An Unlasting Home, by Mai al-Nakib

It’s strange to me—but also not so strange—that for a species hardwired to spot patterns, we can be very dumb when it comes to not repeating bad patterns of behavior. In Mai al-Nakib’s deeply affecting and engrossing family saga, An Unlasting Home, we see three generations of women who are given choices that lead them into emotional traps. They are also given choices to get out of those traps but, for one reason or another, they walk into personal martyrdom in the form of bad husbands, needy family members, economics, and religion. As each generation grows old and has children, we’re left to wonder about the costs of sacrificing oneself for others against personal happiness.

We have several narrators in An Unlasting Home. In chronological order, we meet Yasmine and Lulwa, whose marriages and choices land them in neighboring houses in Kuwait City in the 1950s. Then we meet Maria, an Indian woman who comes to work for Lulwa’s daughter, Noura (another narrator). As these women recount their stories—and woven in between them—there is Sara, daughter of Noura, granddaughter of Yasmine and Lulwa, cared for by Maria. Before they all ended up in Kuwait, various members of the family lived in Lebanon, India, Iraq, and the United States. Kuwait is where everything converges.

Sara grew up in St. Louis and Kuwait City. Although she and her mother Noura felt like the United States was the best place for them to live freely, as individuals, family obligations bring Sara back after her mother’s death. Someone has to take care of Yasmine and Lulwa, Sara argues whenever anyone tells her she should go back to the States. This same family obligation is what pulled Lulwa away from her family for seven long years between the 1940s and 1950s, after her mentally ill mother tricked Lulwa into coming back to Kuwait from India. A different family obligation brought Yasmine from Basra to Kuwait when her moody husband failed to claim his father’s political position. Sara’s decision to stay turns into a crisis unlike what her mother and grandmothers went through. Unlike them, Sara might be pushed to break free of Kuwait and her family’s history when she is accused of blasphemy after teaching Nietzsche in her philosophy course at Kuwait University.

I can imagine readers’ responses to the choices made by the narrators in An Unlasting Home go in two very different directions. On the one hand, readers might rail against the decisions these characters make. They might holler at the pages for Yasmine, Lulwa, Maria, Noura, and Sara to cut loose and run. Their happiness is more important than living in misery to make others happy. Other readers might applaud the self-sacrifice of these characters. Without their choices, the family would’ve crumbled. And although I’ve probably painted a pretty bleak picture of these characters’ lives, there is a lot of happiness and joy in their lives. Yasmine and Lulwa and Maria delight in their children. Noura is able to express her opinions through her foreign language bookstore in Kuwait City. And Sara is a philosopher, through and through, and believes in her educational mission of teaching at Kuwait University. Where some readers would see a clear choice, others will see situations where it’s impossible to decide on the right course of action. After all, who can predict what will happen in the future?

This beautifully written book, with its wonderfully developed characters, is a fantastic read for book groups, or for readers who want to wrestle with the question of obligation versus self-actualization.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Against the Loveless World, by Susan Abulhawa

Trigger warning for rape and anti-Semitism.

Everything is political. Some of us are lucky enough that we’re insulated from a lot of the politics. Money and privilege are our safety nets. So, given the awful choices that Nahr has to make in the incendiary Against the Loveless World, by Susan Abulhawa, lead her to become a freedom fighter—or a terrorist, depending on your point of view. Nahr comes from a family of Palestinian refugees who lost most of their land and have been making do in Kuwait, at least until Iraq invades and they find themselves in the middle of an active war zone. As a Palestinian, she is looked down on by other Arabs. She’s been taught to hate the Jews who stole her country. And on top of all of this, her family of mostly women has had to scrap and save for every bit of money. Nahr never had a safety net, with plenty of reasons to grow up angry at the world.

Against the Loveless World unfolds over roughly forty years. When we meet Nahr, she’s in a high-tech prison in Israel. We’re not told until much later why Nahr is in prison or how she got from Kuwait to Israel. To find that out, we go back to Nahr’s adolescence in Kuwait. After expulsion from Israel (which Palestinians call the Nakba, the disaster or catastrophe), Kuwait took in thousands of refugees as guest workers. Nahr falls into sex work because it’s the only way to get enough money to send her brother to university and to support her family. Her terrible experiences with men who take advantage of what they view as paid for and bought add to her simmering rage at the world.

