Sunday, September 23, 2018

Sounding the Literary Alarm on Israel-Palestine

An abridged version of this book review appeared on Middle East Eye under the title: 

Salt Houses: Tackling Israel-Palestine with a poet's licence

Here is the link:

Background Noise:
Let me plunge into controversy right from the start. But allow me, please, to begin with something sparkling to help familiarize the uninitiated: A topmost model may yet bite the dust for speaking out against Israel. To cover the full range of what we, Palestinians, have to deal with as we attempt to say what is on our minds, here is the reality at home in a nutshell: Poetry is a crime and activists are kneecappedbut only if Palestinian. I hope that this combination of divergent examples of issues that impact our daily life will gain some sympathy for my less than kind thoughts about the American literary world. The interdependence and near full integration of the publishing industry into the corporate media in North America, and hence in much of the world, needs no proof. At least on the media side of such partnership, we are witnessing the lifting of all curtains and the end of claims of neutrality; newspaper editorials are on sale to mega-corporations. There is no doubt that what underlies such infractions of accepted public media ethics is the profit motive. By the same token, the following is widely accepted as well, a given:

“If profitability is the most important factor to determining which books to publish, politics is a close second,” this researcher concludes. “Publishers can produce books that express the corporation’s mission and political affiliation. Political motivation is a great force within the corporation and in certain cases, a political agenda trumps profitability. Often a book is published (or not published) based on its political message—with larger profits and strong market presence, the merger era helped to increase political sway. … Having considered many consequences, both positive and negative, of the corporate evolution within the media industry, it is clear that the mergers and acquisitions have undoubtedly changed the book publishing industry and the content that the public receives.”

Deserved Appreciation:
Now, let me see if I can ease into the crux of my intended discourse, my review of Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) without alarming the concerned parties, especially the author herself. First to the politically neutral and personally uplifting: I read the book on Kindle without first checking the author’s bio. From her name I knew she was Arab, probably Palestinian, and from her diction I assumed she was American or, at least, American-educated.

As I progressed along I was struck by two features of Alyan’s writing: One charming characteristic was the author’s ability to sound the depths of her protagonists’ psyche. She shows an exceptional facility to delve into the intimate feelings, inner thoughts and hesitant ruminations of each character that she highlights. First, I thought this must’ve come from her living and battling out the same momentous struggles as some of her young adult characters. I imagined such sparks of enlightened awareness welling out of her own experience, even if I had to give her, the author, a deeper self-understanding than the average contemporary college grad. As I read along, I witnessed a repetition of the same touch of well-informed awareness as she ferreted the inner thoughts and feelings of children, youth, young as well as mature adults and the elderly, even a confused Alzheimer sufferer. Hence, it was no surprise, almost a disappointment, when I discovered towards the end that our author was a practicing psychologist. 

Another winning feature was stylistic in nature, her frequent zestful and snappy turn of phrase, an artful simile here and a hippy splash of color there, a new verb to me, forced out of a noun against its will, in short, a poet’s taking of license. Smokers “ash” their cigarettes and “anger [quiets] into a briny resentment” and the list is long. And there is the unique writerly skill of her frequent poetic allowing of inanimate objects to take on willful action, “voices tangle in greeting” and “[the] sound of rain surrounded them as they slept.”  It runs throughout the warp and weft of the novel to where it borders on the objectionable. And yet, throughout my total immersion in the Salt Houses, I caught myself anticipating such turns of phrase with excitement, enthusing and nearly cheering Alyan on at each of the surprises. Much as it reflects on my limited literary acumen, I discovered later on that Alyan is a recognized, published and prize-winning poet. No wonder!

To such creative originality, we have to add another artful skill, that of her narrative design. The overall structure of the novel is akin to a medical computerized tomogram (CT). Each slice through the body of the clan under study is centered around a meaningful moment in a family member’s life across four generations. The aligned and stacked images and the strung events congeal into a three-dimensional artwork. The interconnected whole is more, much more, than its constituent parts. Those parts are carefully cross-linked and fastened tight, as if, by the consistent and skillful artisan-like plastering-over and smoothing across of their unique oddities and identifying characteristics till they stand out as recognizable living individual protagonists while still merging into a uniquely informing and diagnostic whole. 

