is missing in their marriage that they are seeking elsewhere?
  9. Salwa's friend Randa, to whom she confesses about her affair with Jake, advises her not to tell Jassim, "no matter what." Would you have advised her differently?
  10. Arab culture is an integral part of Salwa's and Jassim's identities, and even though before 9/11 their life in the U.S. is quite comfortable, it is inevitable that at times they feel misplaced and yearn for the sense of belonging and the warm familiarity of their homelands. Can you point to specific instances when Salwa and Jassim have to reconcile the differences between the Arab and the American cultures or lifestyles? Have you ever had to negotiate between your own culture and a foreign one?
  11. When Jake cooks dinner for Salwa, he offers her candy-coated shumur (fennel), which "brought back desserts eaten only during Ramadan, brought back home in one tiny burst and then another" (p. 209). Does shumur remind you of Proust's madeleine? Can you point to other things (rituals, flavors, etc.) that "bring" Salwa back to her homeland? If you were away from your home, what would be your shumur?
  12. What do you think happens at the end of the novel? Is Salwa dying? Are they reconciled? How do you interpret the folk tale?

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An Interview with the Author

  • As part of her research for the book, Laila Halaby ate at Denny's and took notes. She also test-drove a Mercedes.
  • All the FBI scenes in the book were read by an FBI agent to ensure accuracy.
  • Several hydrologists were consulted about all the information on hydrology.
  • In Tucson, AZ, there is a gym with a gift shop that sells jewelry.

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