An immigrant couple's fairy tale turns to a post-Sept. 11 Orwellian nightmare

The Baltimore Sun

Once in a Promised Land

Laila Halaby

Beacon / 338 pages / $23.95

Dislocation is something few Americans know anything about, but it might well be the very thing that will define our lives for decades to come. Dislocation is a variation on disenfranchisement. Disenfranchisement is alleged to be the main reason people become terrorists.

Fear of terrorism in a post-Sept. 11 world has led to a presumption that all Arabs are potential terrorists, potential killers - dangerous and untrustworthy. Even in an America sick to death of the war on Iraq and that war's nonexistent ties to Sept. 11, this fear lurks just beneath our collective skin. We won't forget the planes driving into the buildings on a beautiful, clear September morning. We can't forget. On this memory our own dislocation hinges - we have, perhaps, become disconnected from sense because our sensibility is so heightened by this monster-under-the-bed fear we now share.

It is into this atmosphere of real, surreal and impending dread that Jordanian-born Laila Halaby introduces the characters in her latest novel, Once in a Promised Land. Like so many immigrants before them, Jassim and Salwa Haddad have come to America from their native Jordan seeking the fairy tale of a fresh start in a new world. Like Halaby herself, they have settled in Arizona, where the desert landscape sparkles with promise in ways Jordan's never could for either of them, particularly the Palestinian Salwa, who feels her displacement vividly.

Their assimilation should be simple: Jassim has one of those fascinating super jobs - he's a hydrologist and what could be more important in a desert than water? Jassim is passionate: He views water the way Halliburton views oil; water is the essence of all life, and Jassim wants desperately to find a way to make this commodity available to everyone in a world where it is water, not oil, that defines the quality of life.

Salwa remains vaguely discontented; she aches for a child and for a kind of romance that Jassim cannot provide. She works in a bank, sells real estate on the side. A dreamer, Salwa wants something she has never had, but is not entirely sure what that something is. She just knows that she wants it. Desperately.

Desperation is what Jassim and Salwa share. Their marriage is rocky, fraught. Salwa's desires don't match Jassim's and each seeks something the other cannot seem to provide.

That story makes them wholly American. Except there's the problem of how they look and sound and where they came from. These two are more than characters in a troubled marriage or strangers in a strange land. They are prototypes of the new 21st-century fear: terrorism.

Bad things happen, as bad things will, to even the very best people. The bad things that happen to Jassim and Salwa spiral the couple into a disturbing series of events and machinations that threaten far more than their shaky marriage.

Death stalks them. Jassim kills a teenager in a grotesque accident. Tragedy stalks them. Salwa tries to get pregnant and succeeds and then miscarries.

The stresses of these events and the lies they have told each other nearly sunder their marriage. (Jassim doesn't tell Salwa the boy has died; Salwa doesn't tell Jassim about the pregnancy and when she miscarries, turns to another man, the prototypical American ne'er-do-well, Jake, for comfort.) And yet the worst is still to come, because they are not just any American couple with problems. They are people under suspicion. They are, perhaps, terrorists.

The accident starts the Haddads on their perilous descent into an Orwellian post-Sept. 11 hell. The FBI begins investigating Jassim (an Arab in control of the city's water supply after Sept. 11?) and he loses his job. Salwa allows herself to be pulled into a dangerous liaison with Jake, who might very well kill her, he's that volatile. Salwa's sense of diasporadic disruption unsettles her, as does her miscarriage. She wants to do something. So she sends money back home. Lots of it.

The confluence of Jassim's and Salwa's actions puts them both at risk in a country deeply distrustful of the new Otherness Arab immigrants symbolize. Each unconscious misstep leads them closer to perdition as suspicion overlies their every move. Will the noose closing around them sever their tenuous connection or pull them back together, tightly? Will this fairy tale of a promised land have a happy ending or one of total despair? Halaby's first novel, West of the Jordan, won the PEN/Beyond Margins Award and while her second book is not quite as fully realized as that one, Halaby's lyric recounting of her characters' choices, which are nearly always wrong, despite their almost demagogic sureness in their own rightness, adds a poignancy to what is ultimately a very dark tale of the way we live now.

Jassim and Salwa aren't extraordinary people by any means. It is, rather, their ordinariness - he gets involved with a waitress, she gets involved with a bad boy - that makes them so human.

It is that almost mundane humanity that Halaby stokes with her story. How can people so unremittingly similar to all the other people around them - each in his or her own way candidates for an episode of Dr. Phil - pose any kind of real threat? Therein lies the true danger of fear. The Haddads are feared and fearful, a cycle that can have no good end.

In Halaby's post-Sept. 11 world, the author writes as a post-modern Scheherazade, attempting to fend off calamity and apocalypse. Halaby weaves her once-upon-a-time Arabian tale with a harsh lyricism and keen insight into what it means to be disenfranchised, divested of everything you have earned on whim and suspicion alone. She leaves the reader unsettled and unsatisfied, but that is because the whole story is not just the one she's written, but also the one we've told ourselves since that bright September morning. And it is that story which has turned everything just a little scarier than we ever would have wished. And put people like Halaby's characters in worse danger than perhaps the rest of us ever will be.

Victoria A. Brownworth is a columnist and critic who has written or edited more than 20 books; her most recent is "The Golden Age of Lesbian Erotica: 1920-1940." She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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