'Salt Houses' examines identity in diaspora

Hala Alyan's debut novel is a chronology of a Palestinian family and their mandatory wandering life imposed on them by the Six-Day War of 1967 and subsequently Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Salt Houses By Hala Alyan Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 320 pp.

Identity in diaspora is something that always concerns the displaced, especially those who were reluctantly forced out of their homelands. Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish put it eloquently in his poem about Palestinians refugees: “... We are what we produced in the land that was ours/ we are what’s left of us in exile/ we are what’s left of us in exile/ we are the plants of broken vase/ we are what we are, but who are we?” 

Such is the concern of the Palestinian-American writer and poet Hala Alyan in her debut novel Salt Houses. The book is a chronology of a Palestinian family, the Yacoub family, and the wandering life imposed on them by the Six-Day War of 1967 and subsequently Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The story opens in 1963 in the West Bank city of Nablus and continues until 2014 as the family’s lifves stretch through five host countries: Lebanon, France, Jordan, Kuwait, and the United States.

The characters of the book are from four generations: Salma, the mother of the family who earlier in 1948 fled the city of Jaffa with her husband due to Arab-Israeli conflict; her three children; her three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. The book showcases how different characters see the world, one through a daring eye and another conservatively. It paints how different generations react to change: As one reluctantly refuses to let go of the past, the other one is willing to embrace the change. 

"Salt Houses" describes how distance deprives people from being part of their loved ones’ life, including Riham, Salma’s granddaughter: “All she knows of her siblings are her memories of them as children and then, abruptly, snapshots of adults whom she sees every couple of years.” 

The constant search for somewhere called home is something that rings throughout the whole book. Alia, who is forced out of Nablus in 1968, refuses to accept Kuwait as her new home and seeks refuge in the Jordanian capital of Amman whenever she gets a chance. Her daughter Souad is as disoriented. After living in Kuwait, Amman, Paris, and Boston, she eventually decides to reside in the Lebanese capital Beirut. And while to some home is “somewhere familiar, somewhere people look like us, talk like us,” others even can’t describe what home is anymore.

The whole idea of displacement even resonates in the difficulty that the displaced have in describing themselves. In Beirut, Souad goes back to being Palestinian as her accent exposes her, but in the United States she becomes “brown” and people are confused when she tries to explain that even though she lived in Kuwait, she wasn’t a Kuwaiti and “no, she had never been to Palestine, but yes, she was Palestinian.” 

"Salt Houses" reminds us how children fall victim to war and conflict. It disturbs their lives as the 2006 Lebanon war disturbed Linah’s as a schoolgirl. Linah, Salma's great-granddaughter who lives with her family in Boston, spends her every summer in Beirut. Prior to the war, which lasted for 34 days during the summer, summers were about swimming and playing. But this time it “is just heat and mosquitos and the bombings that sometimes make the windows shake. All the adults do is talk about evacuation and warships and explosions. They watch men yell on the television and shake their heads.”

And that’s not the end of it. War and conflict create divides not only among the adults, but also among the children. When Marie, a Lebanese girl, hears Linah talking about the war in Lebanon, she snaps back at her that she’s not even Lebanese and reminds her of her accented Arabic. She adds, “You think your people deserve to be here? My mom told me all about them. Palestinians killed my uncle during the war.”” 

The story revolves around eight main characters and each chapter focuses on one of them. Alyan tries to develop each and every character as the story goes by, but her attempt is not successful. Characters seem unripe and even though they are involved in interesting actual events, it’s difficult to feel connected to them as they remain fictional. 

However, Alyan is a skilled storyteller which makes her debut a pleasant read. She is able to string along the reader through the book and keep the reader interested. 

"Salt Houses" is a book on migration and the issues that the migrated struggle with through in their lives: how to integrate into the new society while staying connected to the old roots, how to keep the second generation rooted in their parents’ culture and tradition without alienating them from the host country, and, with all these concerns, how to find a way to carry on with a "normal" life.

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