Review

In Hala Alyan's Salt Houses, Palestine is seen through different eyes

Hala Alyan.
Hala Alyan.PHOTO: BEOWULF SHEEHAN

When Alia's mother, Salma, peers into her coffee cup to read her fortune, she knows immediately that her daughter will lead a restless, wandering life.

This is how Palestinian-American author Hala Alyan's (right) first novel begins. Alia's family, displaced from their native Palestine because of the conflict with Israel, spend the next few decades moving ever further afield.

The book spans 50 years and several countries, with each chapter told from the perspective of a different member of Salma's sprawling, multi-generational family.

Through each, the reader gets a different sense of what Palestine means to those who call it their homeland. To Alia's brother Mustafa, the region is holy land that is being "gobbled up" by the Israelis. But for Linah, her granddaughter who shuttles between Beirut and Boston, Palestine has never been home and the thought of belonging there confuses her.

Alyan's portrayal of the Middle East is refreshing, especially to those who are used to seeing the region as an undifferentiated, Arabic- speaking landmass.

In Alia's eyes, Palestine is the war-torn homeland and Kuwait is a blistering desert, while Jordan is associated with the familiar streets of childhood.

  • FICTION


  • SALT HOUSES

    By Hala Alyan

    Hutchinson/ Paperback/310 pages/ $29.95/Books Kinokuniya/3.5/5 stars

During one prolonged stay in Lebanon, Linah is singled out by the most popular girl in school with a scathing: "You're not even Lebanese... with your weird accent in Arabic." It is with these subtleties that Alyan makes clear the distinctions and prejudice that can exist, even among people of such closely related cultures.

Although Alia's family has had to abandon their villa because of the conflict, they remain well-off by any measure.

In fact, in some ways, they are distinctly Singaporean - they have a Sri Lankan maid and send their children to school in Paris and Boston. Their struggles with broken Arabic - "dwindled after so many years abroad" - will be relatable to those who grew up in English-speaking households and rarely speak their mother tongue.

Despite being set against the backdrop of war, this book is not about war. Rather, it is about how the normal scenes of family life play out despite it.

If you like this, read: The House At The Edge Of Night by Catherine Banner (Windmill Books, 2016, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya), another multi-generational family saga set on an Italian island.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2017, with the headline 'Palestine through the eyes of a displaced family'. Print Edition | Subscribe