Hard Questions

I’ve been feeling unsettled and I think it’s connected to a book I just finished reading, Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. It is a novel about a Palestinian family that spans generations, beginning in 1948 through the present day. The author is a Palestinian woman, who according to her bio has lived in a number of different countries, including Kuwait, Jordan and the United States. The book provoked a lot of thought about identity, a subject I am endlessly interested in.


The family at the center of the story moves around the Middle East quite a bit – they had homes in Nablus, Kuwait City, Amman and Beirut. They also spent time in Paris and Boston. Their moves are most often the result of war, but sometimes it is in pursuit of opportunity or a different life. Some of the issues they face resonated with me. Many of the characters struggle to understand their identity. Is it tied to the land from which they are exiled? Is it their religion? Is it about language, food, and culture? And, if it is about all of these things, then what does it mean when you live in a country that speaks a different language, eats different foods, practices religion in a different way or not at all? How do you navigate the different values and customs, preserving your own but adapting to the society you live in?

These questions, these tensions, are very much at the heart of the Jewish-American experience. I was surprised to find that the themes that the book explores were so familiar. I find it ironic that there is so much commonality when the situation in the Middle East might lead us to believe that there is little common ground.

I have to admit that the book made for uncomfortable reading at times. The story begins with a Palestinian family in Jaffa being displaced from their beloved home on the Mediterranean by the 1948 war – the war for Israeli independence. The story takes as a given that the displacement was wrong, no context is offered. I understand why this is the case, both from the perspective of these characters and in the interest of telling the story. It is actually instructive to understand that this is the perspective. The “need” to establish Israel as a safe haven for Jews is not part of this narrative. I suspect this is true not just for this novel, but that it represents a widely held view.

In the book, as more is revealed, we learn that the family wasn’t just displaced, but was subjected to barbarous acts. Though it isn’t stated explicitly, it is clear that sexual violence was perpetrated by Israeli soldiers. This is a very painful chapter. I don’t doubt that Israeli soldiers, in 1948 and in subsequent actions, did horrible things. I don’t believe the author included this episode to be provocative, it must be rooted in real events. Every army since the beginning of time has been guilty of those crimes. That is not an excuse. No doubt when you have been the victim of such treatment your view of the ‘invaders’ is shaped by that forever. Whether instances of these crimes were more or less common in that war is not known to me. The question becomes, what do we do with that? History is full of pain and degradation being inflicted on oppressed peoples. How do we acknowledge that and, yet, move on?

There are parallels between the Jewish and Palestinian experience. Jews have been subjected to violence, cruelty and unspeakable acts of brutality. We have been exiled many times throughout history. Each year, at the Passover Seder, we tell the story of our enslavement and exodus from Egypt. I have always found great meaning in this ritual, reminding ourselves of our history and to not take freedom for granted. In our family, my in-laws are Holocaust survivors (I have written a number of blog posts about their experience), we tell their stories to the generations that follow. I believe it is essential that we do so. Anti-Semitism surely isn’t dead and we must be vigilant. There may be another side to it, though. In telling and retelling the story, do we keep the wounds fresh? Having heard these stories, do we approach the world defensively, ready to be attacked?

While reading this book, I thought about the story being told to generations of Palestinians. What is the message and what are the implications for relationships, with Jews, with Israelis, with the rest of the world?

In education, there is discussion about creating trauma-sensitive classrooms, in recognition that many students come to school bearing the burdens of traumatic life experiences. I wonder if there is a broader issue: how do we, as a society, deal with traumatized cultures (if there is such a thing)?

In Salt Houses, there are no Jews or Israelis who interact in any positive ways with the protagonists. I wondered if this reflected the fact that most Palestinians would not have occasion to have a positive interaction with a Jewish or Israeli person, or if this was just the particular story of these particular characters. If it is the experience of most Palestinians, then it is a sad commentary. The only interactions depicted in the book are those between the characters and Israeli soldiers and then an incident at airport security in Tel Aviv post 9/11. Suffice it to say, neither the soldiers nor the airport security officers come off well. It left me wondering if there are more ordinary opportunities for exchanges, not fraught because of the power imbalance or the pervasive fear of terrorism.

