“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.” - Hala Alyan, Salt Houses
The annual Emirates LitFest event is returning to the Dubai cultural calendar from January 31st to February 6th, and with it comes a slew of prominent names and exciting performances. There are valuable lectures, writer’s workshops, murder mystery dinners, brunches with MasterChefs, and conversations with profound authors to listen to, but our most anticipated name on the event calendar belongs to Hala Alyan.
The Palestinian-American clinical psychologist and award-winning author of glorious novels like Salt Houses and The Arsonists’ City and books of poetry like The Moon That Turns You Back and The Twenty-Ninth Year is one of our favorite writers ever to put pen to paper. Her words soak into your skin, her prose is as rich and golden as honey, and her characters live in your mind long after you’ve finished the last chapter. In light of so many devastating dehumanizing efforts against Palestinians, the last point is especially important when dealing with the intimate interior lives of her characters. In her incredible debut novel Salt Houses, which traces three generations of Palestinians as they navigate the consequences of the Israeli occupation, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, displacement, and their own internal emotional turmoil, Palestinians become fully realized human beings. For example, when 18-year-old Souad leaves home for Paris and watches on television as her secondary home in Kuwait is razed by Saddam Hussein’s troupes, she has concern for her family that battles in her mind against obsessive thoughts of her love interest. That’s real. That’s human.
The visual worlds created by Alyan are vivid and masterfully relayed through her poignant words, and never have they been more important than in the face of Israel’s horrendous onslaught against Gaza and the global reckoning it now faces as new generations have woken up to its legacy of apartheid and genocide. As Alyan returns to the region for the first time in five years, she brings with her a considered awareness of the West’s entanglement with the crisis, a deeply empathetic sense of bearing witness, and words of wisdom in regards to activist fatigue. Listen in as Savoir Flair speaks to Alyan below.
When you talk about freedom, what does that MEAN? Is that something that is afforded to everybody?
On Being Palestinian in America
How long has it been since you’ve been in the region?
I have not been back since 2019. For a very long time, I would go back to Lebanon in particular, usually once a year. My family lived in Abu Dhabi until my sister graduated high school. So, after I moved to the States as an adult, my returns would often involve the UAE and Lebanon or some combination of the two. But now, I would say it’s been the longest stretch of time since I moved here. I think there’s something about being somewhere where I can speak Arabic freely and hear the call to prayer. In the region, I think so many markers of home are shared, regardless of what city you’re in. I also have such a place in my heart for the desert as a landscape. There’s something about being physically in a place with the sun that I resonate with on a soul level. On a cultural identity level, if not home, it’s home adjacent. I’m really looking forward to it.
How does it feel to be returning in the midst of Israel’s assault of Gaza?
I don’t even know what that is going to be like. I have not had a finger on the pulse of what it’s looked like on a societal level [in the UAE]. I think it will be really steadying to be in a place where people can speak about things openly and where it’s not controversial to be Palestinian. Obviously, in New York, there’s a lot of that here. There are a lot of people here doing really amazing work, and there are a lot of allies organizing, but I think it’s different. It’s not necessarily the default stance that you assume people to have. You’re still kind of mindful and careful about how you have conversations.
How did living in the region during your formative teens and early 20s shape your identity?
One of the blessings that ended up coming out of it is that I came of age and had these pivotal, crucial milestones in places where the identity of being Palestinian was not a negotiable one. It wasn’t one that was seen inherently as controversial. By the time I returned to the States, I was 22. My sense of self with that identity was really unshakeable. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that I hadn’t been worn down by spending my adolescence and early adulthood negotiating, arguing, and debating with people. Whatever you say about the region – and the fact that different places have different levels of support for Palestinians and different narratives about Palestinians – my identity is not something I had to contest. It’s like, you don’t have to like Palestinians, but we know they exist. We’re not negating the fact that they’re there.
Many people in the US are unlearning their indoctrination around Israel and Palestine. What is it like seeing this shift in person?
