Salt Houses: A story of Palestinians without Palestine

Hala Alyan’s novel spans generations of a Palestinian family as they search for home and identity in diaspora.

Salt Houses
'This is a book my grandmother wrote without realising and my great-grandparents wrote without realising' [Courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan]

Hala Alyan’s debut novel Salt Houses has shaken up the literary world. The Palestinian-American poet and psychologist’s book is a family drama about displacement that traverses conflicts, countries and continents.

Born of a short story, the novel explores the inter-generational trauma accompanying exile
Born of a short story, the novel explores the inter-generational trauma accompanying exile

The novel explores the experiences of eight members of a Palestinian family spanning six generations. Readers meet them in 1967 Nablus, Palestine, at the start of the Six-Day War and travel with them through the Israel-Lebanon War in 2006 and beyond.

Salt Houses is punctuated by a never-ending search for home, from Nablus to Kuwait City, Amman, Paris and Boston. At times, the family members are uprooted by war, and at other times by choice or chance.

Born of a short story, the novel delves into the inter-generational trauma accompanying exile. It is a particularly personal book for Alyan, whose own family has experienced displacement.

Al Jazeera spoke with Alyan about the novel’s timeliness, her transition from poetry to prose and the role novelists can play in shaping narratives on the Arab world.

Al Jazeera: How did the idea of Salt Houses come to you?

Hala Alyan: I’ve always been interested in the period between 1948 and 1967 when something terrible had already happened, but people didn’t know what else was to come. How there was this lost generation, particularly of young men, that felt powerless.

I was going to write a short story about one young man, on his way to the mosque, reflecting on an illicit affair he was having. Then I had him run into his sister. Then I realised how much I loved the sister. And then I reflected on the mother.

I found myself captivated by this family. I felt it would be cruel to abandon them when I knew the Six-Day War was coming, and they’d probably lose their home. I know that might sound ridiculous as they’re characters I created, but I felt this obligation to see the story through.

'I think of Salt Houses as a book that's been generations in the making, and that's taken a tribe to write' [Courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan]
‘I think of Salt Houses as a book that’s been generations in the making, and that’s taken a tribe to write’ [Courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan]

Al Jazeera: Did you have the global political situation in mind when writing?

Alyan: When I first started writing, I was steeped in the past, preoccupied with the idea of doing justice to an era I never existed in. That felt like a huge responsibility. When I switched over to the 2006 Lebanon war and the final chapters, I was very much thinking about the present context.

The Trump era has amplified issues that always existed.  Black bodies were being harassed by police; Muslims were being vetted and discriminated against. These things were already happening, they just became more shameless, exaggerated and blown up. In that sense, I’m happy this book has come out in an era of literal and psychological borders; I hope it will contribute to the literary genre that tries to transcend and challenge those ideas.

There’s something tragic about having to find ways to keep your culture alive in displacement.

Al Jazeera: One of your characters, Mustafa, is attracted to the mosque for political rather than religious reasons. What message were you trying to send?

Alyan: What I’ve taken is the archetype of the lost young person looking for tribe and community. You see that in disenfranchised communities everywhere and in people being radicalised. At the heart of that are people at a loss for purpose and meaning. Mustafa serves as a representation of the young man in a rudderless moment, looking for anything that will point him north. The means and instruments most accessible to him are those of the mosque and the community he finds there.

Al Jazeera: The family in this book is cushioned by a comfortable economic situation, yet still damaged by war. Why did you go with that angle?

Alyan: I wanted to write a story of displacement and diasporic memory, and to do that, people had to be able to “leave”. This book doesn’t purport to represent the entire Palestinian experience. It’s a slice of that experience: This is what happens if you have certain socioeconomic means and opportunities. I wanted this to be a story about being Palestinian without being in Palestine.

It’s worse to be living in a camp, of course. But it was important for me to write about how there’s still suffering and a sense of loss in exile. There’s a luxury and privilege in being able to become someone in exile, but that doesn’t mitigate the fact that you’re always going to be landless. There’s something tragic about having to find ways to keep your culture alive in displacement.

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Al Jazeera: What role should Arab novelists play in shaping the narrative on the region?

Alyan: From my perspective, it’s to tell the truth, as ugly as it might be. No one behaves well during war. There are real class and social issues. I’m not going to paint my people or parts of the world I love with a rose-coloured brush because that’s not fair to my audience or the people I’m trying to represent. If I’m going to tell the truth about certain things, I want to tell the truth about all of it.

It’s important to remember that any critique, if we’re going to write about Palestine or Syria, is part of the tax we pay. Being able to talk about it is a luxury – we get to have voices whereas many people who came before us and many today don’t.

Al Jazeera: In writing this book, did you feel you were able to connect more with your Palestinian identity?

Alyan: As a Palestinian, one of the things I contend with is guilt. Can I claim this identity, even if I’m not suffering the way people in Palestine are? Can I claim this identity even though I’m not living under occupation? My biggest fear is that I’ll be accused of slipping that identity on and off.

I’m very conscious that I say I’m Palestinian-American – I don’t shy away from it. In terms of writing Salt Houses, though, I do think it was in part a subconscious testament that I’m unapologetically Palestinian. And that identity belongs to me in a different way, but I would say just as much as anybody who claims ownership of it.

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Al Jazeera: Who did you write this book for? 

Alyan: This was a book inspired by a family that was also written for them. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful for all the praise I’ve received, but when my brother read it and texted saying: “You did it, you did the thing you were supposed to do”, that was it. Nothing will top that.

This is not my story. And when you look at it that way, the most gratifying responses are from the people I had in mind when writing.

Al Jazeera: Will you be focusing more on novels now, versus poetry?

Alyan: Hopefully this is the beginning of more of both. I can’t imagine not writing poetry. It feeds something essential in me that fiction doesn’t. It also taught me a lot about patience and about taking what seems like a daunting task and breaking it into pieces.

I’m well into a new novel, which is about an expatriate family that returns to sell its ancestral home in Beirut. The book is written simultaneously in the 1950s and 1960s in Damascus and Beirut, and then in the present day over one summer, as the adult children try to dissuade the patriarch from selling the home.

I like the idea of not being in one perspective forever, as that would be a little restless for me.

Al Jazeera: How do you feel about the reception for Salt Houses?

Alyan: For a while, I felt like it was happening to somebody else. Praise in publishing is such an individualistic thing. Granted, I sat down and created the product, but it felt like a collectivist process.

Writing this book for me took generations. I think of Salt Houses as a book that’s been generations in the making, and that’s taken a tribe to write.

This is a book my grandmother wrote without realising and my great-grandparents wrote without realising. This is a book that existed through so many people and so many iterations and so many cities. 

Source: Al Jazeera