Hala Alyan, the 34-year-old novelist and poet, had just finished her first novel, 2017’s Salt Houses, when she had a dream. In it, an old woman grows up in Syria and then leaves to find fame and fortune in Hollywood. Her adventure is so epic that when Alyan awoke, she jotted down 10 pages of notes describing it.
Five years later, that dream has evolved into The Arsonists’ City (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Mar.), a family saga that traverses decades and moves between Beirut; Brooklyn; Austin, Tex.; and Damascus.
The novel opens in Brooklyn, where Ava, the eldest child of the Nasr family, receives a call from Mazna, her mother. Mazna (who is based on the old woman in Alyan’s dream) wants Ava and her siblings to come to Beirut to stop their father, Idris, from selling the ancestral home. The book is subsequently divided between recollections of how the family came to leave Beirut and the implications of their return.
Intricately plotted, Arsonists’ City is a novel that renders custom and place in very precise detail. It is also, Alyan says, a “love letter” to Beirut, where she lived from 2000 to 2006. She drew upon a mix of research and memory: “It was really important to me for this to be right. I needed to properly depict the 1960s and ’70s.”
Alyan says her first novel, Salt Houses, which won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Arab-American Book Award, was written as a series of vignettes. Speaking via Zoom from her home in Brooklyn, she explains that, in contrast, Arsonists’ City was heavily storyboarded, with the plot entirely worked out in advance.
Arsonists’ City is an examination of what it’s like to be a migrant—to feel a familiarity with many places rather than an assured connection to one in particular. The Nasr children never feel American, despite being born here and seemingly achieving affluence and fulfillment. Nonetheless, they feel like Westerners when in Beirut.
It’s a paradox Alyan relates to as a Palestinian American, and it’s something complicated further by Palestine’s status as a disputed state. “I feel guilty,” she says, referring to the fact that she left Beirut, “especially after the explosion [in 2020]. But then as the diaspora, as a Palestinian, what is yours to mourn? Ultimately, I would love to see some stability in the region, so I could go forward and back. I would love to live there again, but of course it is a privilege to have a choice in this matter, too.”
This sense of dislocation presents itself as a central tension in Alyan’s writing. “I’m very interested in what we owe each other,” she says. “I grew up between the Middle East and here. There is a division between the two places. Once you belong to a family, you are in it forever, it doesn’t matter what you do.”
But this notion is not quite the same in the in the U.S. “There is a different sense of loyalty,” Alyan says. “The concept of marriage is very different here. So what happens to that family who are uprooted from [their traditions]?”
Within the Nasr family, Mazna and Idris adhere to Middle Eastern convention and commit to marry each other for “forever.” But they have secrets, and both endure misery within the relationship. Their children are brought up in the U.S. and experience a distance both from their parents’ values and from those of their American counterparts.
Ava is the most alienated, despite the fact that she appears to have settled well into her American life. She has a husband from the Upper East Side and her children have playdates in Park Slope. Alyan captures the disingenuousness of this milieu with acuity and humor, detailing how the only currency is “what wealth leaves in its wake: veneration, respect, fear.”
Arsonists’ City contains pleasing revelations as the story progresses. Mazna is a complex and rewarding character; readers’ emotions shift as they spend time with her. Similarly, her difficult marriage to Idris evolves. “One of the biggest surprises for me as I wrote [the novel] was the progress that Mazna and Idris make,” Alyan says.
The children experience great change, too. Their struggles invite empathy—even those of Mimi, Ava’s brother, a failed musician in Austin who cheats on his partner and is jealous of their youngest sister, Nav, a pop star in Beirut.
Writing is just one of Alyan’s professional pursuits. She is also a practicing clinical psychologist who lectures at New York University and sees herself as someone who will always need this variety in her work.
“I would like to continue both, because when I have the most time to write, I don’t do any writing,” Alyan says. “My brain is like an engine, I need to be fired up and, when I teach, that is stimulating, too. They’re all very tied up in each other. Feeling steady in one helps with the other. They call upon a similar patience, a willingness maybe to connect to chaos.”
Sinéad O’Shea is a writer and filmmaker in Dublin. She has contributed to Al Jazeera English, the Guardian, and the New York Times.