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Reader's Guide for West of the Jordan by Laila Halaby

Reader's Guide for West of the Jordan by Laila Halaby

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Published by Beacon Press

This is a reader's guide for West of the Jordan.

This is a brilliant and revelatory first novel by a woman who is both an Arab and an American, who speaks with both voices and understands both worlds. Through the narratives of four cousins at the brink of maturity, Laila Halaby immerses her readers in the lives, friendships, and loves of girls struggling with national, ethnic, and sexual identities. Mawal is the stable one, living steeped in the security of Palestinian traditions in the West Bank. Hala is torn between two worlds-in love in Jordan, 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. Soraya is lost in trying to forge an acceptable life in a foreign yet familiar land, in love with her own uncle, and unable to navigate the fast culture of California youth. Interweaving their stories, allowing us to see each cousin from multiple points of view, Halaby creates a compelling and entirely original story, a window into the rich and complicated Arab world.

This is a reader's guide for West of the Jordan.

This is a brilliant and revelatory first novel by a woman who is both an Arab and an American, who speaks with both voices and understands both worlds. Through the narratives of four cousins at the brink of maturity, Laila Halaby immerses her readers in the lives, friendships, and loves of girls struggling with national, ethnic, and sexual identities. Mawal is the stable one, living steeped in the security of Palestinian traditions in the West Bank. Hala is torn between two worlds-in love in Jordan, 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. Soraya is lost in trying to forge an acceptable life in a foreign yet familiar land, in love with her own uncle, and unable to navigate the fast culture of California youth. Interweaving their stories, allowing us to see each cousin from multiple points of view, Halaby creates a compelling and entirely original story, a window into the rich and complicated Arab world.

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Published by: Beacon Press on Nov 30, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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09/29/2013

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Reading Guide:
 
West of the Jordan
 
Author: 
 
Binding Information:
Paperback
Price:
$14.00
In stock."Halaby's writing carries the flavor of the lands she writes of, west of the Jordan
rich and imbued with sorrow."
Gelareh Asayesh, author of 
Saffron Sky: A Life between Iran and America 
 "Laila Halaby is a deeply gifted writer. She describes complicated, culture-spanning lives in a poetic prose that isclean and compelling. There is no glossing over pain here, but the power of telling
richly human voices and theredemption of honesty."
Naomi Shihab Nye, author of 
19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East 
 
Contents
 
 
 
 
 
About the Book
Laila Halaby's revelatory first novel weaves together the narratives of four cousins coming of age in America andPalestine. Through their moving stories, we gain insight into the lives of young women struggling to reconcile their identites, relationships, and independence with the cultural complexities of being Arab women. Hala, a student livingin Tuscon, struggles to choose between two worlds when she falls in love with an older man during a visit with her family in Jordan. Mawal, the only cousin who stays in Palestine, remains deeply attached to her family and her traditions. The defiant Soraya, living in Los Angeles, is involved in a physical relationship with her uncle and fightsincreasing depression and alienation. Khadija, terrified by the sexual freedom of her American friends and scarred bya traditional, strict, and often abusive relationship with her father, doesn't quite fit in with American teen culture. Theauthor herself is the daughter of a Jordanian father and an American mother and knows all too well the difficulties of reconciling Arab and American cultures.
West of the Jordan 
movingly explores these difficulties and navigates themwithin the even more complex framework of the narrators' coming-of-age.
About the Author
Laila Halaby is the daughter of a Jordanian father and an American mother. Shespeaks four languages, won a Fulbright scholarship to study folklore in Jordan, andholds masters degrees in both Arabic literature and counseling. She lives with her family in Tucson, Arizona.
Questions for Discussion
1. Hala, Mawal, Khadija, and Soraya are greatly influenced by the women in their lives. They are the daughtersof four sisters, and the head of their family is their Bedouin grandmother, Maziuna (Sitti). How has thisaffected their stories?2. Mawal tells us that her family history "is what makes my mother pay attention to details and listen so well. Somany women come spill their secrets and their joys and their agonies because they know my mother 
andI
will keep them safely and do no more than stitch them into the fabric of our 
rozas 
." Hala, Khadija, andSoraya have all encountered tremendous pain during their lives. How do they cope with their grief? Do youthink they "stitch" it away? How does their culture affect the way they deal with their emotions?3. Hala says, "My mother knew Soraya when she was very young, and even then she said it was as thoughSoraya had been touched by something magical
in both a good and a bad sense. Her own mother,Maysoun, stopped trying to fight it, just showed her disappointment to everyone, even though it seemed asthough it came from within, and was not something that could be controlled" (p. 82). In what ways is Soraya"a new breed. A rebel" (p. 56)?4. "You would think our village was in love with America with all the people who have left, like America is thebest relative in the world that everyone has to visit. America is more like a greedy neighbor who takes thebest out of you and leaves you feeling empty," says Mawal. Do you think Mawal is jealous of her cousins?
 
How does her coming-of-age story differ from those of her cousins? How does her culture influence how shecopes with this transformation?5. Khadija's mother thinks it is shameful that Khadija can't speak Arabic, is disobedient, and "[walks] like aboy." Khadija identifies as an American rather than a Palestinian (p. 74). At the same time, she obeys her parents' strict decisions and is frightened by her American friends' promiscuous behavior. How does Khadijafit in with American teen culture?6. What do these four seemingly very different cousins have in common with each other? Are they similar inany ways? Which of the four cousins do you identify with the most?7. Hala's mother, Huda, had to come back from America and get married after a rumor spread about her having a sexual relationship with another student. Do you think Huda's story affected Hala's decision toleave Sharif and return to America? Do you think she made the right decision?8. When talking about America, Shahira tells her sister Saher that "it is very difficult to live among strangersand more difficult when those strangers are your own children." How has living in America affected therelationships between Palestinian-born Shahira and Maysoun and their American-born daughters, Khadijaand Soraya? Do you think the mothers regret coming to America?9. What do you think of the male characters in the book? Do they "fit in" with your perception of Arab men?10. Many of the tales in the novel reflect the hardships of living in America. Walid gets beaten up at a bar for "looking Mexican," Dahlia's children are kidnapped and her supervisor won't let her off work, and Sameer,Um Radwan's son who worked hard to provide for his wife, is stabbed and murdered by his wife's lover.What sort of commentary do you think the author is trying to make by weaving all of these dishearteningstories into the novel? Do you think she is suggesting it would have been better had these families stayed inPalestine and Jordan?
An Interview with the Author
1.
What inspired you to write a novel about the experiences of young women coming of age in Palestine andAmerica?
 
Mostly because these were the people in my world, but also because I was intrigued by the perception, or misperception, of Arab women versus the reality of Arab women. So often I would hear words like "submissive," and yet the Arab women I knew were among the strongest women I'd met. I am also interested in the effect that occupation, and exile, whether self-imposed or not, has on an otherwise intact family set-up.
 2.
What inspired you to become a writer?
 
Writing is something that I've always done 
I guess it's how I process life 
and I've always loved stories. Something I find particularly interesting is how people communicate with one another and how that communication is perceived 
how much miscommunication there actually is, and the effects of those misfires.
 3.
Who are your favorite authors, and how have they influenced your writing?
 
I remember reading 
Cry the Beloved Country
at a fairly early stage and thinking, "Yes, writing can change someone's mind or understanding of a situation." That was very important. I admire Arundhati Roy tremendously, for her courage, perception, and incredible sense of the beauty and agony of life. From Sandra Cisneros and Sherman 

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