Book Review – Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses

Salma Yacoub looked at the coffee cup and knew that something is amiss about the fate of her youngest daughter, Alia. She never read the coffee dregs of her own kin but made an exception here because it was Alia’s wedding day. So what did she do? She decided to tell a lie, to give away only the positive foretelling. 

This paraphrasing is how the novel, Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan, begins. With a lie.

It is also her decision to tell this lie that captivates the reader immediately. As Salma waited for her daughter, she reminisced about her life, about how she ended up in Nablus, fleeing from Jaffa; about her husband’s death and about her three children, Widad, Mustafa, and Alia. Widad was already married and settled in Kuwait and now the youngest was getting married to Atef. Salma spared no expenses. Interestingly, the wedding itself is not described in the story but only the events leading up to it.

The entire novel is narrated through the perspectives of Salma’s family. Initially, it is her children’s viewpoints that are portrayed and later on her grandchildren and great grandchildren as well.

The novel begins in the 1960s and ends in around 2014. It narrates the history and growth of Salma’s family over 60 years. The one constant in all their perspectives is war, the act of fleeing and resettling. Movement is constant. Each generation has seen war. Salma was the first. Her children were victims of The Six Day War in 1967 which forced Atef and Alia to settle in Kuwait along with her sister, Widad. They had to flee again from Kuwait, when it was invaded by Iraq in August 1990.

The characters are perpetually settling and resettling; be it in Kuwait, Ammam in Jordan or Beirut in Lebanon. A few characters such as two of Alia’s children, Souad and Karam, also move to Boston and Paris for some time. However, Palestine is never called home again.

In portraying one family’s dispersal across the world, Salt Houses lays bare the human cost of conflict: the trauma of war and displacement that generations carry. 

The novel makes that pain ever so palpable through the characters’ memories and lived experiences. Yet, despite the sadness, their stories uphold the value of relationships and of family. There is deep warmth in the family’s get togethers. The young ones move in and out, they go looking for greener pastures but still maintain a sense of attachment with their family despite the fraught situations and tenuous nature of their relationships.

This is not to say that Hala Alyan has romanticised Palestine or the idea of the homeland and family. Yes, the past is a prominent aspect of certain characters’ lives; it is where one longs to go back to. But such narratives are set against very realistic goals of survival and staying safe, and having stability. When one of Alia’s granddaughters, Manar, visits Palestine (particularly Nablus and the home Alia grew up in), she attains no jubilation because the place has transformed. It is no longer the lust green land of orange trees that her grandmother remembers. Manar’s visit acknowledges that change has occurred. In such ways, the story steers clear of surfeit nostalgic sentimentality. The memories of older generation of Palestine are different than the realities in 2014. “Nostalgia is an affliction”, Alia remarks. Certainly, characters such as Alia live off nostalgia but that is not the only narrative employed in the novel. It does not suffer from overindulging in the oft-used connections of nostalgia and memory.

Even the fragmented identities that they have, especially Alia’s grandchildren, highlight the unrealistic idea of nationality based on borders. Alia and Atef are Palestinian and have lived in Palestine till they fled to Kuwait but none of their children or grandchildren have lived there or were even born there. They are Palestinian by nationality but also partly Kuwaiti and Lebanese. They have seen Jordan and the U.S. Alia’s grandchildren have grown up in the U.S. and are ‘ajnabi’ or strangers because of their Americanised ways. How does one explain such criss-crossings of identity to any person? The characters are constantly marked by their difference and even their friend circle includes people who are similarly anomalies from what is considered ‘normal’ identity.

While the Yacoub family is definitely a privileged one as they are moneyed and were probably landowners in Palestine, they are still refugees. They live drifting lives; lives that are unsettled by the whims and fancies of dictators and so called democratic regimes.

This privilege is acknowledged right at the beginning in Salma’s narrative when she feels grateful for having a house in Nablus and not having to languish in refugee camps, grateful that she can protect her children at least in that way from war. Alia has similar thoughts about her own children and her privilege is also set in stark contrast when she randomly meets a Kurdish refugee woman in Kuwait who tells her about what hunger really means. Yet, in no way does Alyan diminish any kind of suffering. Instead, she juxtaposes this disparity often and keeps the characters’ privilege in check.

The narrative is intimate and will tear you apart with its mixture of joy, longing, nostalgia, death and birth. The reader glimpses their lives, thoughts, and gets involved in their interweaving strands of family stories. It feels melancholic to read this novel, especially when reading about the constant political turmoil the characters are confronted with. How does one settle in life when war is always at one’s doorstep? But the multiple voices in the novel do exactly that –take brave steps, even risky ones, to carry on with their lives even though they are often ruptured by bombs and battles.

Salt Houses is a must read as it reveals layers of intertwining history and displacement through a portrait of this one family. It triumphs as a literary work as it does what literature does best: show the humane behind the cold statistical headlines. The writing is tender, delicately depicting the characters’ lives through such heart wrenching metaphors of beauty that are jarring to the reader.

“Within days the groves were mangled, soil impaled with wooden stakes, oranges scattered, pulp leaking from battered flesh.” This vivid image is as haunting as describing a morgue; it tells a different tale of the destruction yet it is still talking about war. Her writing often portrays the beauty vis a vis destruction. This is exactly what hurts the reader when reading this novel.

