These questions of forced migration, fractured identity, and intergenerational trauma are explored in different ways in two new books by Arab American writers. Hala Alyan’s The Arsonists’ City offers a sprawling look at various fragments of Arab identity, carried across continents by several members of the same family, both first- and second-generation, while Layla AlAmmar’s Silence Is a Sense explores the narrower, carefully constructed world of a mute refugee woman, newly arrived in the United Kingdom amid the refugee crisis spurred by the ongoing civil war in Syria.
Alyan’s multi-generational novel centers on the Nasr family, whose members are of Syrian and Lebanese descent and live in Beirut, Brooklyn, Austin, and the California desert. After his father dies, Idris, the family’s new patriarch, decides to sell the family’s Beirut home — their only remaining link to Lebanon, a country perpetually teetering “on the brink” of total collapse. The decision necessitates a family reunion in the capital during the summer of 2019 to allow the Nasrs to handle the logistics of the impending sale.
Mazna, the family’s matriarch, is unsettled by the plan, as are the three Nasr children, Mimi, Naj, and Ava, who attempt to derail it. The reunion exposes the complicated nature of the family’s relationship with their origins — and, by extension, with Beirut, a city at once loathed and loved. (“It’s like jumping into a cold swimming pool; you dread it, but once you surrender, it’s luscious,” Alyan writes of the city.) Against this tense backdrop, secrets that have remained submerged for decades float to the surface, steering the characters along new paths of discovery. Alyan’s family saga contains meticulously crafted moments of betrayal, bitterness, and dashed ambitions.
The Nasr siblings don’t feel at peace in the West, nor do they feel they belong in the Middle East, leaving them unmoored — a familiar predicament for the daughters and sons of migrants. Though Ava, the eldest sibling, a professor who lives in Brooklyn, seems to have embraced her hyphenated identity, something is amiss. Restless, she expends her negative energies on the flaws of her white American husband, whom she suspects of infidelity, and on the privileges and bougie lifestyles of Park Slope’s residents — in particular, its fussy mothers. Naj, the only Nasr who lives in Beirut, finds success as a pop star in a local band but is forced to navigate her life as a lesbian with some secrecy. Despite being more welcoming to members of the LGBTQ community than its regional counterparts, the city’s deep-seated conservative attitudes still pose a threat, and Alyan captures this tension expertly. Mimi, perhaps the most unlikable character in the book, is an Austin-based “almost rock star,” a jaded millennial with few redeeming qualities.
While various swirling subplots consume much of this character-driven novel, The Arsonists’ City is at its core a meditation on the loss of love and of one’s homeland — losses that are intertwined. At the forefront of that story is Mazna. In an interview, Alyan has said that this regal and refined Syrian woman first came to her in a dream, as a reimagination of her own grandmother. Mazna is an aspiring actress from Damascus whose greatest aspiration is to be on stage; rather than putting aside her ambitions for the sake of her growing family, she pursues them relentlessly. And so, she departs for Hollywood to pursue a big break, her marriage to Idris merely a vehicle that allows her to inch closer to her dreams.
Through a series of flashbacks, Alyan introduces us to Mazna’s world before she and Idris leave Lebanon and Syria as newlyweds to move to America. We learn that her first love wasn’t her husband but rather Zakaria, a Palestinian refugee whose mother worked as a cleaner for Idris’s affluent Lebanese family (some of the book’s most tender moments are between these young lovers). As teenagers, Zakaria, Idris, and Mazna became close friends, forming something of a Levantine love triangle. We also learn of the early years of Idris and Mazna’s marriage after they arrived in California. Mazna’s desperate and failed attempts to achieve the fame and fortune she so longs for are weighed down by her struggles with motherhood.
Alyan’s storytelling is driven by the question of whether to cling to customs and traditions or to make way for new ones. And yet, she steers clear of the trap that some Anglo-Arab authors have fallen into in recent years: attempting to challenge tired tropes while amplifying them at the same time. Instead, Alyan focuses her attention on the nuances of the characters she brings to life and the cities they inhabit. She immerses the reader in unspoken taboos without a hint of tendentiousness or self-Orientalizing. Rather than providing Western readers with an exotic fantasy of Arab culture and identity, Alyan teases out the complexities of her characters’ layered experiences with a slow burn that demands the reader’s patience and careful attention.
The author shines a partial light on how the Levant and the broader Middle East arrived where it is today by exploring the cultural and political milieu of Beirut and Damascus in the 1960s and ’70s. The novelist paints evocative imagery of a region in flux: she writes of breezy road trips between Beirut and Damascus, the infamous club scene of the Lebanese capital, family life in a conservative Damascene home, and political strife in a dilapidated refugee camp. But Alyan also takes us into the brownstones of Park Slope, into a surgeon’s operating room in San Bernardino, and into a Hollywood penthouse party — such is the scope of her vision.
