A fam­ily scat­tered and a world in tur­moil

Mal­colm Forbes gets com­pletely drawn into Hala Alyan’s epic tale of one Pales­tinian fam­ily’s dis­place­ment

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Early into Hala Alyan’s re­mark­able de­but novel, Hus­sam Ya­coub, the pa­tri­arch of a wealthy Pales­tinian fam­ily, asks his daugh­ter’s suitor where he in­tends to set­tle. “In my home­land, sir,” comes the re­ply. “Noth­ing un­der this sky will budge me.” But that sky grows over­cast, and in time Is­raeli tanks roll in and the whole fam­ily is budged out by war and buf­feted into ex­ile – “far from this blaz­ing coun­try split in two”. What be­gins as a tightly fo­cused tale of con­densed up­heaval and re­lo­ca­tion for one strand of a fam­ily soon ex­pands into a sprawl­ing and en­gross­ing epic chart­ing the tur­bu­lent dis­place­ment and dis­per­sal of sev­eral gen­er­a­tions in the course of six decades.

Salt Houses opens in Nablus in 1963 with Salma, Hus­sam’s wife. On the eve of her daugh­ter Alia’s wed­ding, she casts back 15 years to the days of ter­ror that forced the fam­ily to flee their Jaffa villa. But Salma also looks for­ward, not­ing with alarm the omi­nous grounds in Alia’s cof­fee cup, which por­tend “an ex­te­rior life, an un­set­tled life”. From here, Alyan pro­ceeds in sharp shifts, de­vot­ing each chap­ter to a dif­fer­ent fam­ily mem­ber at a fur­ther point in time. Be­fore we prop­erly meet Alia and dis­cover just how un­set­tled a life she is lead­ing, we fast for­ward to 1965 and a seg­ment about her brother, Mustafa. With his fa­ther dead and his mother start­ing anew in Am­man, he has in­her­ited the fam­ily house in Nablus and lives lazily there. A sense of pur­pose ar­rives via “boys-only meet­ings” at a mosque af­ter dark led by an im­pas­sioned imam who lec­tures young men about war, pa­tri­o­tism and lost land. “We are pawns in a sick and de­praved game,” he tells Mustafa. “We can ei­ther play or over­turn the chess­board.” Once again, Alyan makes her reader wait to learn of a char­ac­ter’s fate. She switches next to Alia, who, while vis­it­ing her sis­ter Wi­dad in Kuwait City in 1967, is hot, home­sick and preg­nant. When the ArabIs­raeli War of that year breaks out, she is also fear­ful and confused (“That al­most-week jum­bled ev­ery­thing”). Then, at one point dur­ing her stay, she is as­sailed by a sud­den wave of grief. Mustafa, we are fi­nally told, dis­ap­peared and “died some­where in an Is­raeli prison”.

Thus the novel un­folds kalei­do­scop­i­cally and el­lip­ti­cally, and to supremely good ef­fect. Some seg­ments are more ab­sorb­ing than oth­ers. Atef, Alia’s hus­band, emerges as a flawed and fas­ci­nat­ing in­di­vid­ual, a proud and happy fam­ily man rou­tinely plagued by night­mares of past tor­ture and haunted by his best friend Mustafa’s ab­sence. His two daugh­ters, Ri­ham and Souad, are ex­treme per­son­al­i­ties, “one god­less and unruly, the other veiled and earnest and mar­ried.” The fam­ily is once again up­rooted when Sad­dam Hus­sein in­vades Kuwait, and var­i­ous de­scen­dants are scat­tered as far afield as Beirut, Paris and the United States. Each place re­shapes them – to the ex­tent that for some of the younger gen­er­a­tions, un­vis­ited Pales­tine re­mains for­eign, dis­tant and ab­stract. That is un­til Alyan’s ter­rific fi­nal chap­ter, which fol­lows Souad’s Amer­i­can-based daugh­ter, Ma­nar, mak­ing a pil­grim­age to the land of her grand­par­ents to trace her her­itage. She gets off to a bad start: at Ben Gu­rion In­ter­na­tional Air­port she is sin­gled out and in­ter­ro­gated; in Nablus she feels claus­tro­pho­bic and “like an in­ter­loper, tres­pass­ing on mem­o­ries that had noth­ing to do with her”. Only when she ar­rives in Jaffa and reads through old fam­ily let­ters does she ex­pe­ri­ence a faint yet vi­tal twinge of kin­ship.

Alyan is a Pales­tinian-Amer­i­can poet and much of her novel taps into her own mixed make-up and show­cases her lyri­cal fa­cil­ity. Her lan­guage can be sup­ple and gen­tle (“the con­tra­dic­tory weight of eggs”) and nec­es­sar­ily fierce and harsh, par­tic­u­larly when ex­am­in­ing the prob­lems of iden­tity. “You’re fair-weather Arabs,” scoffs one char­ac­ter to his western­ised coun­ter­parts. “No won­der you’re messed up,” says an­other. “You’ve been emo­tion­ally code-switch­ing all your life.”

Only oc­ca­sion­ally does Alyan’s phras­ings feel overblown, her metaphors forced. “Their mar­riage had a glove com­part­ment, a hol­low, clut­tered space where emo­tional de­bris went.” Later, and in a sim­i­lar vein: Pales­tine “was a hat rack for all her dis­con­tent”. Oth­er­wise, Alyan main­tains per­fect poise, re­count­ing births, deaths and mar­riages and ren­der­ing the twin tri­als of dis­place­ment and as­sim­i­la­tion in cap­ti­vat­ing prose that man­ages to be both ten­der and pow­er­ful.

A fam­ily tree on the first pages may ac­tu­ally end up a dis­in­cen­tive, as re­cent fic­tional sagas have been thick with tan­gled branches, re­sult­ing in read­ers los­ing their way or their pa­tience. In con­trast, Salt Houses con­tains just the right amount of off­shoots – that is, well­drawn, fully formed char­ac­ters who af­fect us and who we come to know in­ti­mately.

Mal­colm Forbes is a free­lance writer based in Ed­in­burgh. Meena Kan­dasamy At­lantic Books, May 4

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