That’s a larger conversation that I think a lot of us are grappling with. If someone comes in good faith and is really asking questions, genuinely curious… this level – the level of labor I’m able to give – is usually in terms of referring people to resources, like recommending books, recommending films, etc. But I do have boundaries on how much I’ll engage in certain interactions. On a larger societal level, you have to be mindful of how you’re taking up space. You have to be mindful of how you’re having certain conversations. I really try to drop into empathy as much as I can. It’s challenging sometimes because we’re watching such horrific imagery and videos. The level of devastation, destruction, and violence is unspeakable.
I try to remember that people have been exposed to certain narratives for most of their lives and they can be slow to unravel long-held ideas and to be exposed to new ideas. It takes a long time. At the same time, I understand the frustration when people are like, 'We don’t have time. This is urgent.' I completely get that.
How are allies in the US helping the movement?
I have come to believe that it’s a moment where allies are able to impact change and do things that a lot of Palestinians cannot do. Because anytime a community is dehumanized, it’s de-legitimized. Your voice, your narrative, or your opinion on something is always seen as a matter of question. In negotiation terms, there’s something called ‘the credible colleague approach,’ which is when you tap in someone who is seen as more credible to speak, to carry the voice, or to carry the narrative. Of course, nobody wants anyone to speak for them, but, to be realistic, I think there is something to the fact that there are groups and allies that are able to carry messaging further because they have access to spaces that, I personally, as a Palestinian-American do not have access to.
They have access to audiences, communities, or gatherings that I don’t. I think you see this a lot in the Jewish community in the States where they are doing some of the most backbreaking incredible work here. The level of organizing, the level of showing up – not just in terms of a protest – but in the way that people are showing up relationally to people in their lives, to family members, to loved ones, to peers, to have those difficult conversations is a big part of the work.
Marc Lamont Hill makes a very astute observation that while progressive movements in the West have made strides in advocating for social justice and human rights on other topics – such as immigration and racial equality – there is often a reluctance to address the oppression of Palestinians with the same passion for justice.
If you’re going to speak about liberation, all of these causes are interconnected. My whole brand is, how can we talk about these things with consistency? I think this is often where you can find softenings and openings in people, is in talking about consistency. When you talk about freedom, what does that mean? Is that something that is afforded to everybody? When you talk about equal access to resources, what does that actually look like? What does that come up against if we’re talking about manifesting it everywhere in the world, for everybody? And who are the people where you’re like, ‘I feel that way strongly, but when it comes to these certain people, something in me closes off.’ Can that be an invitation to look at it closer and wonder what’s happening there for myself? I wonder what I might’ve been told about that part of the world or that group of people. I think there’s something in how we think of ourselves in these spaces, and in these conversations, and how we can use the self as an instrument to further these interactions.
You write in the book, “Nostalgia is an affliction”, and so, toward the end, we see Manar grappling with her identity as a Palestinian-American and dealing with her family heritage while trying to forge her own path in a world far removed from her family’s origins. So many young Palestinians were raised on nostalgia, a longing for a Palestine before the occupation. I see that contributing strongly to their identity, and I see its importance in keeping hope alive for a day where Palestine will truly be free. But, are there negative implications to dwelling in the past?
I think from a psychological perspective, sure. I think there can be negative implications to doing anything if it’s not done in the service of a better future. I think if one is dwelling on the past for the past’s sake, yeah, that’s going to pull you from your life. It’s going to pull you from your present. It’s going to make it harder to show up for yourself and for the people around you. I’m really interested in the idea of imagined futures when it comes to things like Palestine. Or conversations around liberation for everybody. What is an imagined future where everybody is afforded the same rights? Where all entities have to adhere to international law? Where there are no exceptions? I think, how can we collectively imagine a future that is better than the present that we have? Because the present we’re in is not one where everybody has equal rights. And I think that should not be a controversial statement. That is just a fact. Right?
