Salt Houses

Hala Alyan

May 4, 2017 
The following is from Hala Alyan’s novel, Salt Houses. Salt Houses tells the story of a Palestinian family that is uprooted by the Six-Day War of 1967. It is a remarkable debut novel which challenges the age-old concept: you can’t go home again. Alyan is an award-winning Palestinian American poet and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in numerous journals including the Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, and Colorado Review. She resides in Manhattan.


March 1963 

When Salma peers into her daughter’s coffee cup, she knows instantly she must lie. Alia has left a smudge of coral lipstick on the rim. The cup is ivory, intricate spirals and whorls painted on the exterior in blue, a thin crack snaking down one side. The cup belongs to a newer set, bought here in Nablus when Salma and her husband, Hussam, arrived nearly fifteen years ago. It was the first thing she’d bought, walking through the marketplace in an unfamiliar city.

In a stall draped with camelhair coats and rugs, Salma spotted the coffee set, twelve cups stacked next to an ibrik with a slender spout. They rested upon a silver tray. It was the tray that gave Salma pause, the triangular pattern so similar to the one her own mother gave her when she first wed. But it was gone, the old tray and coffee set, along with so many of their belongings, the dresses and walnut furniture and Hussam’s books. All left behind in that villa, painted the color of peach flesh, that had been their home.

Salma cried out when she saw the tray, pointed it out to the vendor. He refused to sell it without the coffee set and so she’d taken it all, walking home with the large, newspaper-swathed bundle. It was her first satisfaction in Nablus.

Over the years she has presented the tray in the same arrangement, the ibrik in the center, the cups, petal-like, encircling it. Twice a month the maid takes the tray and other silverware onto the veranda and carefully dabs them with vinegar. It hasn’t lost its gleam.

The cups, however, are well worn. Hundreds of times, Salma has placed a saucer over the rim and flipped the cup upside down, waiting for the coffee dregs to dry. She prefers to wait ten minutes but often becomes occupied with her guests, only to remember much later with a hasty “Oh!” And the cup would be righted, the coffee remnants leaving desiccated, grainy streaks that stained the porcelain a faded brunette hue.

This time, Salma is barely able to wait the customary ten minutes. She listens to the women discuss the weather and whether or not the warmth will last until the wedding tomorrow. It will be held in the banquet hall of a nearby hotel, one that has hosted dignitaries and mayors and even a film star, once, in the fifties. Silk bows have already been tied to the backs of the chairs; tea-light candles set in arcs around the plates wait for flames. When lit, they will look like a constellation. Salma has already tested this, she and the concierge circling the tables and kissing the tips of matches to wicks. The concierge dimmed the lights, and the effect, incandescent and lovely, had warmed Salma.

“Throw out the candles. I’ll order new ones,” she’d told the concierge, aware of his eyes on her, the begrudging awe. Extravagance. But it is Alia, Alia to be wed, and no expense is to be spared. No blackened candles with miserable wick-nubs around the table settings.

With Widad, it was different. Ten years earlier, Salma sat silently throughout her eldest’s wedding ceremony, a pitiful gathering in the mosque, the scent of incense potent around them. When the imam read the Fatiha, Widad started to cry. Her father had died three months earlier. The dying had taken years. Salma would sit beside him after praying fajr and listen to the clatter his chest made as he drew air in and released it. The first light of the day would slowly fill their bedroom. Salma spoke directly to God during those minutes, in a manner that felt shameless to her. She asked for her husband to live. She knew it was selfish, knew his life with its morphine and bloody handkerchiefs wasn’t one he wanted to keep.

More than once he cried out into the night, “They took my home, they took my lungs. Kill me, kill me.” Hussam fiercely believed his illness was tied to the occupation of Jaffa, the city with the peach-colored house they’d left behind.

“Khalto Salma, has it dried yet?” Around the table, the women watch her with anticipation. Though the captivation, she knows, is mostly among the younger women—her nieces and cousins who’d arrived from Amman for the wedding, Alia’s classmates, whom she still thinks of as children. Even Alia, leaning on her elbows —Salma has the desire to tell her to sit up, to tell her that men hate chalky elbows, but then remembers Atef, the man who is accepting her daughter, elbows and all —looks interested.

