Beacon Press: Reading Guide: West of the Jordan
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Reading Guide: West of the Jordan

Author: Laila Halaby
Binding Information: Paperback 
Price: $14.00 In stock. 

"Halaby's writing carries the flavor of the lands she writes of, west of the Jordan—rich and imbued with sorrow."
—Gelareh Asayesh, author of Saffron Sky: A Life between Iran and America

"Laila Halaby is a deeply gifted writer. She describes complicated, culture-spanning lives in a poetic prose that is clean and compelling. There is no glossing over pain here, but the power of telling—richly human voices and the redemption of honesty."
—Naomi Shihab Nye, author of 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East

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About the Book

Laila Halaby's revelatory first novel weaves together the narratives of four cousins coming of age in America and Palestine. Through their moving stories, we gain insight into the lives of young women struggling to reconcile their identites, relationships, and independence with the cultural complexities of being Arab women. Hala, a student living in Tuscon, struggles to choose between two worlds when she falls in love with an older man during a visit with her family in Jordan. Mawal, the only cousin who stays in Palestine, remains deeply attached to her family and her traditions. The defiant Soraya, living in Los Angeles, is involved in a physical relationship with her uncle and fights increasing depression and alienation. Khadija, terrified by the sexual freedom of her American friends and scarred by a traditional, strict, and often abusive relationship with her father, doesn't quite fit in with American teen culture. The author herself is the daughter of a Jordanian father and an American mother and knows all too well the difficulties of reconciling Arab and American cultures. West of the Jordan movingly explores these difficulties and navigates them within the even more complex framework of the narrators' coming-of-age.

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About the Author

Laila HalabyLaila Halaby is the daughter of a Jordanian father and an American mother. She speaks four languages, won a Fulbright scholarship to study folklore in Jordan, and holds masters degrees in both Arabic literature and counseling. She lives with her family in Tucson, Arizona.

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Questions for Discussion

  1. Hala, Mawal, Khadija, and Soraya are greatly influenced by the women in their lives. They are the daughters of four sisters, and the head of their family is their Bedouin grandmother, Maziuna (Sitti). How has this affected their stories?
  2. Mawal tells us that her family history "is what makes my mother pay attention to details and listen so well. So many women come spill their secrets and their joys and their agonies because they know my mother—and I—will keep them safely and do no more than stitch them into the fabric of our rozas." Hala, Khadija, and Soraya have all encountered tremendous pain during their lives. How do they cope with their grief? Do you think they "stitch" it away? How does their culture affect the way they deal with their emotions?
  3. Hala says, "My mother knew Soraya when she was very young, and even then she said it was as though Soraya had been touched by something magical—in both a good and a bad sense. Her own mother, Maysoun, stopped trying to fight it, just showed her disappointment to everyone, even though it seemed as though it came from within, and was not something that could be controlled" (p. 82). In what ways is Soraya "a new breed. A rebel" (p. 56)?
  4. "You would think our village was in love with America with all the people who have left, like America is the best relative in the world that everyone has to visit. America is more like a greedy neighbor who takes the best out of you and leaves you feeling empty," says Mawal. Do you think Mawal is jealous of her cousins? How does her coming-of-age story differ from those of her cousins? How does her culture influence how she copes with this transformation?
  5. Khadija's mother thinks it is shameful that Khadija can't speak Arabic, is disobedient, and "[walks] like a boy." Khadija identifies as an American rather than a Palestinian (p. 74). At the same time, she obeys her parents' strict decisions and is frightened by her American friends' promiscuous behavior. How does Khadija fit in with American teen culture?
  6. What do these four seemingly very different cousins have in common with each other? Are they similar in any ways? Which of the four cousins do you identify with the most?
  7. Hala's mother, Huda, had to come back from America and get married after a rumor spread about her having a sexual relationship with another student. Do you think Huda's story affected Hala's decision to leave Sharif and return to America? Do you think she made the right decision?
  8. When talking about America, Shahira tells her sister Saher that "it is very difficult to live among strangers and more difficult when those strangers are your own children." How has living in America affected the relationships between Palestinian-born Shahira and Maysoun and their American-born daughters, Khadija and Soraya? Do you think the mothers regret coming to America?
  9. What do you think of the male characters in the book? Do they "fit in" with your perception of Arab men?
  10. Many of the tales in the novel reflect the hardships of living in America. Walid gets beaten up at a bar for "looking Mexican," Dahlia's children are kidnapped and her supervisor won't let her off work, and Sameer, Um Radwan's son who worked hard to provide for his wife, is stabbed and murdered by his wife's lover. What sort of commentary do you think the author is trying to make by weaving all of these disheartening stories into the novel? Do you think she is suggesting it would have been better had these families stayed in Palestine and Jordan?

