A Tucsonan’s book is a coming-of-age story about 4 Arab-American women
BY ELAINE GALE
A novel about four young Arab-American women had been percolating in Laila Halaby’s mind for the past 10 years.
She had the idea ever since she spent a year in Jordan studying folklore on a Fulbright scholarship.
But it wasn’t until after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that it became so important to her to get the book out into the world.
“There was so much blind negative reaction to Arabs,” she said. “It was so off the charts.”
Halaby’s book, “West of the Jordan,” is in its second printing and is published by Bluestreak, a multicultural imprint of Beacon Press in Boston that aims to introduce American readers to writers who come out of different cultures.
“When you know people from other countries and cultures and get to know them intimately, you see what’s different about their lives, but you also see so clearly how much is the same,” said Helene Atwan, director of Beacon Press.
For Halaby, 37, the daughter of a Jordanian father and an American mother, it was easy to tell a story about women who are bicultural and who struggle merging two different worlds and cultures into their own identities.
“It was so unprecedented,” she said about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “There was no history to tell us how to react.”
One incident after Sept. 11, 2001, that bothered Halaby was when she was speaking to her two children in Arabic in a store. A women stopped her and suggested that she shouldn’t do that in public.
“She was saying it with genuine concern,” said Halaby. “The message was that we’ll accept you, but you can’t really be who you are. I don’t think people realize how ingrained the sense of ‘otherness’ is as a person from the Middle East.”
The book traces the lives of four cousins: Mawal, Hala, Khadija and Soraya.
Mawal is steeped in the security of Palestinian traditions in the West Bank.
Hala lives in Jordan and yet is drawn back to the world she has come to love in Arizona.
Khadija is terrified by the sexual freedom of her American friends, but scarred, both literally and figuratively, by her father’s abusive behavior.
And Soraya is lost while trying to forge an acceptable life in a foreign yet familiar land and unable to navigate the fast culture of California youths.
“I think the book has universal appeal because it talks about growing up and coming-of-age stories, which anybody can relate to,” said Houri Berberian, associate professor in the history department of California State University at Long Beach and Halaby’s friend. “You don’t have to come from the Middle East.”
“I found the book quite enlightening. It represents these Middle Eastern teenagers – a whole section of the worlds teenagers,” Berberian continued. “I’m trying to see if I can use it for my own course on Middle Eastern women next year … It gives a much more complex picture. It’s not just black and white. It’s not negative, but it’s not apologetic either. It’s not trying to justify anything. You get the richness and the reality.”
Halaby, who speaks four languages and has a master’s in Arabic literature, was born in Lebanon and moved to Tucson when she was 5 years old.
She graduated from University High School in 1984 and went on to study Italian and Arabic at Washington University in St. Louis, graduating in 1988.
“When you look at the New York Times, you always see photos of Palestinians with guns and Israelis grieving,” said Halaby. “Or there’s a photo of an Arab man with a donkey. It’s so maddening.”
Besides writing and raising two children with her husband, Halaby works part time as an outreach counselor at the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health.
“There’s such a need for more understanding,” she said. “If you know my world the way I know my world, there’s no way you can think it’s ridiculous.”
Excerpt from “West of the Jordan” by Laila Halaby:
“In America my name sounds like someone throwing up or falling off a bicycle. If they can get the first part of it right, the ‘Kha’ part, it comes out like clearing your throat after eating ice cream. Usually they say Kadeeja, though, which sounds clattering clumsy. It never comes out my mother’s soft way; she makes it sound almost pretty.
“It’s not like I’m dying to have an American name. I’d just like a different Arabic one. There are so many pretty names: Amani, Hala, Rawda, Mawal, and they all mean such pretty things – wishes, halo, garden, melody – not just the name of a rich old woman. My father would slap me if he heard me say that.”
PHOTO CREDIT: FRANCISCO MEDINA/Tucson Citizen
CUTLINE: Laila Halaby, author of “West of Jordan,” at her home in Tucson.