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Friday, February 02, 2007

Book Review: Once in a Promised Land

After 9/11, Suddenly Suspect

This is a post-9/11 narrative, and if, as our president has stated, you're either for us or against us, the star-crossed couple here may at first appear to be on the "against" side. But the author asks us to put aside all notions of "terrorists, veils, oil . . . billionaires, bombers, and belly-dancers . . . turbans, burqas, or violent culture." This is a story about an ordinary couple living in Albuquerque who happen to have come to this country some years ago from Jordan. The husband, Jassim, has a PhD in water management; his only passion is the love of water and how it moves. Although he's well-to-do and seemingly safe and well-liked, he's anxious in America. He relies on routine, particularly early morning swims, to keep himself calm. He's cautious and wants nothing more than a peaceful life.

His wife, Salwa, is also well-educated (in fact, she met Jassim back in Jordan by attending one of his lectures when she was a student). But someone who didn't like Salwa might describe her as a piece of work. By one of those coincidences that happen in life and in novels, Salwa was born in America and spent a sliver of her baby-life here before her family went home to Jordan. Maybe it's that American birth that makes her just a little bit mindless and a little bit materialistic, a little bit unable to see anything beyond the end of her own nose....

When the towers fall in New York, these people are as stunned and appalled as everyone else, but at first they don't think that the terrible event has much to do with them. Then, when a Sikh gas station attendant in Phoenix is killed " in retaliation," they get scared. "People are stupid," Salwa says, " Stupid and macho. . . . throwing their weight around if something happens that they don't like. Only it doesn't matter to them if they get the people who did whatever it is that they are angry about, just as long as they've done something large and loud." Add to that the fact that rational societies are only as rational as their craziest citizen, and the news for this couple isn't good. [Link]

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