The elders—Salma’s sisters and neighbors and friends —watch the cup reading calmly. They’ve seen their mothers do this and their mothers’ mothers. As far as they are concerned, such happenings are as commonplace as prayer.

“Has it stuck?” one of the nieces asks.

“I wonder what it says.”

Salma blinks her thoughts away, rearranges her features. She glances down at the cup, tilts it, frowns. What she has seen is not a mistake.

“It needs more time. I’ll turn it around for another few minutes. The dregs must dry.”

Poor Widad. Salma feels a familiar ache at the thought of her older daughter. She was a woman, sixteen years old, when they left Jaffa. During those three days of terror before they decided to go, as they waited by the radio for news, it was Widad who cared for Alia, carrying her from room to room, boiling rice with milk and sugar to spoon into her mouth.

She’d made a game of the gunfire and artillery. Widad would raise her eyebrows in mock amazement, feigning delight at the muffled explosions outside. Alia clapped her toddler hands, giggled. Resourceful, Salma has often thought about her eldest, though whatever luminosity Widad has seems to materialize only in moments of crisis. Otherwise, she walked around their new house in Nablus wanly, sat through meals without speaking. She never mentioned Jaffa, and when her father, already ailing, told her it was time to marry, she didn’t protest. Only with Salma did she cry, tears falling as she sat in the garden, her body hunched over the steam from her teacup.

“He will take me to Kuwait,” she said, weeping, and Salma touched her daughter’s hair, pulled her to her breast. The tea oversteeped as minutes passed. Ghazi was a good man, had the steadiness and loyalty that would make a fine husband, but her daughter saw only a paunchy, chinless stranger with spectacles, a man who wished to take her to a drab villa compound in the desert. Salma’s heart hurt at the thought of her daughter becoming someone’s young, unhappy wife in a foreign country, but she knew it was for the best.

She never told Widad the truth, how Hussam had consulted her on the matter of Widad’s suitors, which he’d narrowed down to two men. The other was an academic, a professor of philosophy at the local university. Salma knew his sister from the mosque; he came from a well-mannered, educated family. But he was mired in Nablus, in Palestine—he would live and die here.When Hussam asked the boy where he intended to settle down, he answered, “In my homeland, sir. Nothing under this sky will budge me.”

Salma, to Hussam’s surprise, chose Ghazi. At the time, the logic of her verdict was nebulous to her, half formed. It was only when she sat in the mosque and felt relief that she understood her own actions. Widad would be kept safe in Kuwait, far from this blazing country split in two. Her unhappiness, if it came, was worth the price of her life.

Alia was at the ceremony, of course. Eight years old, in a taffeta dress that made a crunching sound when she sat. She twirled outside the mosque, swung her hips like a bell as Widad and Ghazi emerged wed. When Hussam died, Salma had expected Alia to bawl, demand an explanation. But the girl was the calmest of her three children.

“Baba is not hurt anymore?” she’d asked solemnly. And they all wept and embraced the girl—Widad and Salma and her son, Mustafa.

Alia was distinct as a child, unlike Widad with her gentle dolor or Mustafa who went from a colicky baby to a prickly child, throwing tantrums whenever he was refused anything. There were years between each child, years during which Salma was pregnant and miscarried six times. This betrayal of her body hobbled her; she felt shame at her belly, which stretched only to flatten again. In this way she failed, and, though Hussam was kind, bringing her tea each time she lay defeated in their bed, she knew his disappointment. She’d given him a daughter as firstborn—the first woman in five generations to do so—and was able to carry only one son in the basket of her womb.

It isn’t that Alia is her favorite child. All her children are prized; they are the glow of her. It is more that Salma has always felt drawn to her, a magnetism delicate and stubborn as cobweb thread. Alia is a child of war. She was barely three when the Israeli army rolled through Jaffa’s streets, the tanks smashing the marketplace, the soldiers dragging half-sleeping men from their homes. There would be the birth of a new nation, they declared. Salma and Hussam’s villa sat atop a small hill that overlooked the sea, with orange groves banded beneath it in strips.

