Middle East, Middle Class: Pain and Privilege in Hala Alyan’s “Salt Houses”
By Ilana MasadMay 3, 2017
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
Debut novelist Hala Alyan is doing something similar in Salt Houses, which, in brief, is about the displacement of a Palestinian family and the places they move as successive generations are born and flourish. But just as Selasi avoided the clichéd and oversimplified images of her nations, so does Alyan avoid the ideas people may have when thinking of displacement — especially during a time when we’re aware of multiple refugee crises. But this is not a novel of refugees, of tent cities or starvation. Instead, it is a novel that examines the middle class and the very real pain that the loss of home has even on the privileged.
The first chapter opens with the point of view of Salma, the matriarch of the Palestinian family that Alyan follows throughout the book. The year is 1963, and the family is in Nablus, Palestine, having fled years earlier from Jaffa, which has become part of the then still-new Israel. Salma’s eldest daughter, Widad, was most affected by the move but suffered silently:
She walked around their new house in Nablus wanly, sat through meals without speaking. She never mentioned Jaffa, and when her father, already ailing, told her it was time to marry, she didn’t protest. Only with Salma did she cry, tears falling as she sat in the garden, her body hunched over the steam from her teacup.
Salma is also grieving, dearly missing the orange groves on her family’s land in Jaffa, holding all the pain of the homesick. Still she does the best she can in Nablus, caring for her children after her husband’s death. In these opening pages, Salma moves between those painful memories and her current joy — her youngest daughter Alia’s marriage to Atef, best friend of Salma’s middle child, Mustafa.
The novel is of saga-length structure though it is only a little over 300 pages. Each chapter shifts perspective, sticking close to the character, and with every new chapter, years pass in the life of the family. The second chapter, for example, is set in 1965 from the viewpoint of son Mustafa, while the third moves to 1967 and to daughter Alia, who is living in Kuwait City. The next jumps 10 years to 1977.
What Alyan makes clear is that her characters are firmly in the upper middle class — money is not going to be an issue for any of them. Like Selasi, she uses a situation that audiences are vaguely familiar with — in this case, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — as the jumping off point for her characters’ lives. But these are not the refugees or working poor that we often imagine when we think of the uprooted; these are people who may have left land behind but whose bank accounts are not depleted. This makes a great difference in the way her story can move forward as well as which parts of the tale she chooses to tell.
In Mustafa’s chapter — some characters have more than one of their own, but this is his only — we see a man who looks like he is being radicalized. Alyan draws on our common idea of what such young men look like and uses our contemporary perceptions to great effect. We see his enjoyment of his time at the mosque, his practicing of the speech he has been asked to perform, and the ways in which he and Atef become heated, discussing the politics of their displacement; all the while, Mustafa is enjoying his life. He has a simple job and lives in the big house his mother left him when she moved to Amman to be with her extended family. “‘Brothers,’ he says aloud. ‘We must recognize the battle ahead.’” Mustafa’s words may sound fiery but unlike the common Western fear revolving around the image of men shouting praise to god while committing acts of violence, Mustafa is a lover of community, of his fellows. His faith is, in this way, apparently flawed:
Mustafa has a flighty belief in Allah, an avowal that he recognizes in more honest moments as tactical. If there is ever a sweeping of believers into one room and the rest into the other, he doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of the door. But he loves the mosque for its dusty smell, for the carpet prickling his feet, for the predictable hum of the muezzin more than anything celestial.
The mosque is for Mustafa another home.
The decision to portray Mustafa and his possible turn to violence is clearly a calculated one, meant to humanize the true nature of young, single, Muslim men. They are just people like any other, full of the range of human emotion, from vim and vigor to pettiness to kindness to love. Mustafa’s big weakness, we see, is a working-class woman named Aya, whom he keeps secret from his family. Only his best friend and brother-in-law Atef knows about her, and asks Mustafa why he won’t marry her, which for Mustafa brings up only his “mother’s horrified expression at her son marrying beneath him; Alia’s perplexity at his choice.” He knows that “[t]he aunts and neighbors would talk for years. Even the men at the mosque, most of them educated and well off, would be taken aback; for all their talk of solidarity with the poor, they are repelled by them.” Here again, Alyan is showing us the mosque as a place of privilege and education, along with the ignorance and blind spots that often come with this.