I would hope that that is something that everyone wants to rectify, in goodwill, that everyone genuinely has the desire for all people on all land to be free. Let’s assume – with goodwill and good intent all around – that that is a shared collective goal. That’s different than dwelling on the past because then you are continuously recalibrating your moral compass and your value system towards a future that you want for everybody.
It’s activating you towards the idea that no is free until everyone’s free.
There has been a lot of despair around what’s going on in Palestine, but the movement has gotten so large and so loud that it actually feels different this time. Are you leaning more toward despair or hope?
I think I vacillate between despair and hope. There’s such an urgency right now for a permanent ceasefire. But, it’s hard to speak about healing when bombs are falling. How can we get a permanent ceasefire? That’s the number one top thing. I think on an emotional level, on a societal level, on a relational level, yeah, there is a shift. I’m not saying I want people to just believe what I believe. It’s about wanting people to be consistent. It’s about wanting people to truly engage with history. It’s about wanting people to ask themselves difficult questions about what they were taught. Whose narratives and whose perspectives were they told were valid? And have they been discouraged from looking at certain things or discouraged from engaging with certain histories, and if so, why? I want to see people engage in critical consciousness around that.
I see that happening in a way that I have never seen before around the world. That’s a really beautiful thing. God knows how many private reckonings are happening right now, too, whose seeds will bear fruit later on. On that level I feel hope. But, day-to-day, I feel despair.
How do you persevere even when you feel despair?
The most emotionally honest thing you can do is to show up to the moment, however you can, in whatever capacity you can. Try to negotiate with the feelings you’re having. Instead of trying to talk yourself out of feeling guilty or angry, put that energy elsewhere. It’s okay, you’re allowed to feel these things. This is where the psychologist in me is like, you can feel whatever you want to feel because feelings are not permanent states. A feeling, at its best, is just an indicator of something that you’re hoping for or need to change. Use it as a cue, and that’s it.
How do you deal with activism fatigue?
Psychic numbing is this phenomenon where the more devastating a crisis is, the more we start to turn away. The greater the human toll, the less willing people are to help because there’s such a belief in inefficiency. There’s a belief that we’re not going to be able to change anything. If one person is suffering, you feel like you can do something, but if there are 20,000 or 30,000 people dead, you feel helpless and the inclination to help actually goes down.
My message would be, you don’t have to argue with that feeling. That’s okay. That’s just your brain trying to protect you against the enormity and the overwhelming nature of the situation. It’s trying to protect you from something that, frankly, it should not have to protect you against. It’s a coping mechanism, and there are ways to battle that. One of the ways [to battle that] is to bear witness to things with purpose. The people who are on the ground are taking these images and are filming these things so they can be watched. They are testimonies. The best thing we can do is bear witness.
Can you describe the purpose aspect of bearing witness with a purpose?
I’ll sometimes go and like try to watch as many videos as I can. Then, I’m like, well, that’s not doing it with any sort of intentionality or any sort of mindfulness. We’re being granted access into people’s lives in a really heart-wrenching, intimate way. I would rather pick a few clips a day and really, think about the individuals on the other side of that, really sit with whatever comes up there. I want to be conscious that I’m bearing witness to a testimony. I think when you think of it that way, it isn’t just mindless scrolling of devastation, devastation, devastation, despair, rage... You’re orienting yourself as a witness in the definition of what a witness is. What does a witness do? A witness remembers and uses that to orient themselves to show up for things.
I’m big on what replenishes people. I know that that feels like a very annoying topic right now. It feels disconnected from the despair that’s happening. But, if you’re not replenishing, then you are not going to be able to continue to be of service to others. You’re not gonna be able to be of service to the communities, and the causes, and the places that matter to you.
Pay attention to what helps you feel like you were able to catch your breath. What does that for you? Mental health, as we know it, was created by the West, for the West. It was created with individualistic values in mind. Stop thinking of it as self-care, and think of it as care, period. Care is care. It is what will allow me to show up for my community.