The novel’s take on extremist tendencies remarks bravely on its flaws. When Alia’s grandchild, Abdullah, is influenced by these Fascist thoughts, Alia speaks up against them and calls out the inherent evil in such ideologies. Alia had seen how her own brother Mustafa was lost because of this. Abdullah is Riham’s son; Riham is Alia’s eldest child. Riham transformed into a devout person after her adolescent years and in a scene, after Alia confronted Abdullah, Riham is also shown reflecting on how the religion peddled by these extremists is suffused not with faith but with anger and misinformed ideas of lost identity. It was heartening to read about characters who themselves disowned these ideas. This is very different from mainstream depiction of Muslim characters which relishes on showing them as fanatics. Here is Riham who loves her faith because of how it is, and not because someone is shouting at her to assert her religion. She truly believes in it rather than only using her religious identity as a way to channelize her anger and injustice, which is what she thinks the fascists indulge in.  This rational dissection of extremism is important in the face of constant stereotyping against an entire religion.

Salt Houses is a gut wrenching novel that leaves you hollow and sorrowful because of the sweeping history and trauma that pervades the story. Yet, it hails the sheer strength of hope amidst the barrenness of war.

Cover Image: Beowulf Sheehan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Joe Sacco's Palestine Cover Image

Palestine by Joe Sacco

For years cartoonist Joe Sacco had been watching and reading the news of the Palestinian uprising. Are all Palestinians terrorists or victims? He would ask himself as he saw the news flashing across his TV screen. What about the average guy with routine concerns like food on the table for his family and getting to work on time. Where was that guy? Dissatisfied with the media’s portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, Joe decided that he needed to see it for himself, from ground zero.

 

In the winter of 1991-1992, he made his way to the region and parked himself in Jerusalem. For two months, he crisscrossed across the borders between West Bank, Israel, and the Gaza Strip. He met labourers, refugees, ex-prisoners, soldiers, volunteers…all the different people who were a part of the fabric of this troubled region. He met children who had not seen any other way of life and geriatrics who had lived in peaceful times much before the 1948 Palestine War. His companion on this travel was his trusty notebook for his doodles, cartoons, and observations.

 

This notebook would later take the shape of Joe Sacco’s graphic memoir – Palestine.

 

The novel, both written and illustrated by Sacco, is divided into nine issues, each one divided into multiple chapters. The story is built through anecdotes that he gathers as he travels across the region. In towns like Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron in the West Bank, he visits market places, hospitals, schools and local homes. He meets Palestinians who have spent multiple terms in Ansar III, the largest detention centre in the world. He travels to the extreme west to the Gaza Strip where he spends a week in the Jabalia refugee camp and witnesses first-hand the living conditions.

 

While his witty remarks often elicit laughter, the underlying tone of empathy for the helpless situation is starkly evident. For instance, his visit to Nablus, where a milkman he encounters in the market insists on playing tour guide. He drags Joe to the local hospital and tows him from bed-to-bed, introducing him to the casualties and listing the details of their injuries. The patients are not all rebels. Many, including children, are wounded by army bullets that zipped into their homes or school compounds. The situation is grim, but the writer’s presentation of the hospital as a tourist spot and himself as a tourist makes one laugh out loud.

 

The author’s intent is not to trivialize the Palestinian situation. Sacco’s use of humour manages to evoke discomfort in the reader, engrossed in the story from the warmth and safety of her home.

A chapter on Sacco’s interaction with the detainees from Ansar III highlights the fact that incarceration was an accepted fate by Palestinian men at the time. The story of the prisoners brings out nuances of life inside a detention camp, many of which are astonishing. For instance, the formation of committees among the prisoners to oversee seemingly mundane tasks like the equitable distribution of tea. And, the organization of lectures by the prisoners on topics like Einstein, philosophy and split-up of the Soviet Union. As also, their strategies based on the careful study of the soldiers’ routines, such as planning contentious activities just before the weekend, when the officers are looking forward to heading home.

 

At the end of the two months, Sacco visits Tel Aviv, the capital of Israel, on the insistence of two tourists he meets in Jerusalem. They want him to see ‘their side of things’. During those few hours in Tel Aviv, the writer sees a different side of the region, meets people who remind him of people he meets in America and Europe. He concedes that yes there is an Israeli side of the story which he has neglected in this novel, but that calls for another trip. This trip was an exercise to uncover the Palestinian perspective, largely disregarded by popular media.

 

Sacco alternates between playing narrator and protagonist. As the narrator, he shares with the reader his reflections on the people, their situation and the policies that govern this region. He also includes nuggets from history to help understand how events have evolved to reach the current status quo. With regards to the other characters, he is matter-of-fact, presenting them without over-dramatization and allowing the reader to draw conclusions.

 

The illustrations are monochromatic, and Sacco strikes a balance between vacuity and busyness in every box. Some bits are filled with fine lines, squiggles and other patterns, which enhance the starkness to the blank bits in the box. His drawings acquaint the reader with a close-up view of a land that has primarily been seen only through the long-focus lenses of reporters.

 

‘Palestine’ drives home the power of stories – they engage and thus, affect. And they stay with the reader, much after the news has been relegated to the archives.

Image – Joe Sacco’s Palestine