Palestinian-American Debut Novel Drives Home the Trauma of Exile

Hala Alyan's 'Salt Houses' is a family saga, although even the word 'saga' may be overly grand, since none of its characters are the makers of history: They are history’s victims.

Author Hala Alyan
Beowulf Sheehan

“Salt Houses,” by Hala Alyan, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pp., $26

The reader who approaches “Salt Houses,” debut novelist Hala Alyan’s multi-generational portrait of a Palestinian family in exile, with expectations of grand pronouncements about right and wrong, or victim and perpetrator, will be disappointed. Nor is there much action here: The book’s most dramatic moments take place in exchanges between parent and child, or even within the thoughts of a single character’s mind.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of course, is key to the book: It is the backdrop against which the non-stop wanderings of an extended family’s branches take place, wanderings that are dictated by the movements of armies and militias, and the ambitions and aspirations of politicians. But “Salt Houses” is not a history text, and if you didn’t already know the intricacies of the 70-year dispute before picking up the book, you are unlikely to be on firmer ground when you reach its end.

“Salt Houses” is a family saga, although even the word “saga” may be overly grand, since none of its characters are the makers of history: They are history’s victims. And Halyan’s book offers the reader countless opportunities to love and identify with the protagonists — even, say, the Jewish reader who believes the Palestinians are his enemy, and he theirs. There is, in fact, much in this diaspora tale that will seem familiar to Jewish readers.

The story begins in 1963, 15 years after Salma and Hussam left their native Jaffa, which they did when Israeli forces conquered the city during the War of Independence. The couple moved with their three children – Widad, Mustafa and Alia – to Nablus, in the West Bank, which Jordan occupied during the same war. By now, Hussam is dead, and Salma is the head of the family, expending her energies on finding her children appropriate matches. She has already married off Widad, and now, as the book opens, it is the eve of Alia’s wedding, and the bride has asked her mother, who is known for her skill in divining the future via the dregs at the bottom of a coffee cup, to tell her fortune. Salma knows that “reading the cup of someone with whom you shared blood [is] unwise,” but she is unable to refuse Alia’s request.

What Salma sees in the coffee grounds are a crumbling edifice – a sign of “houses that will be lost” – and the form of a zebra, the harbinger of an “unsettled life.” What she tells Alia, however, is that her fiancé loves her and that she will soon be pregnant. It’s the truth, but not the whole truth.

It is the lives of three of Salma’s female descendants – Alia, her daughter Souad, and Souad’s daughter, Manar – that form the arc of the book, which extends chronologically from shortly before the Six-Day War, when Nablus falls under Israeli control, to the present day. All three women are strong-willed, impulsive and sometimes as cruel to those around them as fate is to them. All three will have unsettled lives.

As life deals out its blows to Alia – first exile from Jaffa; then, in 1967, the death of her beloved brother, Mustafa, in the Six-Day War; and then separation from her children and grandchildren, as the Palestinian diaspora fans out – she becomes increasingly embittered and hard. Late in life, she also suffers from dementia. Nonetheless, the family continues naturally to revolve around Alia, and her children and grandchildren all pay obeisance to her with regular visits to the Amman home she shares with her mild-mannered, professor husband, Atef, who has his own ghosts. Alyan’s omniscient, third-person narrator is adept at allowing us to get into each character’s mind.

Among the historical milestones lining the path of the family, the most decisive for Alia and Atef is the Six-Day War, which sets in motion the choreography of family wanderings. When it breaks out, Alia is visiting her older sister in Kuwait City, and has no choice but to stay there, while Mustafa and Atef – best friends as well as brothers-in-law – remain in Nablus, where they join the fight against the Israelis. Both men are taken prisoner, and Mustafa dies in Israeli custody, under circumstances that Atef, after his release, is unable to discuss with anyone. What we do know is that he is wracked with shame and guilt about Mustafa’s death, and is convinced that if he were to tell Alia the truth, she would leave him. Instead, he unburdens himself by writing regular letters to the deceased Mustafa, offering regular reports on the family.