As to her deft skill of fine-tuning her narrative, here is one specific event that Alyan handles magnificently by avoiding the pitfall of being guided by the readers’ expectations: From the start of this specific seaside vendetta, one senses the direction in which the two streams of the author’s narrative are flowing: On one side is Riham, a shy teenage girl burdened with feelings of inadequacy, pious religiosity and befuddled thoughts regarding a boy she had briefly met. On the other is that same boy’s incidental presence at the beach and the two exchanging sly smiles. Then Riham runs in to swim and nearly drowns. It is too unimaginative, almost cheap, to have the boy save her, the expected default resolution to the mounting tension. Yet, with her gift of poetic imagining and diving— pardon the pun— into the depths of a drowning teen’s inner feelings, our author weaves a beautiful and touching segment, cleverly bypassing the boy for a bearded, clearly religious man who is, one wants to believe, sent by Allah, the only site of Riham's trust as she battles the waves in her near-death struggle.

At the risk of being repetitive, let me assert again: All along, Alyan continues to surprise: She is convincingly insightful whether she is delving into the fears of a child, the worries of a mother, the rheumatic disability of the aged granny or the frivolity of a teenage in Paris, always inventive and with that special handle on 'verbalizing' nouns and animating and personalizing the inanimate.

My Inherent Fears:
The dominance over the American publishing industry, like media in general, of liberal progressive-except-on-Palestine (PEP) Zionist interests is not in doubt. This assertion may well be branded by the same presumed neutral moguls of major publishing houses and literary agencies as anti-Semitic and seditious if not blasphemous. One needs look no further than the two most coveted and uncontested literary accreditation sites, the New Yorker and the New York Times, the dream venues of writers, aspiring as well as established, for recognition of their skills, to ascertain the veracity of my statement.  It is clear that the media and publishing field is ripe for its John-Mearsheimer-and-Stephen-Walt whistle-blowing moment. Sooner than one thinks, this volcano will erupt.

This assumed, I revert to my Palestinian modus operandi of conspiratorial theorizing: Certain of the identity of the author, I face the nagging question of how does a Palestinian author gain entry into the hostile world of publishing in America? I am cautious enough to assume that the give-and-take between author and publisher, mediated through an expert literary agent, must have been negotiated softly in genteel tones and civil exchanges of opinion. Still, what concessions did this poetic author with her gift of comprehension of human psychology had to make to gain acceptance into the openly partial and overtly pro-Israel field. Were many allowances made consciously or were they reached through the usual repetitive drafting and redrafting to where the right tones of critical phrases were reached and set in the final text? How did the wrestling match, with the unfairly set stage, proceed? I can’t but assume that this sensitive author was aware of such tug of war between her and the reps of her major publisher. Or could the more likely scenario be that she had already been sufficiently alienated from certain elements in her Palestinian subject population that her dark hues in portraying them were simply left in place? Simultaneously, anti-Israeli or anti-American shades were perhaps softened and smoother over into less striking or objectionable hues. All such changes could have been achieved in the guise of literary critiquing and suave writerly embellishments.

Allah, Saddam and Israel:
Here is a possible example of such undeclared meeting of minds (or, perhaps, it is the meeting of only the author’s and my minds): Through a scene of Alia, a central protagonist in the novel, chatting with Telar, a Kurd young woman she meets at the beach in Kuwait, the author spews out a load of venom against Saddam Hussain:

“We came a while back, my mama and siblings. Seven of us. Baba died, of course. All the men did. The army rounded them up, slit their stomachs in front of our houses, shot the knees of anyone who cried out. To the women—” The girl spits again, slitting her eyes toward the sea. “To the women they did awful things. They made husbands watch. They made little children watch.”

But then, it is well-deserved regardless of one’s stand on the Iraq War. And it brings back to the reader’s mind the earlier rape scene in Haifa of a friendly Palestinian woman by Israeli soldiers. So, it balances, if not tips the sympathy scale in favor of the Palestinian side. This is the place, perhaps, to allude to my discomfort at the vague sense of equivalency that seems to underlay Alyan’s novel, even if never addressed frontally, of the rarely glimpsed Israelis and the Palestinians dominating the narrative. No assumption of such balance between aggressor and aggrieved is acceptable to me. Hence, I hereby absolve the author of such intention.

