On the Burdens and Blessings of New Beginnings: “Salt Houses” by Hala Alyan

I am not very fond of family sagas (preferring more focussed personal—existential—narratives) and do not usually enjoy fiction on the immigrant experience (I like it better when it’s about travel and adventure). That being said, I did eagerly pick up Salt Houses by Brooklyn-based Palestinian-American novelist, poet and clinical psychologist Hala Alyan (@HalaNAlyan)—an intergenerational narrative on displacement, spanning the Middle East, Europe and America. I have wanted to read something on Palestine/by a Palestinian for quite some time. This interest was sparked by an awareness of the Palestine Festival of Literature. I have heard of authors like Selma Dabbagh (Out of It) and Susan Abulhawa (Mornings in Jenin) and have thought of checking out their work. For now, Hala Alyan’s wonderful debut somehow seemed most accessible.

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan (2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan (2017, Cornerstone)

Alyan—who grew up reading storytellers like Amy Tan, Chitra Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri—has lived her life moving from Kuwait to Texas and Oklahoma, from Beirut to Brooklyn. She understands it all: “intergenerational clashes over culture; an enduring sense of homesickness; the idea of misplacing and recreating ‘home’ in foreign cities.”

Salt Houses, which begins in the 1960s and ends in the 2010s, is the story of the wealthy Yacoub family, originally from Jaffa. The novel starts with the couple Salma and Hussam, their children Alia and Widad and Mustafa…progresses on to the children of Alia and her husband Atef—Riham and Karam and Souad. It chronicles the experiences of their spouses (Latif, Budur, Elie), their children (Abdullah, Linah, Manar, Zain). Locations frequently change in the book—Jaffa, Nablus, Kuwait, Amman, Beirut, Paris, Boston, Palestine again—against a background of major political events: the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War of 1967Saddam Hussein’s Invasion of Kuwait in 1990, 9/11, the 2014 Gaza War

Throughout, the characters remain “normal”, people with ordinary strengths and weaknesses whom you could understand, empathise with. Alyan has written that she “wanted to write something that avoided the usual (media and art) portrayal of Palestinians and Arabs, which often involves politicizing or exotifying them.” This is something I really appreciated.

The younger Yacoubs migrate for safety and opportunity, they try to build new lives for themselves but struggle or outright fail to assimilate into the foreign environments they have chosen. It is as if the trauma has reverberated through the decades, proved contagious, passed from grandparents to grandchildren. Ever since that magnificent peach villa with its orange groves atop a hill overlooking the sea in Jaffa was razed to the soil by Israeli tanks, every subsequent shelter has turned out to be hollow, without foundation and structure, too ephemeral.

Where do you go when you have no proper “physical” home? What do you do? The author proposes gently: you continue to move, you endure, you refuse to stop even when there is pain. More importantly, you remember the comforting, invigorating tunes of your “ancient, salvaged music”—means you keep alive, you hold onto whatever is beautiful, whatever is good about your culture and identity.


Three excerpts:

Arabs Go Over to the West…

“If I don’t speak, no one will. This is exactly the problem. Arabs go over to the West, fall in love with their fake gods, their starlets and starlets and music stars, drink their poisoned water…It’s disgusting. We lose our culture. We sell our souls. Instead of getting fat off of their land, we should be fighting them, arming to the teeth. We should be returning to Allah. The people who are going to save us, they aren’t those spineless politicians. It’s the men inside the mosques”




“You listen to me. What those men are trying to do, what they’re trying to sell you, this idea that you’re lost and they’re saviors and the rest of the world is evil, that what you need is to bow and surrender and fight, they’ve been doing that for decades. You think you’re the first one? They’ll pick up anyone hungry enough to listen. So don’t sit there thinking you’re special. Don’t sit there thinking you have some great secret. We’re all a mess. Iraq’s a mess, Lebanon’s a mess, don’t even get me started on Palestine. But if you think those hypocrites are going to save anything, those liars wearing God like some gold to attract boys…well, then you’re an idiot.”


“We’re all a mess. Iraq’s a mess, Lebanon’s a mess, don’t even get me started on Palestine.” (Photo: Pixabay)


That House. The Ones that Came After…

That house. The ones that came after. He thinks of them, instinctively touching the soil again. All the houses they have lived in, the ibriks and rugs and curtains they have bought; how many windows should any person own? The houses float up to his mind’s eye like jinn, past lovers. The sloping roof of his mother’s hut, the marbled tiles in Salma’s kitchen, the small house he shared with Alia in Nablus. The Kuwait home. The Beirut apartments. This house, here in Amman. For Alia, some old, vanished house in Jaffa. They glitter whitely in his mind, like structures made of salt, before a tidal wave comes and sweeps them away.


“The houses float up to his mind’s eye like jinn, past lovers. The sloping roof of his mother’s hut, the marbled tiles in Salma’s kitchen, the small house he shared with Alia in Nablus.” (Photo: Pixabay)


That We Are Owed Something by the Cosmos…

It all [Arabic music] reminds her of the celebrations she read about in history classes, the extravagant parties the ancient Greeks used to throw before battle. Naked women, orgies, wine by the barrel, and, everywhere, wild music. She thinks of the slaughters going on, the occupation surrounding them, all the revolutions that flicker and blaze and die. It would seem like such a monumental, brave, lovely act, all this revelry in the face of war, except that Manar knows it has always been like this.


It fascinates Manar—not just history in general, with its empires, collapses, and revivals, but also the faint, persistent echoes that seem to travel through the millennia. Land eaten and reshuffled, homes taken—daughters and sons speaking enemy languages, forgetting their own—the belief that we owed something by the cosmos.


Learn more in this video from “Politics & Prose”:

Also, check out this author interview on NPR.


Image Credit:

Featured: Nablus Old Town AlKhaan by User “DeenaAy”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons