Book Review: West of the Jordan



Title: West of the Jordan

Author: Laila Halaby

Genre: Literary fiction

Length: 220 pages

Library: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh–Main

Challenge: 2013 Middle East Reading Challenge

Summary: Four cousins, native to the West Bank, with various experiences of America, contemplate their lives and possible futures.


In her examination of what it means to be both Arab and American, Halaby chooses to focus on one large Palestinian family, tracing its various adventures through the eyes of four female cousins: Mawal, Hala, Khadija, and Soraya. Mawal, the only cousin who has never left her village, lives a simple life, and thinks of her American relations as either foolish or crazy for having left. The other three have lived in both the West Bank and America, and are very confused by their teenage experiences, mostly because they have to navigate the mores of one place while still respecting those of the other.

On top of that, the three girls who now live in America are having radically different experiences. Hala is ready to start college, and excited about it, but is feeling guilty because her father wants her to come home and get married. Khadija is a nerd among her peers, who have no idea she’s being abused at home. Pigeonholed as a “bad girl” by her family, Soraya gladly plays the part, pushing the envelope on sex, drinking, dancing, and other behaviors unbecoming of a good Muslim (though her male relatives never seem to take flak for them). Although Halaby draws with broad strokes rather than fine ones, and the reader may frequently find her/himself wishing to know much more about each young woman, the diversity of experience she depicts allows Western readers to more fully understand the challenges immigrants face when they arrive.

The overriding theme is that it’s not easy to be an Arab-American woman, and that if you want to live life on your own terms, you’d better be prepared for a lot of struggle. That makes for a fairly heavy novel, and the rare flashes of humor and laughter are a much-needed tonic in a somewhat gloomy narrative. But Halaby is giving voice here to cultural experiences  that many Western readers will be unfamiliar with, and that is not always a walk in the park.

Recommended for: readers who are interested in the intersection of gender and culture, people who enjoy coming-of-age stories, anyone interested in broadening his/her horizons or, conversely, Arab and Arab American women seeking representations of themselves in literature.


2 Responses to “Book Review: West of the Jordan”

  1. If you feel inclined, post a link to your review on the Middle East Reading Challenge page. Love to have you do so!

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