The Many Faces of Arab Culture: Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses

By Sarah Hoenicke for the Rumpus

Salt-HousesMost Americans have a simplistic idea of Arab cultures and the variety of experiences within them. We seem to assume that every Arab is religious; that every Arab woman wears the veil, and that it is forced on her; that women have little freedom to be educated, think for themselves, or travel. Hala Alyan’s debut novel, Salt Houses, serves as a small corrective to that generalized picture—“small” only because we need many more stories like this one to stand a chance against the prevailing narrative.

Salt Houses follows the Yacoub family over roughly fifty years. This gentle telling of a raucous history—jostled by its many personalities and much geopolitical discord—begins in March of 1963 with the family’s matriarch, Salma, in Nablus, a city in the area presently known as the West Bank. When the book begins, Hussam, Salma’s husband and the Yacoub patriarch, has died. Alone, Salma converses internally with Hussam about what troubles her—their daughter Alia’s refusal of the veil; the mis-ordered marriages of her children (Alia, the youngest, before her older brother, Mustafa); the camps of displaced Palestinians, and her family’s “armor of wealth,” which saved them from that life; and the changing roles of women in society, which she witnesses through her children.

Each new chapter of Salt Houses shifts perspective and jumps in time. From Salma, we go to Mustafa in 1965, still in Nablus, and then to Alia in 1967 in Kuwait City. The book moves forward in time and across space, reaching all the way to Salma’s pregnant great-granddaughter Manar in 2014, in Jaffa. These perspectives touch back on each other through small details, fashioning a collective, familial history. One character’s revelations illuminate the life of another.

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