If you’ve ever built a sand castle in the intertidal zone at the ocean’s edge, you know what happens when the tide comes in: It washes away your castle, leaving not a trace of it except in your memory or a photograph.
The salt houses in Hala Alyan’s debut novel are Palestinians’ homes that have been swept away—destroyed without a trace—by a human tide. That tide of ethnic cleansing first flowed across Palestine in 1948 and continues to flow and to destroy Palestinian homes and lives to this day. In Salt Houses, Alyan tells the story of one Palestinian family, the Yacoub family, that was forced to leave its ancestral home in Jaffa, once a center of Palestinian culture, in 1948 during the Palestinian exodus, also known as Al Nakba.
The novel follows this family for five generations and more than 50 years, from 1963 to 2014. During this time, members of the family move and disperse in response to multiple wars and Palestinian uprisings, with some moving to Jordan and others to Kuwait, France, the United States, and Lebanon. The novel centers on two women—Salma, who is the family’s matriarch at the beginning of the novel, and her younger daughter, Alia, who becomes the matriarch when Salma dies in 1987. A family tree, at the beginning of the novel, will help you keep track of who’s who.
The family’s stories of their ancestral home in Jaffa and later in Nablus become just that—stories, tales, memories. When one of Salma’s great granddaughters, Manar—a “mutt,” with a Palestinian mother, Lebanese father, and life in Paris and New York City—flies from New York to visit the family’s ancestral home in Jaffa, she realizes that “while she was busy sleeping with American boys and writing essays about the diaspora, there were people over here being Palestinian.” She feels that “every Palestinian she has met has been kind but pitying, as though aware She is not like us … ”
Anyone who has moved from the home of their youth and made a life in another place—whether it be another state or another country—can understand the disorientation they experience when they return home. For many people, both the leaving and the returning are voluntary, but for Palestinians and far too many other peoples, whether in the past or the present, their journeys from home have been involuntary and with no possibility of return. Hala Alyan tells us that even when you can go back, you really can’t go back.
Hala Alyan is a Palestinian-American writer and clinical psychologist. In 2018, she was the fiction winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Salt Houses.