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An Interview with the Author

1. What inspired you to write a novel about the experiences of young women coming of age in Palestine and America?

Mostly because these were the people in my world, but also because I was intrigued by the perception, or misperception, of Arab women versus the reality of Arab women. So often I would hear words like "submissive," and yet the Arab women I knew were among the strongest women I'd met. I am also interested in the effect that occupation, and exile, whether self-imposed or not, has on an otherwise intact family set-up.

2. What inspired you to become a writer?

Writing is something that I've always done—I guess it's how I process life—and I've always loved stories. Something I find particularly interesting is how people communicate with one another and how that communication is perceived—how much miscommunication there actually is, and the effects of those misfires.

3. Who are your favorite authors, and how have they influenced your writing?

I remember reading Cry the Beloved Country at a fairly early stage and thinking, "Yes, writing can change someone's mind or understanding of a situation." That was very important. I admire Arundhati Roy tremendously, for her courage, perception, and incredible sense of the beauty and agony of life. From Sandra Cisneros and Sherman Alexie I have learned that you can create nontraditional American characters without apologies and explanations. From Joe Bolton, I learned that you can tell a lyrical story in the space of a poem.

4. What are your writing habits? Do you have a specific routine? How do you stay disciplined?

My ideal writing scenario is three or four hours in the morning, first to write fervently, then reread, then edit, then take a walk to mull it all over, read it one more time, and put it away for the day. When I am writing a scene, or something that is functional, I can do it directly on the computer, but if it is poetic, or character building, or part of the mulling, I have to do it longhand.

5. What have your four main characters learned by the end of the novel? How have they grown throughout the course of their narratives?

Each one has had to deal with a blow to her security blanket, which has in turn launched her into adulthood or at least into accepting responsibility, or ownership, for where she is in life. Each one has learned about herself and her history and has had to come to terms with it a bit more.

6. If we could continue to follow Khadija, Soraya, Hala, and Mawal, what would you envision their lives to be like after the novel ends?

I'm afraid that for none of the four would it be as easy as it is in this book. The world has changed, as have they (as have I!). I think Soraya will have a stable period and then run into difficulties. Hala will be okay as long as she focuses on her schoolwork.

7. Which character is your personal favorite? As the author, is it possible to choose?

I don't think I favor one character over the others, though I have certainly spent different times doting on one or worrying about another. They each have such a handful to deal with and have to react to circumstances beyond their control rather than creating the circumstances themselves. I think of Soraya as one of those girls who you run into every so often who is grown in a way that girls generally are not, who is aware of herself as a sexual being. I think that this is the reason for her relationship with her uncle. Obviously, he is hugely guilty in the whole mess, but I don't think it is as simple as an older man taking advantage of a young girl. I don't think Soraya tries to rebel, I think she is just different fundamentally, straight from the factory. I see Mawal as content with her life that is so much safer than the lives of her cousins. I think it is very important to understand that in spite of occupation, in spite of all the problems, she is secure in herself and her family and her life. She sees her family functioning in a traditional, predictable way; she will not deviate from that because there is no reason to. Even after her father dies and she and her mother are forced to move in with her grandmother, she is accepting and can come to terms with it. Khadija is stuck between what is expected of her by her family's world, and by her schoolmates' world. Unlike Soraya, however, she is not proud of who she is, cannot relate on a fundamental level, and is therefore alienated. Finally, Hala, I think, has the most ability to choose her life, but this is also by default—were her mother alive, perhaps that wouldn't be the case. Like Soraya and Khadija, Hala is something of an "other," and she too comes to terms with that over the course of the book. There was a time in the evolution of this book, that it was more focused on Hala's experience—I think that may yet come in the next book!

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