Another frontal attack seems to build up early on as the author artfully conjures up a dark miasma of suggestive conspiratorial background to the mosque attendees in Nablus, a litany of hints that befit the western world’s imagined atmosphere of a Hamas cell, even though this segment predates the movement’s establishment. Connected to Mustafa, the central figure here, is a sense of foreboding and depravity that seems to emanate from the Palestinian essence. Take the following judgement, offered with little to substantiate it. “Even the men at the mosque, most of them educated and well off, would be taken aback; for all their talk of solidarity with the poor, they are repelled by them.” If casual readers don't approve of such Moslem-bashing, they have to stop and work at rationalizing the roots of such depravity beyond its being engrained in the Palestinian lifeblood, say in their refugee status, the unfair treatment the world has afforded them, etc. etc. You need to work at proving what historians have omitted. Alyan seems to try, but her attempt at explaining away such depravity ends up confirming it to the Western reader:

“These girls had their faith, but their lives were hard and bitter and full of death. The ones that weren’t married by their early twenties had a recklessness about them, giving their bodies with abandon. They hadn’t been raised on European summers and dinner parties; they had removed shrapnel from their brothers’ legs, had washed their sisters after rape. There was no chamber for love in their bodies, …”

What shows at the surface for the Western reader is that the whore receiving Mustafa, her religious activist client, at her camp is the typical Palestinian refugee. From here the distance is short to generalizing to all of Gaza and Palestine. Above all, the suggestive Islamic name of this prostitute, Aya—Koranic verse—reflects on Islam and Hamas, of course. To you and me, such glum interpretation may sound overwrought. But it is the reality of the Western media conceptions on the matter. The Palestinians sum up such situation with the analogy of someone calling you “brother of a whore.” Now, go prove that, in reality, you have no sisters.

But then, as I tally the author’s examples of religious men that one meets on her novel’s pages, all three prominent examples—the refugee Imam in Nablus, the pious physician husband of Riham in Amman and her rescuer from drowning as a teenager in Kuwait—all shine as gentle persona backed up by a benevolent and responsive Allah. Well, may He help me make up my mind: on which side do I credit Alyan’s religious allusions, so artfully jiggled in the mysterious air of her novel.  

Memories Count:
It was not an easy task for me, let me assure you, to steer through the minefield of presumed hidden agendas and shrewd undercurrents. With this a’priory alienation and dark conspiratorial assumption of mine, I proceeded to make a balance sheet of pro and anti-Palestinian commentary and allusions to come out at the end with the scale tipped, perhaps just so, in favor of the pro-Palestinian side. Admittedly, such sentiments are often indirect and less screaming-out-loud than usual for Palestinian writers. Most of those Palestinian strong points of Alyan’s come in flashbacks and memories, not in witnessed events in the reported life segments. Towards the end of the novel, we gain access to Atef’s after-the-fact secretive letters to his dead comrade, the clan’s martyred hero, Mustafa, whose burial site no one knows, and to Atef’s wife, Alia’s late life spotty and confused recollections. The fact that the couple’s life events, even if spotty and confused in recollection, constitute the backbone of the entire narrative, hints to this reader at the elided Palestinian culture, history, rights and realistic expectations. What sticks is their grief, anger and confusion. 

Grand Finale:
The stage is carefully set with the aged grandparents and their caring teenage grandchildren: Alia is secluded in her own confused world of vague memories, afraid of Saddam returning and angry with Israel. When asked what her grandchild should bring her back from Palestine, all she demands is “whatever they ask you, give them hell.” Atef is nearly as completely ensconced in the past: The grandchildren find him one evening after sunset, his hands covered with dirt and bleeding from pulling out wild flowers that his wife didn’t like in her garden: disturbed by his grandchildren spying retroactively on his secret of “singing Mustafa’s name” to the Israeli torturers, he repents with

“Your grandmother used to live in a house with a garden. In Palestine. With her brother.” Atef feels his breath catch. “I used to go there a lot.”

To my mind, such subdued undercurrents are of greater impact than the urge to shout out obscenities directly about the historical crime and mayhem of the Nakba. This is but an example of what I find painfully but charmingly tender in the novel, the soft-sell that I am happy to buy into in place of the shrill cries of foul play and screaming to high heavens about the destruction to Palestinian life and limb. It gains us valuable empathy.

And yet I am left with the sense of having been shortchanged with this indirect coverage of the Nakba: Here we have a third and fourth-generation bunch of descendants of Palestinian refugees who seem to have overcome their displacement disability and rootlessness complex. They are professionals and spouses of professionals whose children spend summers in Paris, study or settle in the USA and inherit property in Amman and Beirut. One of them even expresses his dreams of wanting “to build skyscrapers in Kuwait City, [not in his ancestral Jaffa or Nablus,] to make it like Paris or Manhattan.” Contrast that, if you will, with the earlier last words of a dying refugee matriarch:

“I saw the houses, I saw how they were lost. You cannot let yourself forget. … When it happens, you must find a way to remember.”

