A dramatic tale of the complex and cruel realities of life for two Arab Americans in the wake of 9/11, by an award-winning novelist
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They say there was or there wasn’t in olden times a story as old as life, as young as this moment, a story that is yours and is mine.
Once in a Promised Land is the story of Jassim and Salwa, who left the deserts of their native Jordan for those of Arizona, each chasing mirages of opportunity and freedom. Although the couple live far from Ground Zero, they cannot escape the dust cloud of paranoia settling over the nation.
A hydrologist, Jassim believes passionately in his mission to make water accessible to all people, but his work is threatened by an FBI witch hunt for domestic terrorists. A Palestinian now twice displaced, Salwa embraces the American dream. She grapples to put down roots in an unwelcoming climate, becoming pregnant against her husband’s wishes.
When Jassim kills a teenage boy in a terrible accident and Salwa becomes hopelessly entangled with a shadowy young American, their tenuous lives in exile and their fragile marriage begin to unravel. Once in a Promised Land is a dramatic and achingly honest look at what it means to straddle cultures, to be viewed with suspicion, and to struggle to find safe haven.
“Sometimes you run out of adjectives. Or the adjectives lose their luster. What if I say that Once in a Promised Land is brilliant, insightful, heartbreaking, enchanting—what does that even mean anymore? But this novel is brilliant because the prose glows, sends off heat. Insightful because it allows us to see into a place that most of us don’t know about. Heartbreaking because you can feel the situation that these characters are trapped in. And enchanting because it’s told in the form of a fairy tale that lets us believe that, somehow, these poor souls may be able to rescue themselves . . . Laila Halaby has captured the human condition perfectly here.” —Carolyn See, Washington Post
“Set in the early days of post-September 11 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 out tangled and common humanity.
—Andre Dubus III
“Once in a Promised Land tells a story you won’t find anywhere else. It gives the human scale to big events and with great fluency captures the heart and soul of what it’s like to be living in America in these troubling times.” —Larry Dark, director of The Story Prize
“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
“Once in a Promised Land uses the novel form to bring to life the roots of prejudice and cultural differences, making it a top pick for readers seeking something with more depth than your usual novel.” —Diane C. Donovan, Midwest Book Review
“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 on West of the Jordan
“Laila 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 Banerjee Divakaruni, author of Queen of Dreams and The Mistress of Spices
Questions for Discussion
- 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?
- 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?
- Salwa doesn't tell Jassim that she is pregnant. Why not? How would you
have handled this situation?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- What do you think happens at the end of the novel? Is Salwa dying? Are
they reconciled? How do you interpret the folk tale?