Salt Houses is Hala Alyan’s first novel, but not her first book. She is a published poet with a doctorate in psychology, and in Salt Houses, she demonstrates both her beautiful way with words and her remarkable ability to delve into the psyches of the members of one family. Each character in this book has his/her own unique voice and way of seeing the world. And that world changes from generation to generation, quite literally, as they are forced to move from one city and country to another in the wake of wars in the Middle East.
Salt Houses is the story of the Yacoub family: matriarch Salma; her children Widad, Mustafa, and Alia; the grandchildren Riham , Karam and Souad; the great grandchildren Manar, Zain, Linah, and Abdullah; and son-in-law Atef. The first chapter is set on the eve of Alia’a wedding to Atef in 1963 and told from Salma’s point of view. She has read the coffee grounds from Alia’s cup and is troubled; an unsettled life with houses lost, arguments and a journey are before Alia. Salma herself has had a similar a life. In 1948, she, her husband and their three children were living in Jaffa when war forced them out of their home and to relatives in Nablus (Palestine). Salma had respect but no great love for her husband, now dead many years. She recognizes that their family’s wealth protected them from the worst aspects of displacement, such as refugee camps. In Alia, Salma sees a new kind of woman: tall enough to look men in the eye, forthright and bold. Salma thinks,
…the world was no longer made for certain types of women. There was a need for spine and even anger.
Alia’s spine and anger will become legendary in her family. After the 1967 war, Alia’s beloved brother Mustafa is dead and Atef is a changed man. Having been incarcerated and tortured along with Mustafa, he suffers from nightmares and other PTSD symptoms. The Yacoub family had to leave Palestine for good, with Salma moving to Amman, Jordan, while her remaining children and their families live in Kuwait City. Alia hates it there and would prefer to be with her mother and the others they knew from Nablus, but Atef will not move. He needs to be away from all he knew. Despite the strains on the marriage — Alia’s desire to leave, Atef’s struggles, and the three children they have had together — the couple manages to stick together. Atef is the gentle and quiet counterbalance to Alia’s anger and dissatisfaction, but their children cannot help but be affected by their parents’ sometimes difficult relationship.
The decades pass and narration shifts to the younger generation as they struggle with their parents, siblings, partners and children, all against the backdrop of conflict in the Middle East. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 pushes the family far and wide: to Jordan, Paris, Boston, and then in later years to Beirut and New York. While Halya includes terror and conflicts in her narrative (9/11 and the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, for example), they are not the main focus of her story. Halya’s focus is on her characters and their family as they experience not just these events but also everyday life in between them. The conflicts within the family are as much a threat to stability as being uprooted by war. Alia has a particularly contentious relationship with her daughter Souad, who, like her mother, demonstrates spine and anger. In turn, Souad has a very difficult relationship with her own daughter Manar.
Character development in this novel is excellent. Halya has created a number of strong female characters, and they carry the bulk of the narration. On one hand are Alia, Souad, Manar and Linah (Manar’s cousin), all strong and assertive women. They do not conform to what society expects of Muslim women in behavior, dress or religious practice. They are flawed, sometimes selfish women, and their mother/daughter relationships are often fraught, but their love is fierce. On the other hand are Salma, Widad and Riham. These are the women who can comfort and ease tensions, who might come across as stodgy and traditional, but who possess strength and wisdom. Riham’s relationship with her grandmother Salma is particularly lovely to read about, as Salma nurtures her faith and sense of self worth.
The male characters in the novel are fewer and not as well developed. Karam is the good son who works hard and wishes to please. Zain is similar, attempting to be the peacemaker in his family when Souad is angry. The only male narrators are Mustafa and Atef, but their relationship and actions, which are not fully revealed until the end of the novel, are central to the plot. We know that Mustafa and Atef were friends and were both involved in the pro-Palestinian movement on the eve of the 1967 war. Mustafa was a passionate and gifted orator while Atef was more a man of action. The other male character of note is Abdullah, Riham’s stepson who is drawn to the jihadis in the late 1990s. In the cases of both Mustafa and Abdullah, female characters will be the ones to confront them about the danger of listening to Imams whose goal is to draw in young men and make them feel important. I was impressed with Halya’s handling of this topic — with the way the characters talk to each other (or don’t) about involvement in revolutionary movements and how Mustafa and Abdullah respond.
The big conflict, the main trauma of the novel, however, is not about wars or terrorism. Rather, it has to do with matters of family, identity and memory. As generations of the Yacoub family move on and move away, they have to struggle with how they perceive themselves as well as how others perceive them: you are Palestinian, not Lebanese, not American, but what if you were born in America? Or Paris? What if one parent is Palestinian and one is Lebanese? What if your Arabic isn’t as good as it used to be because you’ve lived away for so long? Your roots are with your family, but so many have died or are scattered. What about all the questions you meant to ask but never had the chance? Before dying, Salma tells Alia, “You cannot let yourself forget.” At the end of the novel, these words will have taken on a new, deeply sad but powerful meaning. Atef sees that his grandchildren will have to make sense of what they know, what they’ve learned, and who they are on their own, but perhaps that is for the best. Perhaps that is ultimately what everyone has to do.
Salt Houses is an excellent novel. The characters are complicated, occasionally aggravating, and completely realistic. I found myself caring about each one of them and feeling sorrowful for their losses and difficulties. The ending is poignant, to say the least. This is another good choice for a book group and a rare chance
to get a glimpse of what the history of conflict in the Middle East might look like through the eyes of one family.