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Salt Houses




Set against a backdrop of the Palestinian diaspora, Salt Houses tells a highly nuanced story of the Yacoub family and its generations. Displacement, an undeserved curse, follows them wherever they go. From the orange groves of Jaffa set ablaze by the troops of the new Israeli nation, to the pre-Gulf War housing complexes of Kuwait, or the shopping centers of Beirut, Alyan brings the reader confidently into the proxy homes that never quite succeed in matching the Yacoub's true home in Palestine.

The memory of home lingers inside them, even if they have never set foot there. As Salma, only a girl when her family fled Palestine, is dying, she tells her daughter Alia “I saw the houses, I saw how they were lost. You cannot let yourself forget.” Alia, hearing this outburst without context, doesn’t understand what her mother means, but the reader grasps it immediately. After all, some families in Morocco, to this day hold the keys to ancestral homes, lost when the Spanish conquered the last Islamic kingdom in Al-Andalus in 1492.

Everyone remembers, or tries to forget or accept, in their own way. Salma’s granddaughter Riham, almost drowning at sea as a young girl, devotes herself to Allah. Her sister Souad, seeks shelter in the West, first Paris, where she enters a hasty marriage at eighteen, and then to Boston, and back to Beirut with her three children when her marriage fails. The stepson of Riham, Abdullah, falls in with older men advocating Sharia law who make him and other dispossessed young men “feel like giants.” It’s not the big events that make the novel so compelling but the deep observations of the personal ruptures that history causes in the lives of an ordinary family that is this novel’s great achievement. Forgetting, we learn, is not easy. It is not, in the long run, even possible. Rather than trying to explain such great losses, Halyan generously gives us the keys to the many rooms in which the Yacoubs persist, in memory and in spite of it.

— Robin Hemley
2018 finalist judge


Book Excerpt

That house. The ones that came after. He thinks of them, instinctively touching the soil again. All the houses they have lived in, the ibriks and rugs and curtains they have bought; how many windows should any person own? The houses float up to his mind’s eye like jinn, past lovers. The sloping roof of his mother’s hut, the marbled tiles in Salma’s kitchen, the small house he shared with Alia in Nablus. The Kuwait home. The Beirut apartments. This house, here in Amman. For Alia, some old, vanished house in Jaffa. They glitter whitely in his mind, like structures made of salt, before a tidal wave comes and sweeps them away.

“I thought I had more time — ” Manar stops, embarrassed. Atef waits. “To ask her things.”

“About what?”

His granddaughter shrugs. “Her life.”

He can feel their eyes upon him. Poor innocent things, he thinks. What is a life? A series of yeses and noes, photographs you shove in a drawer somewhere, loves you think will save you but that cannot. Continuing to move, enduring, not stopping even when there is pain. That’s all life is, he wants to tell her. It’s continuing.

2018 Fiction Winner

Hala Alyan, photo credit Beowulf Sheehan
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(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)

Hala Alyan
Salt Houses

“One of my earliest memories is watching my father’s face light up as I chatted excitedly about the first book I read on my own. It’s taken me years to truly understand that moment—that, in that instant, my father witnessed my foray into the sacred world of fiction, of perspective-taking and erasing borders, of understanding the complexity of others. He watched me untangle from the confines of immigration, the Gulf War we’d just fled from, and the ensuing otherness, and when I began to write my own stories, that sense of freedom magnified.

“Writing has taught me to pay homage to my ancestors and envision the world after I am long gone; it has empowered me to tell stories of oppression and restoration, to envision peace as something tangible. I am my most human when I am writing, my most alert and engaged and compassionate. To have my novel seen as a conduit for peace-building is remarkably humbling. Thank you for the honor of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.”

— Hala Alyan                        


Hala Alyan was born in 1986. After living in various parts of the Middle East, she completed a doctorate in clinical psychology and currently works at New York University.

Her poetry collections have won the Arab American Book Award and the Crab Orchard Series. Her debut novel, Salt Houses, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017, and was longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize and was named a “Best Book of the Year” by NPR, NYLON, and Kirkus Reviews. She has been published in the New York Times, Guernica, Lenny, the Colorado Review, and elsewhere.

She lives in Brooklyn with her husband.


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