Within days the groves were mangled, soil impaled with wooden stakes, oranges scattered, pulp leaking from battered flesh. Alia had cried not at the sound of gunfire but at the smell of the mashed oranges, demanding slices of the fruit. By then, the men who worked for their groves were gone, most having fled, some with bullets nested in their skulls. Hussam refused to leave at first, shaking his fist at the sea and land outside their windows, the view that beckoned them like another room.

“You go,” he told her, “go to your uncles in Nablus. Take the children.” She begged and begged, but he wouldn’t budge. Only when burning rags were hurled into their groves did he tell her, dully, to pack for all of them. They stood on the veranda while the children slept, watching the fire streak across their land, listening to the muffled shouts. The smell of burned oranges rose to them, scorched and sweet.

Only Alia mentioned Jaffa after they arrived at Nablus, with the tactlessness of the very young. She asked for the licorice sticks the grocer used to give her, for the dolls in her old bedroom. She cried at the thunderous sound of automobiles snaking through the Nablus marketplace. Widad and Mustafa looked pained when Alia spoke of these things, glancing at Hussam to see if he’d heard. Their father in Nablus was a transformed creature, cheerless and short-tempered. He no longer made growling sounds when he was hungry, mimicking a lion or bear until they giggled. He no longer asked them to stand straight in front of him and recite Hafiz Ibrahim’s poetry, adopting a mock sternness when they faltered. When he spoke with Widad or Mustafa, he seemed to be unfocused. Every evening he listened to the radio raptly.

But Salma was cheered when her daughter mentioned Jaffa. She felt grateful. Salma missed her home with a tenacity that never quite abated. She spent the first years in Nablus daydreaming of returning. The early days of summer, the vision of the house rising as the road coiled around the cliff. Inside, a miracle: everything as she’d left it, even the damp laundry she’d never gotten to hang up. She understood the flaw of these fantasies. The villa was gone, razed to the soil. The groves had been replanted and new workers picked the browned leaves, new owners baked bread with the orange rinds. Still, her heart stirred when Alia, even at six, seven years old, spoke with the reverence of a mythologist about the enormous Jaffa pomegranates, the seeds that could be spooned out and sprinkled with either salt or sugar, depending on their ripeness.

“They were as big as the moon,” little Alia would say, holding her starfish hands out, her voice confident.

It would become the girl’s most endearing and exasperating quality, how she could become enamored of things already gone.

It is Widad that Salma thinks of as she waits for the dregs, remembering how the girl begged for a cup reading before her wedding, weeping when Salma refused. She is glad Widad isn’t here to witness her disloyalty, shamefully glad that Ghazi’s gout had flared up and that Widad —dutiful wife—insisted on staying with him.

Salma hadn’t meant to be unkind. She had felt distraught by Widad’s tears but could not agree to such a thing. Reading the cup of someone with whom you shared blood was unwise, Salma’s mother always cautioned her. The fortune you wished for them would color the fortune you saw, or, worse, you’d be granted clarity and then be bound to reveal what you’d glimpsed. To keep something to yourself when reading cups was treachery. What was seen had to be shared. Many times Salma had read the broken hearts and tragedies of her neighbors, friends, even Hussam’s sisters.

Once, here in Nablus, she read in her neighbor’s cup the death of a male member of her family. Less than a month later she sat in the neighbor’s living room, holding the keening woman as she pulled out tufts of her hair. Her eldest son had spat on a soldier, and a bullet ripped open his neck. When the neighbor was finally put to bed with a sedative, Salma collected the strands of hair from the sofa and rug. The neighbor avoided Salma after that, shuffling away when they met, her averted eyes reproachful. But the others kept coming.

“We are blessed to have this gift of seeing. Allah willed it and we must not misuse it,” her mother would tell Salma. And Salma felt that duty profoundly, the connection that it carved ancestrally with her mother and a great-aunt and others who’d died before Salma lived. She felt, whenever handed a hollow, still-warm cup, that she was being entrusted with something profound. Cosmic.

