“Salt Houses” is a beautiful, sprawling debut which tells the multigenerational story of a Palestinian family in exile, a family whose own diaspora reflects the wider movement and personalizes the modern current of world migration. Beginning with Salma on the eve of her youngest daughter’s wedding, “Salt Houses” traces four generations of a family, from 4 years before the Six-Day War of 1967 to 2014, exploring identity and culture in fresh and penetrating ways. The reader sees this story from multiple perspectives across decades; there is first Salma, then her three children – Alia, Widad, Mustafa; followed by Alia’s children Riham, Karam, and Souad; and finally their children – Manar, Zain, Linah, and Abdullah.
This family, Palestinian at their roots yet almost always living elsewhere – Kuwait, Lebanon, America – is constantly working to define itself, to find its place in the world and in the geopolitical struggle for belonging. Three different generations of the family’s women speak directly of their view of the diaspora.
Alia, fiercely outspoken throughout her life, speaks with curled lip and palpable disdain:
“‘I’ve said it and said it, this was a long time coming. Nasser, Hussein, walking around with their chests puffed out, thinking they’re peacocks. Scattered men. What kind of leader promises victory with scattered men? An Arab republic. Ha! Look at this – some American money and here’s Israel’s shiny new toys. What do we have? Flags, songs, dreams. They’re going to obliterate us.'”
When her grandson Abdullah seems to be at imminent risk of radicalization, Alia is characteristically direct:
“‘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 their 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.'”
Then there is Souad, whose life in America brings her identity as a Palestinian into tighter focus:
“As a girl, this cataloging of origins never struck her as strange; Kuwait was a place of expatriation and everyone seemed to come from somewhere else. Elie had his Lebanon, Budur her Iraq. Even if a person’s heritage was flimsy, unused for years, you were where your father was from. America wasn’t like that. You became what you coveted. Memories were short. She met Mexicans, Germans, Libyans, who spoke accented English but responded, From here, whenever asked. Souad became brown. People’s eyes glazed over when she tried to explain that, yes, she’d lived in Kuwait, but no, she wasn’t Kuwaiti, and no, she had never been to Palestine, but yes, she was Palestinian. That kind of circuitous logic had no place over there.”
And finally, Manar makes a pilgrimage to Palestine, desperate to see for herself the familial homeland.
“Her pang for Palestine had always been an amorphous thing. It was a hat rack for all her discontent. But suddenly Palestine is real. it is filled with people who have her hair and voice; people live here, she realizes stupidly. They wake under this sun, celebrate anniversaries, march at funerals, watch settlements and checkpoints multiply. While she is busy fucking American boys and writing essays about the diaspora, there were people over here being Palestinian.”
Hala Alyan, a psychologist by training, shares incredible insight into the psychology of one family “caught between present and past, between displacement and home.” Yet her message is about more than immigration. This book is an important work at a critical time, when prejudice and fear cloud judgement, when we forget to see the human in others. Her writing is warm, charismatic, and beautiful, her story achingly personal and deeply human.
Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the complimentary Advanced Review Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “Salt Houses” was released in the U.S. on May 2, 2017.