The Arsonists’ City follows Alyan’s critically acclaimed debut novel, Salt Houses (2017), which dealt with similar themes of migration. Unsurprisingly, the writer and poet, who moonlights as a clinical psychologist, has spent her life between the Arab world and America. To depict the nuances of Beirut and Damascus, Alyan draws on her vivid memories of the region from which she hails and turns to rigorous research to fill in any gaps. The result is an intricately plotted, tightly knit novel that at once breaks the heart and fills it with joy.
In Silence Is a Sense, Layla AlAmmar takes on the trope of “giving voice to the voiceless” by literally centering her narrative on a mute, unnamed, 26-year-old Syrian refugee. The woman has made her way to Europe by boat after she and her family were forced to flee the country as it descended into civil war. She eventually finds herself in a dreary unnamed town in England, where she lives in solitude in a council estate. From her apartment, she observes with bewilderment, bordering on infatuation, the lives of her neighbors, to whom she gives quaint names: the “The No-Lights-Man,” “The Dad,” “The Old Couple,” and “The Juicer.”
A writer and journalist by profession, the Syrian woman is intrigued by her neighbors’ strange behavior, which help to form her views on the alien culture into which she has been transplanted. She only occasionally interacts with the outside world, having created invisible barriers for herself: she cannot, for example, bring herself to cross the edge of a field adjacent to the estate. (“And beyond that was the rest of the city, church spires and buildings new and old and shops and other parks, that I hadn’t explored,” AlAmmar writes.)
Despite these self-imposed restraints, the protagonist has found some success as an essayist for a national publication, writing under the pseudonym “The Voiceless.” In her often-cynical pieces, The Voiceless wades into debates around immigration and racism, critiquing performative activism and the backlash against Muslims in the United Kingdom following a string of terror attacks. However, she has a contentious relationship with her editor, Josie, who demands that she write more about her personal experiences leaving Syria and arriving in England. “I’ll tell her about the crossing of Europe and how I walked a continent,” The Voiceless ponders. “About the weighted-down raft and the people who drowned and the bigger boat and all the camps where people immediately tried to impose some order and structure on their lives.” But these memories are triggering, and The Voiceless demands complete control over her narrative and how and when to share it.
Desperately searching for structure, she finds that examining the lives of others, rather than her own, helps her compartmentalize. But traumatic memories visit her in unexpected situations: at the local supermarket, in the faces of strangers who remind her of friends and relatives. Some of these memories seem so surreal that it’s difficult to gauge the extent to which they may be distorted by the passage of time. As The Voiceless confronts these traumas, she often resorts to self-harm. Meanwhile, a clash between the Muslims at the local mosque and the neighborhood’s white supremacists spirals, culminating in a violent Islamophobic attack.
Like Alyan, AlAmmar dismantles clichés by focusing in depth on her protagonist. Hers is a slow, arduous, yet heartwarming journey that is also at times stifling; we are only given glimpses into her former life, which are spaced out by long stretches of stream-of-consciousness narration. The protagonist’s memories of Syria constitute the strongest and most haunting passages in the book, especially her recollection of the early stages of the uprising against the Assad regime and the boundless hope of the protesters, which AlAmmar evokes beautifully.
The unsettling flashbacks can feel jarring, perhaps intentionally so. But the protagonist’s confidence grows by the page and her rebellious spirit shines through. So too does her vulnerability and the longing for her mother and her motherland, even though the conservative attitudes harbored by both had worked to curb her ambitions. The unnamed woman is also haunted by a relative’s death and, like Mazna in The Arsonists’ City, by a love lost due to uncontrollable political forces.
The cover of Alyan’s book depicts a tree, its fiery red branches growing in all directions. These branches tell the stories of disparate characters moving along different paths, united only by their shared roots in Arab soil. To be an Arab in the diaspora is to have narrowly escaped tragedy while never freeing oneself from it entirely: the tentacles of trauma and grief creep into daily life, often in innocuous ways. Clutching onto memories — our own, or those of our ancestors — can be synonymous with retaining our identity, as new terrain threatens to dilute it.
As an asylum seeker, AlAmmar’s protagonist is poised at the earliest stage of joining the swelling diaspora; her memories are fresh, and her feet are on shaky ground. By AlAmmar’s telling, she is without a voice (at least to the outside world) and must build a new life while being possessed by the old. She must learn not only how to speak again, but how to speak a new language. Her journey is one that millions before her have taken, but it is no less fraught. By contrast, Alyan’s characters, as second-generation immigrants, have benefited from the roots put in place by their parents, who sought and secured economic prosperity in America, though not without great difficulty. They are blessed with the passports they carry. But their privilege belies a profound desire to tap into an identity from which they are one step removed.
Both The Arsonists’ City and Silence Is a Sense capture the gaps and absences of migration and displacement. Through their multidimensional characters, they powerfully evoke the traumas of negotiating a new identity in an unfamiliar world. They are urgent and essential additions to the literature of exile that will deepen our understanding of others — and ourselves.
Zahra Hankir is a Lebanese journalist who writes about the intersection of politics, culture, and society in the Middle East. She is the editor of the best-selling book of essays, Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World (Penguin, 2019).