Hala Alyan creates a compelling multi-generational portrait of a family living in the Middle East in Salt Houses. She follows a mostly chronological pathway, starting with the matriarch Salma on the eve of her daughter Alia’s wedding. Then we follow the family members through Alia’s children and grandchildren. So ultimately, Salt Houses covers most of the twentieth century and some of the current one.
As the story begins, Salma reads the coffee grounds in Alia’s cup. She breaks her long-standing rule of not reading the grounds of family members. But Alia insists. And Salma immediately regrets her decision because the story foretold isn’t what a mother hopes for her daughter.
But their family is used to hardship, as is anyone living in the conflict-ridden countries of Palestine / the West Bank, Jordan, and Kuwait. Salma’s family moves from city to city, country to country in an effort to stay safe amidst the realities of ongoing conflicts and wars.
Beyond that, Alyan explores identity through her various characters. None of them feel wholly part of where they live. And their neighbors make it clear that they are in fact never going to fit in. In the end, this was a moving and meaningful family saga.
Perhaps because I was traveling, I devoured Salt Houses once I started it. It made my flight time seem like just moments instead of hours. I loved being able to immerse myself in the world therein, no matter how difficult and unhappy it was for most of them.
Alyan layers a variety of themes into her narrative, from discrimination to nationalism to the impermanence of everything. She creatives conflict among generations, siblings, and of course mirrors the larger wars that put everything at stake.
The women in Salt Houses are the main focus, although Alyan does let us see the inner workings of one man’s thoughts. By focusing on the women, Alyan discusses the changing times, and increasing religious conservatism. There are moments when women wear mini-skirts and others when only a hijab will do. Sometimes they happen within a pair of sisters following different religious mindsets, which also feel realistic.
I recommend this multi-generational tale for its nuances and complex portrayal of Muslim life in the Middle East of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Pair with Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy, whose essays add another layer to the content in Salt Houses.