And she has never transgressed. Until now. Widad would’ve wanted to know if she was marrying the right man. Alia asks no such thing. She is not much younger than Widad was when she wed, is in fact three years older than Salma had been. But Salma worries about Alia, about the way the girl doesn’t worry about herself. It is hastiness, Alia’s love of Atef, which she has proclaimed to Salma, to her friends, in the most cavalier manner.

“I adore him,” Salma once overheard her tell a cousin, as though adoration was a casual, unfussy thing. There is something indecent to Salma about how transparently Alia flourishes her emotions.

Still, Alia looks nervous as she waits for the dregs, unusually somber. Salma had expected some mocking about superstition. Alia is like this, brazen, indelicate with her words. She’d protested the dowry ceremony, insisting that Atef give her only a lira coin as a token and nothing else. Even the sugaring ritual was a battle. She preferred shaving, she announced, sending a cousin for one of the pink plastic razors that had been materializing in recent months on pharmacy shelves. But when the aunts insisted Turkish coffee be brewed for Alia, that the girl drink it slowly so Salma could read her fortune, Alia obeyed. She drank the coffee in silence, her lashes lowered, occasionally blowing on the surface.

Ya Salma,” one of the neighbors calls out. “It’s been eight minutes. Isn’t it time?”

Salma inhales, touches her hair. Since it is only women at the gathering, her veil and those of the aunts are draped along the windowsill.

“Yes, yes.” With unsteady fingers Salma flips the cup over.

She revolves the cup between her fingers, using only one hand. Her tendons and muscles have memorized these cups, the curving planes, know even to stop instinctively at the jag of the crack. Monumental little things, heavy and hollow at once, with the contradictory weight of eggs. She leans in once more and brings the cup close to her face. The lingering scent of coffee has already turned stale.

There it is. She had not been mistaken. The porcelain surface of the teacup is white as salt; the landscape of dregs, violent.

Lines curve wildly, clusters streaking the sides. Two arches, a wedding and a journey. The hilt of a knife crossed, ominously, with another. Arguments coming. On one side of the teacup, the white porcelain peeks through the dregs, forming a rectangular structure with a roof, drooping, an edifice mid-crumble. Houses that will be lost. And in the center, a smudged crown on its head, a zebra. Blurry but unmistakable, a zebra form, stripes across the flank. Salma wills her face expressionless, though fear rises in her, hot and barbed. A zebra is an exterior life, an unsettled life.

“Umm Mustafa, what do you see?” one of the girls pipes up. Salma lifts her head to the women gazing at her, their eyes questioning.

“Mama?” Alia asks, her voice sounding small. She is so young, Salma suddenly sees.

Salma’s voice is gravelly to her own ears. “She will be pregnant soon. There is a man waiting to take her through a door, a man who’ll love her very much.” All this is true —the fetus shape near the cup’s mouth, the tiny porpoise below the crack.

“Oh, wonderful!”

“Thank Allah.”

“At least now we know he loves her.” Laughing, the cousins tease Alia, who is smiling and flushed, relief plainly—surprisingly—on her face.

“Open the heart,” Salma tells her daughter, holding out the cup. The girl obliges, presses the pad of her thumb to the bottom of the cup, twists it in a half-arc. She returns the cup to Salma, then licks her coffee-smudged thumb.

Alia’s print is blurred, the edges speckled with dregs. She made a smear as she removed her thumb, a figure like a wing. Salma sees her daughter’s fear, the disquiet the girl cannot say. In the center of the thumbprint is a whirling form. Flight. She looks at Alia’s diamond-shaped face.

“It will come true. Your wish,” Salma says, this time speaking only to her. Alia blinks, nods slowly. At this, the women cheer and laugh, crowd around Alia with kisses and teasing tones. Salma sinks back into the chair, exhausted. She has given the truth. But amputated.



From SALT HOUSES. Used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Copyright © 2017 by Hala Alyan.

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