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Once in a Promised Land

by Laila Halaby

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating

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Once in a Promised Land
Once in a Promised Land chronicles the disintegration of a couple's marriage in the turbulent days following 9/11. Jassim, a hydrologist and his wife Salwa left their native Jordan and came to America to fulfill their quintessential dreams. Yet their seemingly idyllic life in Tucson, Arizona begins to unravel as they face the repercussions of 9/11 in unexpected ways.

As they encounter racism and the harsh realities of being viewed as outsiders, Jassim and Salwa turn away from each other and begin to lead parallel lives. Jassim accidentally hits a teenage boy with his car and kills him. He keeps this secret from Salwa and finds a way to deal with his own grief; his "suspicious actions" lead to an unfounded FBI investigation that costs him his American dream. Salwa too keeps several secrets from Jassim: she becomes pregnant against her husband's wishes and is then consumed by an eventual miscarriage. Her grief and despair causes her to succumb to the affections of a younger co-worker and causes her to question her purpose in America. By detailing their failing marriage amidst national turmoil, Laila Halaby deftly describes Jassim and Salwa's isolation not only from American society but also from each other.
In addition, Halaby peppers the novel with slices-of-life from various characters that cross Jassim and Salwa's path. These characters are woven throughout the story and affect the couple's lives in startlingly profound ways. They work to propel the story forward as well as give us a glimpse of everyday people's reactions to the aftermath of 9/11.

Though complex, Jassim and Salwa's actions never become wholly believable despite the reality of their circumstances. There is a disconnect between their actions and emotions that makes the reader want to shake them by the shoulders and tell them to wake up. This is what will make readers both empathize and criticize the protagonists --that is, we can identify with them, yet shake our heads at their choices.
Once in a Promised Land is a gem of a novel. Halaby creates an engaging social commentary on immigrant life in a post-9/11 America, but does not come off as preachy or disapproving. Rather, Halaby's fluid prose reads like an ethereal, modern-day fairy tale as she weaves in Arab myths and stories throughout the novel. The result is a richly layered tale and unique introspective into the immigrant experience that many will enjoy and savor.

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