Later in the book, after Nablus has been conquered and folded into Israel, we’re taken to Kuwait City, where Alia and Atef now live in mourning for Mustafa. Atef writes letters to his dead friend while Alia suffers in the unbearable heat of a city she hates and wishes she could leave. Over time, they have three children, two girls and a boy, and as the offspring grow up we see the generational differences as well as the way the trauma of being forced to leave a place lingers. In Atef’s first chapter, set in 1977, he complains of the influx of Westerners to the Arab neighborhood that he and Alia and the children live in, but also insists on sending their children to international schools. Like Mustafa contemplating which side of the spiritual door he’d end up on, Atef sees a similar dilemma: instead of the sides being God-fearing folk versus heretics, it’s those who play nicely with ajanib (foreigners) over those who don’t.
Alyan also breaks the misconceptions that non-Middle Eastern readers may have about issues of female modesty among Muslim families. The women in this book are largely unveiled, starting with Alia who breaks her mother and older sister’s mold by going bareheaded. This doesn’t stop Alia from criticizing her younger daughter, Souad, for the way she dresses, but the following passage could refer to a mother and daughter of almost any modern and familiar landscape:
[Women] no longer wear the short skirts and feathered hair of previous decades, the style Alia had grown up with — tight sweaters, eyeliner, frosty lipstick — and still favors. Instead the women dress as Souad does, in too-tight jeans and leather. Alia finds it unattractive, pushy.
While Alyan may or may not be purposefully bringing to light the realities of Muslim women in such passages, the fact remains that she is doing so, and in a time when it is vital that Americans understand one another’s humanity across nationalities and faiths.
Alyan doesn’t shrink from portraying more religious women either. In mirror image to Alia’s own minor teenage rebellion — removing the veil from her hair — one of her own daughters becomes more devout than she ever was. Riham, Alia’s eldest daughter, makes a connection with her grandmother Salma as well as her faith, and dons the veil. This doesn’t make her perfect or boring, though, as sometimes characters wrapped in the comfort of faith can be. She still retains some childhood insecurity and imagination in her morning calisthenics routine, which she performs alone in her room. Alyan describes Alia’s beautiful vulnerability:
She likes to pretend she is a ballerina warming up before a performance, though she is over thirty and corpulent, to put it nicely. Still, she tells herself — in defiance of the body she was given, the tepid Amman morning outside the window — for these few minutes she is transformed, a Russian soloist prepping for the stage, her hair sweeping against her knees as she bends, as far as she can, an audience of well-dressed people waiting for her to walk into the spotlight.
Riham’s perspective is also where we get a glimpse of the kind of displaced people many readers may expect in a work that is largely about the loss of and reconfiguration of home. In Amman, Riham’s husband is a doctor and a generous one at that, allowing the “desperate and moneyless […] sent by family in other countries” to come to an outhouse next to his own residence, where he would “suture wounds, clean out gunshots, without taking a single dinar.” But Riham, though proud at first, becomes increasingly impatient: “Selfishly, she wanted her house, her husband to herself. She watched the lives of her friends, wives of other doctors, with envy — the men home for dinner, no stink of unwashed bodies in their yards.” Riham’s reaction is a natural one as well as a candid and honest portrayal of someone of faith. Alyan doesn’t treat her as a holy, untouchable ornament, but rather as all too human.
The West makes its own appearance in the book as Alia and Atef’s unrulier daughter, Souad, moves first to Paris and then to the United States, though she ultimately returns to the Middle East, specifically to Beirut with her own children. The novel goes all the way into this fourth generation, but the restless search for home never ends.
In many ways, then, this is a novel about privilege. Alyan takes groups we often see as disadvantaged, demonstrates their advantages, but shows us that privilege is still relative, and that trauma can still be experienced within such constructs. Like in Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, there is a shattering of white audience expectations. Pain still comes from expected places, but the book is about the more personal pain, not only the kind that is caused by discrimination and displacement. This is also a book about mourning — for what is lost, for who is lost, and for where is lost. It examines a part of this conflict and these lives that is rarely discussed in Western fiction, while not discounting the way people’s roots and their lack of a stable home can affect them. It allows for insight into nuanced generational and inherited trauma within the middle class. Alyan is doing important work through this novel, even without the discussion of these deeper meanings. Thus, Salt Houses can be read very simply as a family drama, proving Alyan’s talent as a master of both the family drama genre as well as the depths and complexities of the Palestinian displacement.
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