I purposely chose to read this novel to push myself out of my comfort zone. Authors from other cultures, who write stories informed by their experience, have much to tell us. It is easier to read those stories when the oppressors are generationally very distant or culturally unrelated to me. Salt Houses presented more of a challenge. This book is certainly not the full story. I can’t read one book by a Palestinian woman and think I have the full picture any more than I can read one by an African-American man and think I understand their broad and varied experiences. But, my understanding has been expanded. It was unsettling, but I believe it is worth the discomfort inherent in thinking about hard questions.

8 thoughts on “Hard Questions

  1. This well written blog post does courageously bring up hard questions. And I will be more than pleased to offer my best responses soon. Meanwhile, I appreciate your willingness to tackle this tricky terrain.


  2. Thank you for the excellent and faithful blog post about Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. I admire your willingness to talk about what is obviously a difficult version of history for you to discuss. You are relentlessly courageous. On the other hand, I feel a responsibility to respond to the narrative offered by Ms. Alyan. Full disclosure, I have not read the book. This is not because of this particular book but rather because it is a book. Those that know me know I don’t read novels. That said, Linda and I did have more extensive discussions about the plot and themes than what she included in her blog post. I felt a need, based on my understanding, to address what I believe is an important shortcoming of the narrative that was presented.
    The book presents precisely the Palestinian narrative that we have been hearing for decades. In that narrative, Israel and Israelis are always evil and Palestinians are always innocent victims – a distorted and unfair account of history.
    While Israel is the most attacked and most criticized country on earth, the Palestinians have not been subjected to the same kind of critical review. The notion that Palestinians have not played a role in contributing to their circumstances misrepresents events. In fact, Palestinian leadership made decisions and those decisions have led directly to the situation they find themselves in today.
    For example, the narrative tells us that all the Palestinians want is a country of their own, one in which they can have the same opportunity for self-determination that other peoples desire. And, if only Israel would allow that to happen, then there would be no problems. In reality, at the end of the Clinton administration, as a result of negotiations, the Palestinians were offered their own country in 2000 (there are multiple reports of other offers since then, as well) and the Palestinians turned that offer down.
    During those negotiations, according to Americans who were in the room, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat never made any compromises, but instead kept increasing his demands. He then began an intifada-a wave of terrorist attacks-on Israelis. Buses, cafes, schools were targeted. That led to so many deaths, so many people wounded. Every Israeli citizen knew someone affected by the attacks.
    The Palestinians, in my view, have been victims of their own leadership. They have been led to pursue a course of action that dehumanizes Israelis and harms their own humanity. They have been encouraged to view Israelis as less than human and to believe that terrorism is righteous and proper behavior. And, they have been led to believe that sharing the land with Jews is not an option. Their corrupt and cowardly leaders have left ordinary Palestinians in a horrible position and led to the deaths of people on both sides of the divide.
    Based on my understanding of the book, the author doesn’t include any Palestinian characters who are terrorists or who know terrorists. This would seem to be a convenient omission.
    The failure to acknowledge Palestinian responsibility makes Israel look guilty when it defends itself. For example, in response to the intifada, Israel built a wall/fence separating itself from the West Bank where most of the attacks came from. I have seen innumerable news stories detailing how the barrier blocks Palestinians from going about their business but the news stories never mention the terror attacks that led to the installation of the barrier.
    Readers of this blog are well aware of the history of this family. Nobody in our family chose to blow up Germans or Poles, other than during the war itself, in response to what was done to them. And no Jewish authorities have called for such actions, engaged in training and financing and glorifying such actions. Rather, we have gone about rebuilding our lives rather than wallowing in victimhood and looking for others to blame.
    Palestinians leaders and those who support them would smear Israel as causing their problems but have committed crimes and made choices that have harmed Israelis and simultaneously led their own people into despair. They should look at their own choices and we should hold them up to the same scrutiny that we hold Israel to.
    Once again, thank you for a thought-provoking blog post.


    1. This is a difficult discussion to have – we all have strong feelings about it. I appreciate you sharing your perspective, which is also shared by many. I think it is certainly legitimate to ask Palestinians to examine their own culpability. The novel doesn’t do that – and perhaps it shouldn’t be asked to do so. That gets into a whole other discussion about the responsibility of writers of fiction. Thank you for contributing to the discussion.


    2. I was going to write a reply but Gary’s reply was precise. The only thing I want to add is no one should believe something just because it’s in a book. You need to know who wrote it, why they wrote it & who paid for it to be written.


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