Summary: 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. - beacon.org
I won a signed copy of ONCE IN A PROMISED LAND by Laila Halaby a few weeks ago, but this book was actually on my TBR list before that! I was very intrigued by the summary of the book, and I had seen the book featured on a couple of my favorite websites. The Washington Post named this book as one of the 100 best fiction books of 2007, and it was also a Notable Book by Book Sense and a Barnes and Noble Great New Writers Selection. I very much enjoyed the book even though it was a difficult and uncomfortable read for me. Having said that, I hope I don't scare anyone away with that comment because the book was definitely a worthwhile read.
At the beginning of the novel, I had a difficult time relating to either of the main characters. I felt as if the husband Jassim was kind of reserved and a little cold. I also felt that his wife Sarwa was shallow and deceitful. Not to say that my initial opinions entirely changed; however, as I continued to read the novel, I began to feel a great deal of compassion for both of them. Even though I didn't always agree with their actions (especially Sarwa's), they both were so misplaced and lost in their lives that I felt sorry for them. A lot of their problems were brought about by lies, deceit, and a general lack of communication, but so much of their world was out of their immediate control.
I found Ms. Halaby's writing style to be very good - at times, her writing seemed almost poetic. I love how she incorporated the theme of water and cleansing/rebirth throughout the novel. I have to give her a tremendous amount of credit for causing me to feel something towards her characters (usually, I'm not the most compassionate reader). I also feel that she has done a tremendous service to the reader by bringing cultural issues as well as prejudices to the surface. Maybe one of the reasons that I felt so uncomfortable reading this book is because I saw the truth in her portrayal of so many Americans following the trajedies of 9/11.
I think this book would make an excellent bookclub choice. I think a discussion of this book would cause a lot of people to examine themselves and their opinions on America and the Mid-east. There are so many human issues to delve into such as adultery, deceit, cultural differences, fear/paranoia, prejudice, etc. There is also a reading guide in the back of the paperback or here.