It neatly confirms Israel’s founding fathers’ dictum of “the old will die and the young will forget.” “Fair-weather Arabs,” one angry young family member calls his kin. Yet it all doesn’t seem that far-fetched and is probably realistic in the case of many Palestinians who adapted to their diaspora, the shatat. And, all through the narrative, the issue of the land, is hardly addressed at all, except perhaps for the few examples of unsettling memories to which I have already alluded. Yet land is the pivotal root cause of Israel-Palestine enmity, all theHasbaradiversion claims of historic, religious and cultural differences notwithstanding.

But then again, how do I fit this in? Does it all count for or against the author as partial to Palestine in my tally? Perhaps the edge of my original theory has to be whittled further. Perhaps my quandary can be resolved by stipulating a marriage of convenience between a major American literary concern, assumed to be partial to Israel, and a capable rising Palestinian star of letters, also admittedly partial but to Palestine and its people. Each of the two sticks to her convictions without imposing her views on the other. In such case, both parties stand to gain financially and prestige-wise. If we are to accept such a supposition, what remains to be clarified is the relative positions of the two sides on the power scale.

I continue to stoke the fire of my suspicions and Alyan provides all the required firewood. Sheshines in playful reversals of some plot details. Here is this simple statement about the choice the head of a Palestinian family had made early on in 1948: to stay. As if he had a choice in the matter! He loved his seaside life in Haifa. Had the author left her account at this point, it would have weighed clearly on the pro-Israel side. Palestinians left of their own free will, Israel wants the world to believe. But then comes ason’s flashback to the scene of Israeli soldiers raping his sister in the presence of her family and the ensuing fleeing of the family from their seaside home and city:

“The father salted everything after that. Even his water. He would cry out in his sleep for the sea.” The imam took a long breath. “He missed the fish,”he said simply. “When he died, he was buried beneath the hills he hated, far from the sea.” “What happened to his family?” The imam looked Mustafa square in the eye. “The daughter—” He swallowed. “Some say she lost her mind. She stopped talking, never married.” “And the son?” Mustafa asked, though he knew. The imam lifted the teacup to his lips. “The son found Allah.” This time the silence felt endless. “I try not to remember him like that,” the imam finally said. He narrowed his eyes. “My father. Not as that broken husk of a man, chewed up and spat out by the occupation, making a meager life of the remains. Unable to protect his daughter. Watching the soldiers . . . do the things they did.”

Let me play the devil’s advocate here: What if I were an Israeli who denies any wrongdoing? One can read in these and earlier pages a hint, perhaps, of a homosexual affair between the two men and hypothesize that the imam is fibbing for the benefit of his paramour. Clearly, this pushes the reader, and hence the position of the author, back across the line of neutrality. Much later in the novel, we witness the grandchild of refugees visiting her grandparent’s birth city, Jaffa. There is a modicum of nostalgia. But that is muted, much softer than I had expected. There is no Ghassan Kanafani’s Return to Haifameeting of refugee owner and immigrant settler. This descendent of refugees spends the night dancing at an Israeli beach party. Even more objectionable to a Palestinian, when visiting Jerusalem, out of the three iconic religious sites, she seems stirred only by the sight of the Wailing Wall, not by Al-Aqsa mosque nor by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Imagine a Martian landing in Jerusalem: Could that be his honest reaction? 

Let me repeat: By the end of my painful but fascinating journey through Alyan’s Salt Houses, I am forced to abandon my simplistic original black and white conception of the duel between authorship and publishing interests with all the attendant negotiations, if not bargaining. I now settle for a more sophisticated, perhaps trickier, give-and-take process with rejected options and suggested inclusions fielded in the guise of literary finesse and with readers’ taste and interest held as reigning supreme in the matter. The author, for her side, in addition to the same set of ploys, can hedge her bet and disguise deeper feelings as arty snippets or even stick to some of them as deeply felt sentiments that have a personal value beyond what others sense.

Bless you, Hala, my child! You make me proud. I am ruling in your favor: Unaware of my presence in your creative arena, you have proven to me that you neither compromised knowingly on points of principle nor allowed any literary mogul to pull the wool of literary sparkle over your eyes. Now that you have proven your worth in this David and Goliath bout of author-versus-publishing-mega-concerns, let us see you really sock it to the American Zionists in your next prize-winning opus.