Alia and Atef raise their three children in comfort in Kuwait, until Saddam Hussein invades, in 1990, and they flee to Amman. Their oldest daughter, Riham, becomes religiously pious, which doesn’t prevent her from being alarmed when her grown stepson gives signs of being drawn to Islamic jihadism. Riham’s secular siblings, Karam and Souad, end up in Boston, where Souad remains until her marriage breaks down, at which point she and her two children move back to the Middle East.

Defusing explosions with laughter

Over and over, reading “Salt Houses,” I swooned as Alyan gently, subtly, described one exchange or another between family members, whose tempers rise, but who, as one is about to say something hurtful to the other, nearly always pull back from the brink, defusing an explosion, usually with laughter. Sometimes, one is moved simply because they elect to employ kindness with one another when it would be so easy to be cruel.

Cover of 'Salt Houses.'
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

When a 5-year-old Souad insists she wants to go the zoo, even though it is Riham’s birthday, and she has asked to visit the sand dunes, their parents, who have different ways of dealing with the children, are almost drawn into an argument of their own. The moment is saved by the kind-hearted Riham, who announces that she wants to go to the zoo too, and asks her little sister, “Souad Do you want to see the elephant or the tiger?”

“Souad considers. ‘I want,’ she says slowly, ‘to see the tiger eat the elephant.’ In spite of themselves, they all laugh, even Alia, who reaches over to ruffle Souad’s curls.

“’You barbarian,’ Alia says, and they laugh even harder.”

Years later, after an adult Souad has moved to Beirut, she takes her children to a mall, and finds that the 13-year-old Manar is determined to make her mother miserable. When she offers Manar the opportunity to help her pick out some items for their new home, Manar refuses: “’No, I want to look at bed sheets. I don’t like the flowery ones.’

“Souad feels her temper rise, takes a breath [She] tries for a joke. ‘Do you want a lollipop, Manar, to cheer you up?’

“Not even the trace of a smile. Her daughter has become unrecognizable to her.”

An hour later they reconvene; Manar has filled her shopping cart, and, it is “a multicolored fuck-you. Curtains covered with giant, kitschy rainbows, a sparkly unicorn decal for a small child. A ceramic frog, blue tongue extended.

‘Manar – ’ She catches Manar’s triumphant eye ‘So this is how you want to decorate your room? Frogs and unicorns and rainbows?’

“‘Yup.’ The word clips from Manar’s mouth. ‘I think rainbows are terrific.’”

Souad bites her tongue and smiles. “‘That’s it, then. Let’s go.’”

As they approach the cashier, Souad tries one more time, asking Manar, “‘You sure you want this stuff?’

“Manar nods bravely, but Souad catches the hesitation.

“‘Well, okay. You made some fine choices; that unicorn will go beautifully with the blue walls’ They continue to eye each other. It is clear Manar had expected a fight. Not today, Souad thinks."

The cashier is growing impatient, and “Manar’s eyes dart between the basket and the conveyor belt. ‘Maybe – maybe I don’t need the curtains,’ she says reluctantly. Souad tries to keep her face neutral but can’t help grinning. There is a beat of silence, and the two of them erupt into loud laughter.”

Such forebearance may make for fewer fireworks in the plot, but there’s something deeply satisfying (and credible) about seeing family members who care enough about one another that they allow themselves to put their pride aside to avoid some irreconcilable break.

A family story, not a political one

As an Israeli, I couldn’t help but approach this book with some trepidation. Public discussion about Israel and Palestine in recent years has become so toxic that partisans shut down fast when someone from the other side merely opens her mouth, and sometimes with reason. Would a novel by a Palestinian-American be just another polemic? And if not, would “pro-Israel” Jews be willing to expose themselves to it?

Those who expect “Salt Houses” to be a political statement, however, or who are primarily concerned with how Israel comes off in it, are likely to be disappointed. It is not the Palestinian answer to “Exodus,” offering up the narrative by way of a heroic, cinematic tale, in which there is little doubt who the good guys are.

