“Nostalgia is an affliction” a character states in Palestinian-American poet Alyan’s impressive first novel, which tracks the dispersal of four generations of a Palestinian family.
As matriarch Salma reads the future in a cup of coffee the night before her daughter Alia’s wedding in 1963, the Yacoub family has already been uprooted for 15 years. In the decades to come the Yacoubs’ distinctly personal experiences will mirror the experiences of immigrants and refugees around the world and the Palestinians’ dislocation in particular. Salma feels lucky; unlike others moved into resettlement camps when Israelis forced them from Jaffa, her husband’s wealth afforded them a house in Nablus. But transience has become the Yacoubs’ way of life. Alia’s older, more traditional sister, Widad, has already moved to Kuwait in an arranged marriage. When the Six-Day War breaks out in 1967, Alia happens to be visiting Widad in Kuwait City while her husband, Atef, and beloved brother, Mustafa, close friends and anti-occupation activists, remain trapped in Palestine. Only Atef makes it to Kuwait, with a secret guilt that will haunt him for years. Unlike her sister, the independent-minded Alia has married Atef, a professor, for love. Their difficult marriage becomes one of the novel’s most compelling elements as the couple creates a life in Kuwait with their three children—Riham, Karam, and Souad—until the 1990 Iraq-Kuwait war forces them to flee to Amman. Karam is sent to college in Boston and becomes an assimilated American despite summers with his kids in an inherited apartment in Beirut. Artsy Souad also ends up in Boston but never feels at home in America. After a divorce, she moves to Beirut, where she re-creates herself. While more traditionally religious than her relatively cosmopolitan siblings, Riham is as disturbed as any Western reader when her adolescent stepson flirts with political extremism. In the next generation, Souad’s daughter finds her own sense of displacement painful yet freeing. It’s not always easy to follow Alyan’s complex geographic and emotional mapping, but this journey is well worth taking.
A deeply moving look inside the Palestinian diaspora.