New Fiction and the Post 9/11 Arab-American Experience

By Pauline Homsi Vinson

Once in a Promised Land
By Laila Halaby
Beacon Press, 2007

Laila Halaby’s novel, “Once in a Promised Land,” is a story about what it is like to be Arab in America after the devastating attacks of 9/11. It is also a moving tale of lost hope and stunted potential.

This sense of shattered dreams and aching beauty is superbly captured in the cover design of the Beacon Press publication. The cover depicts a swimmer shooting across shimmering blue water. His image is mirrored by the shadow of an airplane that hovers above. While it is by now a tired cliché not to judge a book by its cover (over which most writers have no say), the thematic appropriateness and aesthetic value of the images on this cover beg commentary. They superbly capture the ways in which the events of 9/11, suggested by the shadow of the looming airplane, haunt the lives of the Arab characters, whose aspirations and ambitions are reflected through the cool brilliance of the water.

In fluid prose that mimics the multivalent images of water running throughout the book, Halaby deftly intermingles Arabic words and expressions within the American-English usage of her characters. In so doing, she brings alive her characters’ cultural background while also hybridizing the language of new American fiction in ways that recall the important work of Latina writers such as Sandra Cisneros and Gloria Anzalda.

Halaby begins her novel by alluding to the traditional fairy tale opening familiar to Arab children, Kan ya ma kan fi kadeem az-zaman,” which she accurately translates as “They say there was or there wasn’t in olden times.” At the heart of the novel is a rendition of an Arab folktale, about a ghoula (a female demonic figure of Arabic folklore) who lures her innocent victims into her hold so that she can eat them up once they are within her clutches. Only the very clever recognize her and are able to escape from her snares.

The ghoula in this story is the promise of happiness in the United States. She entices dreamers to her promised land only to lull them into complacency with her riches and rob them of the hoped-for happy ending.

Set in America, the novel revolves around a successful but essentially dissatisfied Arab couple who leaves the deserts of Jordan to live in the deserts of Arizona. Jassim is a Jordanian hydrologist who does water analysis in Tucson. His idealistic dreams of harvesting water for the benefit of all humankind seem to have faded behind the comforts of his predictable, well-ordered American life. Salwa, a banker and real estate agent, is a Palestinian from Jordan who happens to have been born in the U.S., a land to which she returns after her marriage to Jassim.

Jassim and Salwa own a beautiful house. Jassim drives a Mercedes, and Salwa makes enough money to send large sums to help her Palestinian family in Jordan. To all outside appearances, Jassim and Salwa seem to have captured the American dream. In spite of all the outward success, they find an emptiness at the heart of their relationship. Jassim seeks “balance” through his routine of swimming at the Olympic-sized swimming pool at the Fitness Bar. Salwa goes to the mall to add to her overabundant collection of expensive sexy lingerie. Unfulfilled in spite of the comforts and luxuries of their American life, they lie to each other and so exacerbate their alienation from one another.

The disintegration of Jassim’s and Salwa’s lives is accelerated by the fallout of the September 11th attacks. Their Arab, Muslim background seems to automatically render them suspect in the eyes of people around them. As they increasingly become the objects of distrust, fear and bigotry, the couple is forced to confront the futility of their material successes and the hollowness at the heart of their American dream.

Ironically, it is the very breakdown of their dreams that compels the two to seek more from their lives. Only when they move beyond the false protectiveness of their manicured homes and professional jobs do they find connections with other Americans for whom the promise of a happy ending seems equally unattainable.

Through vivid representations, such as the scene set in a Wal-Mart store, Halaby deftly juxtaposes the nuanced differences between Arab and American perspectives while illustrating their common vulnerabilities to the deceptive allure of consumerist economies.

Pain, loss and sorrow, Halaby suggests, are the links that bind humanity together, bridging differences across class, culture and religion. At the same time, however, she also hints that those bridges are fragile and that for some, like her protagonists, healing can only come after a return home from the seductions and false allure of the promised land. In Halaby’s novel, “wishes don’t come true for Arabs in America” (p. 184), at least not after 9/11.

In some ways, Halaby offers a bleak picture of being Arab in America in the aftermath of September 11th. Her characters seem to careen toward their destruction, seemingly without control over either their inner or their outer lives. At times, they even appear somewhat flat, seeming to serve a functional rather than an intrinsically meaningful purpose in the narrative. Overall, however, the characters’ yearnings for meaning in their lives, their search for human connection and redemption across pain, even their fallibility, all poignantly depict the vulnerability as well as the culpability of individuals caught in the tidal wave of events that, in a play on the traditional opening line of Arabic folktales, are and are not within their control.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 54/55 (Winter/Spring 2006)

Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid