Nothing to Enjoy

West of the Jordan by Laila Halaby, Beacon Press, 200 pages, $15 (paperback).(Hebrew version translated from English by Daphna Rosenblitt, Resling, 241 pages, NIS 84)

In a melancholy 1984 essay called "Reflections on Exile," Edward Said told of a friend whose Armenian parents fled Turkey in 1915 after their families had been slaughtered. They traveled to Aleppo, and from there to Cairo. In the 1960s, when "life in Egypt became difficult for non-Egyptians," they and their four children were sent to Beirut with the help of an international aid organization; then to a stopover in Glasgow, Scotland; from there they continued to Canada before ending up in New York.

It was in New York that the aid agency decided to put them on a bus to Seattle. "Seattle?" Said asked his friend in puzzlement over the destination that was chosen for his place of residence. The friend did not reply, though he did smile with resignation, "as if to say, better Seattle than Armenia - which he never knew, or Turkey."

People's attitude toward their national origin - even if it is just a "political" origin, a supposed homeland where one has actually never set foot - is the theme of Laila Halaby's first novel, "West of the Jordan." In the first chapter, Hala, one of the four female protagonist-narrators, departs on a plane from Los Angeles to visit her family in Jordan. In the seat next to her, a Syrian woman with dyed hair prattles away. The woman has been living in the United States for 30 years, though she claims that she is unable to utter a single word in English. "Why should I bother?" she asks. When Hala suggests that knowing the language may make her life in exile more enjoyable, the woman retorts: "Nothing to enjoy."

"West of the Jordan" is mournful of the Palestinian tragedy - but for Halaby, that tragedy is not the Israeli occupation (even though it is mentioned more than once), but rather the diasporic existence. The book's four narrators are girls on the cusp of maturity, cousins who belong to a family that has been dispersed throughout the world - Jordan, the West Bank, Arizona and California. As is to be expected from girls their age, they have yet to find their place in that world, but Halaby hints that detachment and confusion are not limited just to them, nor are they exclusively characteristic of their families or their fellow villagers.

This is the lot of many of their compatriots who find themselves in exile, whether by force or voluntarily. Most of them ended up in the United States, "which is like an army calling all able-bodied men away and then never returning the bodies," as described by Mawal, the only one of the narrators who stayed in her family's home village in the West Bank.

Those able-bodied men, who were blinded by the promises of a foreign culture, later discovered that instead of the American dream, what awaited them was hard, dull work. They "missed the smell of coffee brewing, missed the clean air of their land, longed for the gentle touch of their mothers"; but when they returned home for a visit, or to get married and remain there, "they couldn't stand it." They were stuck between their lost homeland and the shattered dream.

Halaby often presents the less flattering aspects of life in America. Take the story of Dahlia, Soraya's aunt, whose husband was "injured at his job in this country with so many rules and benefits that he can stay home accumulating government assistance." Dahlia discovers that her children have been kidnapped from under her husband's nose, but her boss does not allow her to leave work so that she can look for them.

Mawal is the only one of the four cousins who has not left the village. The other three protagonist-narrators, who are torn between Arab culture and their lives in the U.S., represent possible outcomes of the tense encounter between the West and the Arabs.

Hala moved to the U.S. to attend high school, and she returned to Jordan to visit her dying grandmother. While contemplating whether to get married in Jordan or to continue her studies in the U.S., she is saddened to realize that her father may have already decided for her on the more traditional course for her life. Hala's cousins Khadija and Soraya have grown up in California. Khadija struggles to acclimate to American openness and permissiveness, and she is forced to deal with her oft-intoxicated and violent father, who tells her: "This country has taken my dreams that used to float like those giant balloons, and filled them with sand."

Soraya is a cause for concern to her family, because of her love of dancing and provocative dress. Both girls try to navigate between acceptance within the family and integration into American society. At times, though, they are repelled by both options.

Nostalgic yearning

Laila Halaby, who was born to a Jordanian father and an American mother, and who resides in Arizona, offers what could appear to be a bleak picture of the clash of Arab and American cultures. Today, though, that picture appears naive. The book was originally published in English in 2003, but its plot is set in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In one chapter, Soraya is out on a date with an Arab boy at a predominantly white neighborhood bar. The boy is assaulted by one of the patrons, who mistakenly believes him to be Mexican and demands that he speak English. Since September 11, 2001, the interaction between Muslims and Americans has become much more volatile.

The rupture described in the book is liable to occur within families from all traditional societies who lose their cultural bearings, but in the U.S. this predicament has been compounded in recent years by anti-Muslim hostility that has the backing of the authorities. If life in exile, and the literature written about it, is a delicate game between the urge to acclimate to a new setting and the nostalgic yearning for the motherland, then the nostalgia is twofold in "West of the Jordan": Read today, the book reflects a yearning not only for the familial-village setting, but also for the lives that Arab immigrants to the United States knew prior to 2001. (Halaby's latest book, "Once in a Promised Land," which was published in 2007, deals with an Arab couple living in the paranoid climate that has gripped the U.S. in recent years.)

Throughout the course of the novel, Halaby paints a clear picture of the conflicts preoccupying the four storytellers. Their four independent, distinct voices - critical voices through which rage and reconciliation are weaved together - are powerfully heard and they enable the reader to appreciate how ethnic origin and environment have influenced each one's perception of reality. Indeed, the characters are the book's strength. It is they - not the plot, that concludes with a meek protest; the characters - not the way in which Halaby, who occasionally veers into kitsch rhapsody, tells their story. Hala, Khadija, Soraya and Mawal, four young women whose lives dealt them a powerful slap to the face, remain in one's memory even after their story - one of maturing the hard way - is forgotten.

Avi Waksman, a journalist, has written for both Ha'ir and TheMarker.