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A good story about how Palestinians live and are forced to live by circumstances often beyond their control!

Salt Houses - Hala Alyan

Salt Houses, Hala Alyan, author, Leila Buck, narrator

I have both the print and audio version of this book. It is read well by the narrator who interpreted each character with the unique nuances each deserved. Each chapter is devoted to a specific character, as time passes. The lives of Palestinians who are ex-pats and the lives of those who have been forced to become nomadic because of the constant wars in so many of the Middle Eastern countries is explored in depth and with feeling, often with tenderness as well as incredulity. The author has only a few moments when she appears to be passing judgment on anyone or any country, but when she does, she usually only presents one side of the issue, emphasizing implied American involvement and/or Israeli atrocities, which I found as a shortcoming. Also, therefore, a lot was left up to the imagination when it came to who was the enemy and who was the victim, without giving the reader a fair rendering of the situation so a fair judgment could be made. The story about Mustafa could lead one to believe he was brutally abused in an Israeli prison, along with Atef, his brother-in-law, but with no proof or explanation of why, and there was no affirmation of whether or not the implication was true. I am not in favor of torture, but if my children were in danger, I would be in favor of it, if it would save them, so it is a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around. The why of the event was missing inspiring the reader to make a judgment which might be based on unfair information.

Conflict has existed in the Middle East forever without adequate explanation of both sides of the issue, although there have been some books written that do a better job, they are not widely read so most people are grossly uninformed on this subject and just educated by headlines seeking to attract the most attention, not necessarily to relate a truthful picture of events, complete with cause and effect. There are reasons for the Middle East wars on both sides of the aisle, but they were not clearly explained in the book, rather the simple, normal lives of this Palestinian family over five decades is detailed as their homelands, religious practices and moral standards morphed into more western ways. Was this a good thing for them? It is hard to discern the author’s message since she rarely passed judgment on events or individuals, and seemed to give the events a cursory glance.

As the years passed, from the mid sixties to the present, the absorption of the young people into more westernized cultures was presented without prejudice. Often, the Palestinians, sometimes called Arabs as if it was a curse, fit nowhere, because they had lost the place they would have called home.  As they migrated to America and European countries, they picked up the prevailing habits and ways of life, some of which they preferred and some of which they realized was corrupting their culture, the fear many in the older generation and mosques voiced out loud. They had the choice to follow their origins or to discard some of its demands, and often, they picked and chose the customs that were more appealing.

I wish the book had had a glossary since many of the Arabic words went over my head, and I would have liked to understand the meaning. I think I may have lost some of the message because of my inability to grasp the true intent of the author; however, she did a masterful job presenting the Palestinian, not as a warmonger but as a person who wished to survive amidst the constant turmoil. She has done what so many before have not been able to do. Although the author seems to have idealized some of the characters, she has also normalized the Palestinians and the plight of their lives.

As the young and old lost both their country and their culture, one of the ancestors also lost her memory. This posed a stark counterpoint as one was involuntary and the other completely voluntary. Still the memories of the past reappeared in their thoughts contrasted with their ideas about their present lives and those thoughts were often not welcome. Special moments were remembered by each..

If the theme being pointed out was the danger and/or benefit of forgetting one’s roots, deliberately or by accident, it was done well. Each wanted to regain that special identity they had lost over the years with the destruction of their dreams, the loss of their property, the reduction of their ability to adhere to their religious convictions and the inability to retain as much of their culture as they would like because of events beyond their control, unrest and wars occurring frequently. They also wanted a bit of the frivolity of the other side of life they were exposed to in the foreign lands. Each time they moved, they had to adapt and so did their culture. These Palestinians were presented in the natural world, not as anomalies or enemies, but as upwardly mobile people who wanted what everyone wanted: peace, freedom, shelter, food, acceptance, love and happiness.

In the end, we are all the same. We want our families to be safe and our lives to be rich with the appreciation of each other and the joy of being together.