Salt Houses is a beautiful novel by Hala Anyan that explores what it means to be of a place where you have never been. She tells the story of a Palestinian family through the generations, beginning with the marriage of Alia seen through her mother’s eyes and ending with Alia’s granddaughter nursing the first of the next generation, five generations from the 1960s to the present. The story begins in Nablus when Alia marries Atef, her brother Mustafa’s best friend and a true love match.
The family had been expelled from their home in Jaffa during the partition and were living in Nablus. A well-off professional family with resources that insulated them from life in the refugee camps, they had a lovely home, a garden and a relatively comfortable life until the 1967 war forced them to Kuwait and their diaspora spread to Amman, Beirut, Paris, and Boston. Throughout their decades, through wars and turmoil, the people of this family grow older, marry, have children and always retain this Palestinian identity, a connection with a country that most of them have never seen. Salt Houses is beautifully written. A moving story about a family, a story that moved me to tears as the vibrant Alia and the wise and loving Atef struggle with old age.
This is a beautiful story of a family that struggles with the usual difficulties of family, rebellious teens, fiery personalities, marital squabbles, disappointment, anger, old age, and mostly, above all, love. It is a consideration of identity and displacement. Can you be Palestinian if you have never been. Is there a connection to the land or is the connection to the people and the culture, wherever you find yourself.
It is also a story with voices people do not hear very often, the voices of the dispossessed. Even those this family has privilege, can send their children to schools, move to safety in Kuwait or to Paris and never once have to stay in a refugee camp, they are still dispossessed. They really don’t talk that much about it, though, about their losses. It’s not that kind of book and they aren’t that kind of people. Even when one of their family is murdered in an Israeli prison they do not talk of him or their loss. What is lost, people or land, is not spoken of. Does that make the loss more or less bearable?
This is an important book because it is so very ordinary, this story of this family. What could be more radical that to reveal the humanity and commonplace decency of people who are routinely demonized, whose humanity has been discounted and ignored for seventy years?