Once in a Promised Land
Laila Halaby
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Buy *Once in a Promised Land* by Laila Halaby online

Once in a Promised Land
Laila Halaby
Beacon Press
384 pages
January 2007
rated 5 of 5 possible stars
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Laila Halaby's intelligent, exquisitely written second novel explores the conflicts of an Arabic Jordanian couple living in America directly after the terrible events of 9/11. Jassim is a hydrologist, and his wife, Salwa, is a banker and trainee real estate broker; they have lived in Tucson for about ten years.

Both are upwardly mobile over-achievers who seem to be living their version of the "American dream." Nevertheless, during the months following the aftermath of those dreadful days in New York and Washington, Jassim and Salwa, even without any political agendas, are delicately branded as outcasts and foreigners.

It all starts out so innocently as Jassim begins his days swimming laps at the local Fitness Bar. This is his time for meditation and being in touch with the elements of the world before he heads off to work for a company that helps manage the city's water supply.

While Jassim's life is closely regimented, as though he lives a type of "rich man's escape from the real world," Salwa succumbs to a frantic desire struggling within her. She begins lying to Jassim, deciding not to take her birth control pills in a fanatical attempt to get pregnant, even though Jassim says he doesn’t want a child.

At the same time as their respective families back in Jordan fear the repercussions against Arabs in America, a tragic encounter with a boy on a skateboard triggers an FBI investigation and a release of secret facets within Jassim's self, sides that have up until now been buried deeply in the way he views his life in this country.

Salwa gravitates between wanting to escape America forever, reeling from the sorrow of a miscarriage, forced to confront office paranoia: "each time she walked out to get papers from the printer or to get something to drink, her ears stretched to other people's conversation and a thought." Suddenly, she finds herself attracted to Jake, a younger charismatic co-worker, who seduces her with his understanding ways.

As both lie staring into the guilty darkness, Salwa gradually comes undone by the affair. For reasons that Jassim cannot begin to grasp; he turns to Penny, a forty-something blue-collar café waitress, for support and consolation.

Beautifully observed and startlingly real, Halaby manages to say much about the immigrant experience while in the process exposing the darker side of American society, where prejudice and discrimination can often appear where you least expect it, even in the highest echelons of government.

Jassim ends up being undermined by his wife's distractedness and the self-doubt that has begun to plague his marriage, and also by a triumvirate of small-minded office girls who launch a government investigation against him. Salwa begins to question the fulfillment that should have automatically have come with "American freedom."

Ensnared by those around them and plunged into totally unfamiliar territory, Jassim and Salwa are also blindsided their own lies, bloating everything that exists between them.

These are two modern Western people who have their respective worlds turned upside down, set adrift by secrets, dishonesty, and their own inability to communicate their deepest fears to those around them - and in the end, even to each other.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2007

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