Home » Palestine » Hala Alyan » Salt Houses

Hala Alyan: Salt Houses

Salma lives in Nablus. She and her family had been driven out of Jaffa. This had affected her husband, Hussam, so much that he had become ill and died (They took my home, they took my lungs. Kill me, kill me). Salma has three children. The oldest is Widad, who married soon after her father’s death. She was not too excited by the husband chosen for her. Mustafa and Alia are both unmarried. However Alia is getting married to Atef, whom she does love and who is a close friend of Mustafa. The two had been arrested for attending a demonstration and had spent four mights in jail and both had been knocked around.

But now Alia is getting married, Salam, with her friends, is reading the coffee dregs. She does this frequently though, occasionally, it foretells something grim and the recipient is not happy. On the whole she does not do it for family but she is optimistic about Alia and Alef. She will be pregnant soon. There is a man waiting to take her through a door, a man who’ll love her very much she announces but what she keeps quiet about is the less positive forecast: Houses that will be lost and an unsettled life.

Salma had decided to move out and had moved to Amman, leaving the house to her children and when Alia marries Alef, just to Mustafa. She was worried whether he was able to look after himself, with some justification. He cannot. Mustafa has two interests. He has had a series of girlfriend but the current one, Aya, is more independent than the others. The other interest is is the mosque and the revolution: the kinship he feels in the mosque; this churning of something ancestral and looming—but what? Revolution? War?She was used to gatherings in Nablus, where women laughed and smoked and shared dirty jokes, shocking one another with confidences. But these visits were stuffy, the women speaking of silverware prices and the latest heat wave. It was also too hot.

But it is 1967 and we know what happens – the Six-Day War, which starts the day before Alia is due to return to Nablus. Some people survive, others do not. Alef is able to join her, after being arrested, tortured and then released, and, to her disgust, insists that they stay in Kuwait. They stay and start a family and a life. Alia and Atef never speak of Palestine though clearly both think about it.

We continue to follow the fortunes of the family, including subsequent generations, with the usual issues – parent-child disagreements, bringing up children, love and love going wrong, including divorce, dementia and, inevitably, deaths.

Often, though not too often, the outside world intrudes. The family in Kuwait has to face Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait though surprisingly little is made of this, though later Souad will bemoan not the death of the people but of the zoo animals which the Iraqis released and used for target practice. Alia and Atef’s daughterSouad is in Paris, the others flee to Amman. Palestinian events such as the Lebanese Civil War and the intifada are mentioned but, again, only in passing.

One of the key issues is that, being absent from Palestine and, indeed, moving round the world – we find various family members in Amman, Beirut, Paris and the USA- they lose touch with what it means to be Palestinian. Some of them rarely speak Arabic, others are generally becoming westernised in their various habits. The traditional Palestinian ways are fading into the background. Girls/women become more independent (At least sons are predictable. These days, the girls are wilder than the boys.

In the US, after 9/11, Souad and her friends are called terrorist bitches but on the whole the US was easier to fit into: You became what you coveted. Memories were short. She met Mexicans, Germans, Libyans, who spoke accented English but responded, From here, whenever asked.

In Beirut they feel more at home even though Alia calls Beirut A city of whores though Beirut takes some getting used to. However Palestine was something raw in the family, a wound never completely scabbed over.. It is only right towards the end of the book that one of the younger generation dares to visit Palestine.

Apart, of course, from the general and often complex story of an extended family, there are two broad themes. The first is that the family is often on the move, either because of political events (Six Day War, Lebanese War, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait) or because they just decide to move (wanderlust, unable to put down roots in a foreign country and/or various personal reasons). They live variously in Palestine, Lebanon, Kuwait, France and the United States but are never entirely happy anywhere.

The other issue is that, by the end, the characters are no longer pure Palestinian, both because of intermarriage with people from other countries and, because of their travels, making them lose touch with their country which, of course, is no longer their country.

While, at times, the book seems to drag, Alyan tells her tale well and gives us an excellent portrait of unrooted Palestinians.

Publishing history

First published in 2017 byHoughton Mifflin