“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”

This sixth amendment to the Constitution of the United States in the title of my post is, like most other statutes and rules and regulations, an ideal, or it speaks of ideal conditions.  For example, a lot of prosecutions in society are prosecutions of public opinion, which while they have no legal status, yet have consequences upon the people involved, on both sides of the issue (or on all sides, since some controversies are more complex than ones that have only two sides).  And if no one accuses you outright, but only begins to look at you askance with certain assumptions in his or her mind which lead to consequences likewise, what do you do?  How defend yourself against a charge that is not openly articulated?  And what if, little by little, the unspoken accusations do eventually lead to an official sort of “trial”–and I emphasize the word “eventually”–how do you find an “impartial jury”?  The gossip, backbiting, and publicity that may surround such trials by public opinion cause no one to be sure that she or he is truly impartial, though he or she may be truly committed as far as possible to finding justice as an ideal.  And what if the crime one is suspected of participating in is so horrific, so publicized, so hated and full of distress for so many people, that it is practically impossible to achieve an impartial trial not only in the “State and district” concerned, but even in the world in general?  This is the situation of Jassim and Salwa Haddad, a Muslim couple settled in Tucson, Arizona and living there just after the 9/11/01 plane bombing of the World Trade Center in Laila Halaby’s extraordinary novel Once in a Promised Land.

Let me hasten to point out that this novel is not an apologia for Muslim causes, yet nor is it weak in its indictment of Western culture in its lack of center and soul, from at least the perspective of Salwa and Jassim, who are used to a more stable and conservatively structured family culture.  The novel is above all honest about its own limitations of vision in the sense that it does not try to portray Western culture as dramatically evil or depraved, but as diverse and as complicated as it is in any large American city, with its real estate deals, business offices, cheap restaurants, areas of lovely homes, small neighborhoods, drug dealers, all the while acknowledging that even this complex view is seen from outside by two fairly recent immigrants.  Jassim, the husband, is a hydrologist, studying water tables and rainfall gathering methods, and attempting to garner the knowledge necessary to help the globe, particularly someday his own part of it in Jordan, to sustain itself hydrologically and not waste water.  Salwa, the wife, works in a bank and sells real estate, and is most susceptible to the lures of Western society (in her case, in the form of lacy pajamas and frilly underwear, which she acquired a taste for when a female relative a long time before first sent her silk pajamas).

One of the most interesting things about this novel is that it is not really about 9/11, but is about Salwa and Jassim and their love life, and Salwa’s at-first secret pregnancy and miscarriage, Jassim’s equally hidden car accident (known to officials but not originally to his wife) in which he unintentionally kills a skateboarder, and the forces that gradually motivate these divisions and nearly cause the couple to part.  It is the story of a marriage, and it’s just that one of the forces that almost tear them from each other’s arms is the day of 9/11; Salwa indignantly and heroically challenges Anglo-Americans who treat them with prejudice or suspicion, Jassim tries to reason or decides to ignore the issues all together.  But not only their relationship is at stake:  Jassim is also suspected unjustly by prejudiced right-wingers at work and by a man, a former Marine clearly suffering from some kind of battle stress and psychological fatigue, who informs some FBI friends that Jassim is suspicious, and so starts an intrigue which ends up threatening Jassim’s posh and advantageous job working with water resources in Tucson.  Both Salwa and Jassim are being courted by members of the opposite sex, and because they are experiencing growing distance from each other, part of the climax and catastrophe of the novel is invested with these elements which have thrust them apart.

The ending–and I don’t need to issue a spoiler alert, because it’s somewhat unclear–winds two threads of plot together, the main story line and a line from folk tales about a female demon called a “ghula” in Salwa’s tradition, which has been in the story from the beginning.  The suggestion is that Jassim and Salwa are returning to Jordan, but that is not a foregone conclusion, nor is it a definite one:  it is said that the man is carrying the “injured” woman “home,” though whether it is to her family home in Jordan or to their mutual home in Tucson is not entirely clear.  The ghula is apparently the symbolic equivalent of the 9/11 experience for all those Muslims and people of Eastern descent who, while guilty of nothing to do with the bombings, suffered from a sort of racist and ethnocentric fervor in the United States immediately afterwards, and in the West in general.

Possibly the most valuable thing about this book, or arguably, anyway, is that the two main characters are presented as ordinary undemonized people, full of their own troubles, whose troubles have the misfortune to get wound up in a larger societal perspective which does demonize them.  This characteristic allows the reader to experience the psychological difficulty of sorting out the common issue of “in for a penny, in for a pound.”  What I mean by this is that it is not always true that someone guilty of one crime or sin or misdemeanor or piccadillo is therefore guilty of something more major, but often one small lie or one flaw of character causes a jury (for example) to decide in favor of conviction on a charge when perhaps the accused is not guilty of the larger charge at all.  This kind of fiction forces us to practice discrimination (in the positive sense of the word) in our choices and in our judgements, so that we become better able to say that sometimes, “in for a penny” is just “in for a penny,” and has nothing to do with “a pound,” and that not all old sayings and saws are what they are cracked up to be.

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Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

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