And Hala Alyan is no Leon Uris. She was born in Carbondale, IL, to Palestinian parents: Her father was born in Gaza to parents who came from the village of Iraq Suweidan, in the northern Negev, which was captured and destroyed by Israel during the 1948 war and replaced by Israeli communities. Her mother was born in Kuwait to a mother and father who themselves were from Syria and Acre, respectively.

Her publisher reports that Alyan, growing up, lived in Kuwait, Cyprus, Oklahoma, Texas, Maine, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. Although it is clear that her family’s peregrinations share much with the family in “Salt Houses,” the author has said that the individual characters are not based on her immediate relations.

I had hoped to speak with Alyan for this paper, but she declined the opportunity to do an interview. I did, however, speak with Lauren Wein, Alyan’s editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, about her work with the writer, who despite her tender age – she is in her early 30s – has already published three books of poetry, and holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Rutgers University, in New Jersey. Today, Alyan has a private practice in Manhattan (offering therapy in both English and Arabic), and she also teaches in her field at New York University.

Wein, an executive editor at HMH, happens to have grown up in an observant Jewish family, and attended day school, where she learned Hebrew. She has also spent time in Israel. I wondered if she had any reservations about taking on a book written from the Palestinian point of view.

“What made this book so appealing and accessible to me is that I felt like my politics didn’t matter,” she responded. “I come from a family where there’s a real range of politics and ideologies. And it’s confusing. But I have always seen my mission in publishing as kind of transcending politics. So I put that aside, and I said, this is a human story. And it challenges some of the received wisdom I grew up with, and it makes the world feel more complex than is easy. But to me that’s valuable.”

Wein also says that she did not experience any resistance from the publisher, which could have been reluctant to confront the sectarian objections that seem to arise whenever anyone says anything publicly about Israel or Palestine. “That was never an issue,” she says.

The editor, who has also worked with Israeli novelist Zeruya Shalev and Palestinian-Israeli writer (and Haaretz columnist) Sayed Kashua, stresses that “Salt Houses” “is not a political story for me; it’s a family story, and it’s about individuating from a family as much as anything else.” The process of individuation, suggests Wein, “is always more fraught when you’re talking about a family that is in exile or diaspora, which is a very common Jewish trope.”

She agrees that Alyan’s book “is not meant to be a history lesson,” but is, rather, “a book about how history is lived by people caught in its jaws.”

I could not completely avoid reading through an Israeli lens, but this only mattered when I encountered a few false notes related to Israel or Israelis. Alyan, for example, has Israeli soldiers and courts operating as policing and judicial authorities in Nablus in the years preceding the Six-Day War, when in fact, Israel assumed responsibility for the West Bank only after it occupied the territory. She also has a character brought up in pre-1948 Haifa recalling the rape of his sister by Israeli soldiers during the War of Independence, although rape is one of the few crimes that has not been ascribed to Israeli forces even by Israel’s worst critics. A few other examples of gratuitous cruelty by Israelis are recalled by characters, but this is not a principal concern of the book. Such inaccuracies are unsettling, but do not fatally mar the book, which overall rings with authenticity.

Toward the end of the book, a now-grown and pregnant Manar travels to Israel from her home in New York, and when she lands, finds herself detained for three hours by immigration authorities at Ben-Gurion airport. This scene, unfortunately, is highly credible. Manar, who has arrived wanting to experience her family’s homeland before she assumes the responsibilities of motherhood, is interrogated in detail about her family history and has the contents of her purse examined item by item. There is no torture here, only hard-hearted, petty bureaucracy that seems intended largely to discourage Palestinians from visiting their land. In this case, Manar spontaneously comes up with a novel device for foiling her young interrogator, and receiving her entry visa, and it’s hard not to cheer when she does.

If only more Israelis and Palestinians would allow themselves to acknowledge that both peoples belong to and love this land. That if we can’t accommodate the other, neither of us will ever live in peace. Alyan gives no hint that this is the message implied in these scenes, but I would like to think that it nonetheless underlies her humanistic portrait of a Palestinian family in exile. And those of us who aren’t used to hearing about such stories can be grateful to her for the telling.