After the first Iraq War, Nahr and her family flee to Amman, Jordan, where she is offered the opportunity to reconnect with her Palestinian heritage. This opportunity also brings her into the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, a bloody forever war between two sides who both believe they have a claim on the same territory and who have committed atrocities against each other. I’ve heard the story of Israel from the Israeli side, as a triumph of the Jewish people after the Holocaust. I can’t recall ever having heard the story from the Palestinian side. I definitely haven’t heard the story told with such fury as Nahr tells it. As Nahr tells us about her life and how she ended up in prison, she doesn’t talk so much about history as she does about Palestinian culture, food, art, and dancing—especially the dancing—and about how remaining Palestinians are holding on to what they have left of their ancestral land and holdings. It’s impossible not to sympathize with Nahr and her family. The difficulty in reading this book is that, as an outsider with some small knowledge of the history, I couldn’t take sides. I could understand Nahr’s actions, but I couldn’t approve of them.

Against the Loveless World is an incredible, but difficult, book to read. It contains so much controversy and hardship that I was grateful for Nahr’s happiest memories. But like so many other difficult books, it’s very much worth readers’ wile to read it. It presents a very human history that we in America don’t hear much, one that we need to hear to fully comprehend the mire of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. It’s also worthwhile because it can show those of us who live comfortable lives what it might be like if we were unlucky enough to be born without a state and without the safety money can provide.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan

Some Palestinians refer to 1948 as al-Nakbah, “the Catastrophe.” That was the year Israel became a state and Palestinians were pushed off of their land to make room. Hala Alyan uses 1948 as the starting point for her novel, Salt Houses. Through chapters narrated by members of one Palestinian family from 1948 to 2014, Alyan shows us what looking back and being rootless can do to a family. And through this family, we can see the effects of losing a homeland on an entire people: the Palestinian diaspora.

Note: I am well aware of the fraught political nature of Israeli and Palestinian history. I will only discuss this in the context of the novel. Further, I would appreciate if readers and commenters only use this space to discuss the book—not the politics.

Salt Houses opens in the early 1960s as Salma, the matriarch of a small family in Nablus, is reading her daughter’s fortune in tea leaves. What she sees in the cup shocks and dismays her. She knows that Alia will have a tough life. So she refuses to tell Alia what she sees. From 1963, the novel jumps to 1965 and Salma’s son, Mustafa. Then on to the 1970s and Alia and her husband. Over the next decades, we will meet Alia’s children and their children. We will go from the former Palestine to Kuwait; Amman, Jordan; Beirut, Lebanon; and Paris.

At one point in the novel, about halfway through, one of the family muses on how nostalgia can be a disease. Throughout the book, characters regret and grow angry over the things they’ve lost. There was always a better time, in another place, that they can’t go back to. Sometimes, that better place and time was in Haifa, Israel, or Nablus or Amman. Sometimes it’s before a beloved family member died. Over time, the family loses their roots. The younger generation grow further and further away from their elders, who can remember their old homeland.

While most of the conflicts in Salt Houses are emotional ones (particularly between mothers and daughters who are so similar they can’t get along), politics and religion are present in the story. Two of the male members of the family are tempted to join terrorist organizations to regain what was taken from them. Terrorism is a shadowy force in the novel, mostly occurring off the page or between chapters. We really only learn of the fallout. The Islam that these two male characters, Mustafa and Abdullah, practice is less important for comfort or understanding as it is a vehicle and justification (through radical imams) for violence.

Alyan is savvy in that she provides more than one view of Islam. For those two men, Islam is spun as a way to take back power—something that is very attractive to men who feel (rightly or wrongly) that they’ve been abused and robbed by the state of Israel. For the women, however, especially Salma and her granddaughter, Riham, we get to see Islam as a personal comfort. Truth to tell, we see more of the women’s belief than the men’s. Through Salma and Riham, Islam becomes a way to talk to god, to see order in the world, and to comfort believers when life is hard. We see the Islam that American media rarely shows.

Not all of the characters in Salt Houses are appealing. One in particular drove me nuts when she showed up on the page. Rather, this book is a subtle depiction of politics, religion, nostalgia, and belonging. I say subtle because many of these topics crept up on me. Now that I’ve finished the book, I find myself thinking about them more–which is always a sign of a good book to me.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 2 May 2017.