Book Review: Running away with nowhere to run

Generations of a Palestinian family face their own episodes of war and loss in this powerful novel.
Updated 10 December 2017

Book Review: Running away with nowhere to run

Author Hala Alyan’s debut novel, “Salt Houses,” tells the harrowing tale of generations of displacement experienced by a Palestinian family. Beginning in 1967 and moving through the Six-Day War, the Lebanese Civil War, the Gulf War and eventually September 11 and its aftermath, the family, with roots in Jaffa, move to Nablus, then Kuwait, then Amman, then Paris and eventually to the US and Beirut. It is a devastating story of belonging to a home that is not accessible and of the memories that haunt them even after they attempt to put down roots elsewhere. It is a powerful novel by Alyan, who is the author of three poetry collections and has a doctorate in psychology.
The story begins in Nablus in March 1963. The family has already moved once from Jaffa, 15 years previously, and the memory of their home is still vivid and fresh as Salma remembers the silver tray her mother gave her, the walnut furniture and her husband’s books. She was forced to leave it all behind when the trouble began and begin life anew. Fifteen years later, Salma is preparing for her daughter Alia’s wedding and as she sits with her cousins and nieces before the ceremony, she waits for the coffee dregs in Alia’s cup to dry. She has already glanced into it once and what she sees is troubling.
Salma has already married off her daughter Widad, who then moved from Nablus with her husband. Although Salma had not wanted to part with Widad, she wanted her to be safe, “far from this blazing country split in two. Her unhappiness, if it came, was worth the price of her life.”
As the years go on, Salma’s children move as they marry and start families of their own. She herself moves from Nablus after fighting surges once again, the longing for her home, for her life in Jaffa, never leaves her. “Salma missed her home with a tenacity that never quite abated. She spent the first years in Nablus daydreaming of returning.”
Alyan’s book is hard-hitting and elegant. There is a calm breeze that flows through her writing, even though the story she tells is one that is heartbreaking. It is as if her story is being written in the eye of a storm as she details the chaos that surrounds the lives of displaced people from Palestine. As she writes of fig trees and jasmine lacing the air, she also writes of refugee camps, war, longing, loss and death.
Alyan has named each chapter in her book after her characters. Between Alia, Atef, Mustafa, Riham, Manar, Souad and others, the reader learns their stories from the perspective of various members of each generation, each feeling loss and displacement in their own way. It is an incredible way to tell the story, as the impact of leaving one’s home and not being allowed to return is felt through generations of people over the years.
Alyan’s prose is poetic and crisp as her story travels between the men at mosques in Nablus, to the women in the parlors of Kuwait and then on to Paris and the US. Her writing, like her characters, has a seamless ability to adapt and move.
She writes of gender discrimination as subtly and powerfully as she writes of social discrimination, comparing the displaced who have money and have the freedom to move around to those who do not have the means to leave and must face life in a war zone. The circumstances of life change the mindset of men and women, which Alyan portrays devastatingly. She makes it clear that customs and traditions are made for those who can afford them and, as for the poor, they “had their faith, but their lives were hard and bitter and full of death.”
She writes of the rich cultures and traditions that make up a multi-faceted Middle East, each person adding a layer to its make-up, from various Arab nations to those who seek employment from South and East Asia.
Alyan’s recalls images of war — of tanks and bombs, of gunfire and bodies — in Nablus and the Sinai Peninsula, then in Lebanon and in Kuwait during the Gulf War, as if the family cannot escape it. When Alia and her husband are deciding where to move after being forced to leave Nablus, Alia wants to move to Amman, but Atef does not because “in Amman, it’s the same people, the old neighbors, the people we grew up with. How can we return to that? How can we look at them without remembering?”
The sorrow is relentless as each generation faces its own tragedy of war and loss. The grandchildren of Alia, for whom Palestine is only a distant dream, also face discrimination for something that happened decades before they were born. It is distressing to read, but also uplifting. Alyan’s characters adapt to life and live despite displacement and the wars. They crave life and home and have instilled the same longing in their children even though “Palestine was something raw in the family, a wound never completely scabbed over.”
Alyan has a way of writing that makes a reader feel as if the experiences written about are their own. She writes of powerful images and emotions, each story of each member of the family different and unique, each flawed and perfect in their own way.
Alyan’s book will resonate with people who have felt as if their belonging has always floated alongside them but has never been able to take root. The countless generations of those displaced due to war or lack of opportunity, who find themselves in countries that are not their original home but are forced to make them their homes, will find solace in this book. It is an ever-present reminder that decades later, there is still a tragic story unfolding in Palestine and that it is not just a disputed territory on a map, it is home to generations and generations of people who have lived there, died there, loved there and will continue to live out their lives and their stories.

BOOK REVIEW: Nine Palestinian refugees tell Shatila’s stories in this innovative book

Updated 17 July 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Nine Palestinian refugees tell Shatila’s stories in this innovative book

  • “Shatila Stories” is a collaborative work of fiction written by nine refugees from the Shatila camp in Beirut

CHICAGO: A novel born in extraordinary circumstances, “Shatila Stories” is a collaborative work of fiction written by nine refugees from the Shatila camp in Beirut that was commissioned by Peirene Press.

The authors, ranging from the ages of 20 to 43, captivate the reader by painting a picture of muddied walkways, crumbling walls and desperate faces.

From beginning to end, the phenomenal words of Omar Khaled Ahmad, Nibal Alalo, Safa Khaled Algharbaqi, Omar Abdellatif Alndaf, Rayan Mohamad Sukkar, Safiya Badran, Fatima Omar Ghazawi, Samih Mahmoud and Hiba Mareb take the reader on a powerful journey. 

“Shatila Stories” begins with the character of Reham, who is leaving Damascus for Beirut. She and her family look to Shatila as a refuge from the strife at the Yarmouk camp in Syria. Reham’s story is embedded in spirituality and faith, a strength that drives many of the book’s characters. After Reham, the reader is told the story of Jafra, named after the revolutionary Palestinian fighter who was killed in an airstrike in 1976. 

Evil lurks within the boundaries of the Shatila camp — children are exploited, disease is rampant and the methods used to safeguard residents are sometimes more harmful than helpful.

The writers have done a brilliant job of conveying the constricted yet vibrant lives led by many in the camp, as they wander alleyways that are “narrow yet wide enough to hold a thousand stories.”

The effort to publish nine refugee writers began with Mieke Ziervogel, publisher of Peirene Press, who journeyed from London to Beirut with editor Suhir Helal after getting in contact with an NGO that runs a community center in the camp. 

After handpicking the writers during a three-day workshop, the manuscripts were received and translator Nasha Gowanlock got to work. It was a Herculean effort that reminds us that storytelling may be an art, but everyone has a story to tell.