The Hala Alyan books and poetry we keep returning to again and again and again.
On 'Salt Houses'
Which character do you identify the most with?
That’s a good question. I think probably, Souad. I think there’s something about her. On a logistic level, I identify more with the younger generation because they’re the ones who have to contend with
bifurcated identities a little bit more. On a personality level, there’s something about Souad’s energy, the way she’s in the world, and the way she always seems to be making her life harder for herself but is also showing up and doing the best she can… I think she is definitely the character that has my heart.
What did it feel like to finish the book?
I got very sad when I finished the book. This happens with The Arsonists' City, too, actually. I think there’s something about spending a really long time with a family. The characters start to feel very real. You spend years with them in your head, thinking about them, putting them in situations, and watching them misbehave.
When do you know that the story is finished?
I write very, very, very, very long drafts, knowing I’m gonna lose probably 100, 200, 250 pages. There were probably six chapters that were cut from this book. I rely heavily on editors. I’m pretty good about not being precious about work. I do my job, which is to write the thing, and then I trust that an editor knows how to cut and what to cut better than I would know. I knew pretty early on with Salt Houses where I wanted it to end. I knew I wanted us to be back in Alia’s perspective. It was chronologically stapled because you were going to end at the present because this isn’t speculative fiction. The years were passing and passing, and now we were in a new generation. In some ways, you run out of time. You made it to the present, and then, that was it.
Who was the audience you had in your mind when you were writing 'Salt Houses'?
It was a very unique experience, probably never to be repeated because it was the first thing that I wrote that was long non-fiction. I never actually used the word novel. I didn’t know what was going to happen with it. I didn’t do an MF. I published poetry. I had no blueprint in my mind for how to publish a fiction book. So, I wrote it without thinking about the audience. That’s such a lovely experience. I wrote it thinking about the characters and what was going to happen to them.
Every now and then, I would think about my brother and my dad reading it. My audience was a very small one. I think it allowed for a playfulness that I think is hard to recreate once you’re published, you have an agent, you have publishers, and you know that people are going to be reading it in a different way. You have to do a lot of work to try to mute that, as opposed to that first book when you don’t know that anyone’s ever going see it.
Who helped shape the historical aspects of the book?
There were a lot of conversations with my father. My dad was a crucial part of writing this book. I wanted to make things feel real, like you were there. What music was playing? What were the radio broadcasts like? How were people getting their news? How were people connecting with each other? What was popular? What wasn’t popular? I ended up making playlists of popular songs from the cities and eras I was writing about and listening to them while I wrote.
Then around the invasion of Kuwait, I talked with my mom and my aunt, too. At that point, I, in some ways, mimicked the displacement of my own family. My parents met and married in Kuwait. We were there when Saddam invaded. I had just turned four, and then we went to the States. I took some elements of that. The advantage of writing this book is that the people in my life were there and were old enough to remember what it was like. I think that helps the sensory details and really makes the book feel like it’s alive.
As paradoxical as it sounds, we change a lot, but we also never change. And where we live can shape our identity a lot. So what happens to identity when displacement occurs?
I think it creates this sort of disconnect. It cleaves a life into before and after. This is what I’ve noticed in communities that have been displaced – my family being one. There’s this sense that there’s the life you’re living now in the new place, but there’s a tape that’s playing that never fully stops of the ‘What if?’ – both in terms of longing for the life that could have been, but also the imagined parallel existence. I think it happens especially around milestones like marriage or death, where a person gets buried in a country that’s thousands and thousands of miles away from their homeland.
I think those moments invoke those questions, ‘What would my life have looked like if we had stayed?’ Obviously, those questions are much more salient for people who are closer to the actual displacement or the dispossession. It’s going to be a question that starts to morph into something different as you get into the later generations. You start to have these conceptual ideas of longing, exile, or nostalgia. Oftentimes, you’ll find generations that are nostalgic for places or experiences that they never have had themselves.