“The Arsonists’ City delivers all the pleasures of a good old-fashioned saga, but in Alyan’s hands, one family’s tale becomes the story of a nation—Lebanon and Syria, yes, but also the United States. It’s the kind of book we are lucky to have.”—Rumaan Alam
A rich family story, a personal look at the legacy of war in the Middle East, and an indelible rendering of how we hold on to the people and places we call home
The Nasr family is spread across the globe—Beirut, Brooklyn, Austin, the California desert. A Syrian mother, a Lebanese father, and three American children: all have lived a life of migration. Still, they’ve always had their ancestral home in Beirut—a constant touchstone—and the complicated, messy family love that binds them. But following his father's recent death, Idris, the family's new patriarch, has decided to sell.
The decision brings the family to Beirut, where everyone unites against Idris in a fight to save the house. They all have secrets—lost loves, bitter jealousies, abandoned passions, deep-set shame—that distance has helped smother. But in a city smoldering with the legacy of war, an ongoing flow of refugees, religious tension, and political protest, those secrets ignite, imperiling the fragile ties that hold this family together.
In a novel teeming with wisdom, warmth, and characters born of remarkable human insight, award-winning author Hala Alyan shows us again that “fiction is often the best filter for the real world around us” (NPR).
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About the Author
HALA ALYAN is the author of the novel Salt Houses, winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Arab American Book Award and a finalist for the Chautauqua Prize, as well as the novel The Arsonists’ City and four award-winning collections of poetry, most recently The Twenty-Ninth Year. Her work has been published by TheNew Yorker, the Academy of American Poets, Literary Hub, the New York Times Book Review, and Guernica. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, where she works as a clinical psychologist.
Read an Excerpt
The Wrong Ghosts
Tonight the man will die. In some ways, the city already seems resigned to it, the Beirut dusk uncharacteristically flat, cloudy, a peculiar staleness rippling through the trees like wind. It’s easy to costume the earth for grief, and tonight the birds perched upon the tangled electricity wires look like mourners in their black and white feathers, staring down at the concrete refugee camps without song.
There are orange trees in the courtyard, planted by the children the previous year; the NGO workers had wanted something bright and encouraged the youngest children to tie cheap ribbons to the branches, but they’d forgotten about the muddy season, and now the ribbons flap limply, streaked in dirt.
The man himself—Zakaria—knows it, or doesn’t. He notices the queer feeling of the camps, the way his mother’s makloubeh tastes perfectly fine but seems to be saltless, the meat stringier than usual. His sisters are gathered in the living room, cross-legged on the carpet, his mother’s mother’s carpet, the one that earned them a cuff on the ear back when they were children if they dropped crumbs or spilled Coke on it. You think my mama, Allah rest her soul, Allah take her and Allah keep her, hauled this on her back, her back, all the way from Jerusalem to Ramallah to Amman to this godforsaken armpit of the world so that her heathen grandchildren could spill soda on it? His mother hates the camps, hates Beirut, all of Lebanon, hates their neighbors, the aunties with their tattling and boring lives, always reminding her children, We used to have gardens in Palestine, trees that belonged to us.
His sisters are watching an Egyptian soap opera, one of their favorites, the one where the ingénue is kept from her love interest by his wicked mother. The screen is cracked from where one of his sisters—they always disagree about which one—threw a curling iron at it years ago, and it slices the starlet’s torso in two as she cries on a park bench.
“What’s wrong with you today?” Zakaria’s mother asks him.
“Nothing,” he lies. “I’m just not hungry.” The truth is he’s distracted. Something is nagging at him as it does when he forgets a song, the wispiest tune tugging at him. He thinks of the house across the city, the one where his mother has worked as a housekeeper for twenty years, the one he spent countless afternoons playing in as a boy with the son of the owner, the courtyard they’d transform into a battlefield, an ocean of sharks, lava. Idris was his first friend, his closest friend.
Whenever Zakaria thinks of the house, he sees it at dawn, the hour his mother would arrive for her daily duties after taking two buses from the south and walking from the final bus stop through the West Beirut streets, ignoring the vendors selling cigarettes and that sweet candy that made his teethe ache, to reach the gate, always latched, always easily unlocked.
He loved playing with Idris, of course, but he also loved those first couple of hours when the house was still quiet with the sleeping family, when his mother would fill buckets with warm soapy water to toss across the veranda, take down clothes she’d hung to dry in the garden the day before, whispering to him, “Silent as a mouse.” When he was alone in the courtyard, it became his; he was the ruler of this inexplicable, beautiful place, a house with four bedrooms, bathtub faucets the shape of swans’ necks.
Tonight he feels the house beckoning him with an invisible hand, feels greedy for those rooms, the silk-soft sheets that he’d slept in many times. But his best friend isn’t speaking to him, their recent fight still raw as a burn, the insults they’d hurled at each other still echoing, each saying and not-saying the truth.
“You know what you did,” Idris had finally said. “I trusted you. I’ve always trusted you.”
Zakaria had fallen silent at that. He felt guilty and yet also unrepentant—how to apologize for the only truly good thing that’d ever happened to him?—which Idris had sniffed out like a dog. He’d called him a traitor.
“Not even a little plate?” his mother asks now, interrupting his thoughts.
“I’m just not hungry,” Zakaria repeats. To stave off further questions, he tries to appear absorbed in the soap opera that his sisters, sprawled on the large sofa, are watching. The three girls are younger than him, all unmarried, with large noses and dark curly hair. They are branches of the same tree, rooted and yet always apart from him.
He must fall asleep at some point.