Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

Salt Houses is a novel that eventually comes full circle, as it follows the female members of a Palestinian family as they flee, move, marry and cope with constantly being and feeling outside where they belong, including between generations and even between siblings.

Each chapter is titled with the name of one of the family, beginning with Salma, the mother of Alia, in Nablus, Palestine, the town she and her husband Hussam and their children fled to in 1948, following the Nakba (catastrophe). Alia is a child of war, barely three years old when they had to flee.

The opening lines are an indication of what is to come and intrigue us to want to know more, they remind me of a visit to Palestine where I first heard about this cultural divination practice, Tasseography, the art of reading coffee grinds, a ritual that dates back thousands of years.

“When Salma peers into her daughter’s coffee cup, she knows instantly she must lie.”

Alia’s older sister is married and lives in Kuwait, a land Alia is reluctant to visit, but when she does in 1967, finds she is unable to return to Palestine due to “the Setback” (the Six-Day-War), thus her children will know a home and culture, even though connected to her heritage, very different from her own.

As each generation makes a move, Hala Alyan takes the reader on an emotional journey of perseverance and loss, against a background of political manoeuvring. While the narrative avoids the conflict and brutality of war and deplacement, we become witness to the separation of a family from its roots, its culture, its land, and in particular the effect on a Palestinian family of the founding of Israel and the conflicts that followed that caused them to become refugees, firstly in their own country and latterly in neighbouring countries.

The separation is not just from their land and traditions, but between perceptions, as family members find it difficult to understand the yearnings of their elders and parents find it difficult to understand the foreigners their have become to them. Fortunately, like with many families, solace can sometimes be found for a child with their grandparent, those who have seen too much to be surprised by anything anymore, who have arrived at acceptance without judgement.

Salt is referred to throughout, invoking memories of family living near the sea displaced inland; fathers who “salted everything after that, even his water,” houses lost, eroded like salt; lives soothed by and almost taken by immersion in salt water. It is everpresent.

“The porcelain surface of the teacup is white as salt; the landscape of dregs, violent.”

Through it all Alia’s husband harbours a secret that torments him, one that he lives with by regularly writing letters that are never sent, seeking atonement.

The novel traverses with diligence a difficult period in the history of Palestine and the Middle East, demonstrating the resilience of humanity to survive, the sacrifices that are made and the cultural poverty that is experienced giving rise to the insatiable desire for families to remain connected, not just to each other but to the small yet important things, the traditional rice dishes, the olive, the orange tree, the desire to keep flowers blooming, no matter where they find themselves.

Their homes may crumble, but their spirits continue to reignite and flourish, wherever their heads may lie.

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian-American author, poet and practicing clinical psychologist living in Brooklyn, who spent her childhood moving between the Middle East and the US.  Salt Houses is her debut novel and is inspired by some of her own extended family experiences.

“I definitely think there was an intergenerational trauma that went along with losing a homeland that you see trickle down through the different generations”  Hala Alyan, NPR interview.

Further Reading:

Dreams, Displacement & DNA: Talking With Hala Alyan About ‘Salt Houses’ What happens when displacement enters your DNA? by Kristin Iversen · May 9, 2017

Note: This book was an ARC (advance reader copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley. I originally reviewed this book for Bookbrowse.

 

 

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Second Person Singular

It is likely that there will be different perceptions of Sayed Kashua’s  ‘Second Person Singular’ not only due to the literary devices he uses, but on account of ‘where we are coming from’ and perhaps too, where we come from.

I am intrigued by the questions it raises, which require some discussion to make sense of, which may never be resolved or agreed upon because of that earlier dilemma, perspective. They concern how identity affects behaviour and opportunity, the interactions of and between people who possess subtle differences, some of which are merely perceived and not necessarily seen, a surname, religious preference, education.

The story concerns ‘the lawyer’, an educated and ambitious man regarded as one of the most successful Arab criminal attorneys in Jerusalem. One day he picks up a second-hand copy of Tolstoy’s novella ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’, recognising it as a volume his wife has mentioned in the past with enthusiasm, only to discover what he perceives as a love letter between its pages, in his wife’s handwriting. Discovering the name Yonatan on the inside cover, between bouts of violent and paranoid thoughts regarding his wife, he sets off to hunt the culprit down.

The unveiling of the truth behind the note, is revealed before the end and what follows is a dissection of the two male characters behaviours, as we await the final confrontation. The lawyer, whose name we never learn , lacks emotion and seems aloof, suited to his role, until the discovery of the letter when it is revealed just how delusional and extreme his emotions can be, left unchecked by reality. The culprit, in some ways is similarly deluded, but in a more intriguing and interesting way.

As a reader I found the characters of more interest through their observations of the city and society they worked within, the villages they lived in and the consequences of their identity. It is this that would generate an interesting discussion, particularly as the two characters the story follows represent different faces of that same society.

They are Arab-Israeli’s, non-Jewish Israeli citizens whose cultural and linguistic heritage is Arab. A matter of geography and politics, those who live in the Occupied Territories (otherwise known as the West Bank and Gaza) are of the same ethnic origin but refer to themselves as Palestinian, they of the same family as Arab-Israeli’s, they just carry a different legal status, which affects their education and employment opportunities and much more.

Creating strict country borders is a relatively modern idea and none more controversial than this ever-changing one, the enforcement of borders then gives rise to terms such as immigrant and refugee. The lawyer and other young educated men like him from villages in the North upon becoming doctors, lawyers and accountants in Jerusalem move to a suburban part of the city, where they were referred to by locals as immigrants, they are in fact the emerging middle class and we are given an interesting insight into what this means and how it manifests for this new generation of young people.

Perhaps it is a consequence of language and therefore thinking processes, but it reminds me that here in France the word for country ‘pays’ is the same word as region, so we can begin to understand how someone might be regarded as an immigrant in their own country.

Much of what this novel leaves me thinking about is how identity, borders and names can shape and influence opportunity and destiny, a universal dilemma for many or if we are fortunate, chances that we don’t even realise are so much more of an advantage than what some must confront by virtue of birth.

An interesting story and an exceptional insight into a world few really know or understand.

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

A Rhyme for the Odes (Mu’allaqat)

No one guided me to myself. I am the guide.

Between desert and sea, I am my own guide to myself.

Born of language on the road to India between two small tribes,

adorned by the moonlight of ancient faiths and an impossible peace,

compelled to guard the periphery of a Persian neighbourhood

and the great obsession of the Byzantines,

so that the heaviness of time lightens over the Arab’s tent.

Who am I? This is a question that others ask, but has no answer.

I am my language, I am an ode, two odes, ten. This is my language.

I am my language. I am words’ writ: Be! Be my body!

And I become an embodiment of their timbre.

I am what I have spoken to the words: Be the place where

my body joins the eternity of the desert.

Be, so that I may become my words.

No land on earth bears me. Only my words bear me,

a bird born from me who builds a nest in my ruins

before me, and in the rubble of the enchanting world around me.

I stood on the wind, and my long night was without end.

This is my language, a necklace of stars around the necks

of my loved ones.

– extract from ‘A Rhyme for the Odes’

by Mahmoud Darwish, from the collection ‘Unfortunately, It Was Paradise’

(13 March 1941 – 9 August 2008)