Several years ago, I had polled friends to see what they were reading. My friend MJB had recommended Fadia Faqir’s Pillars of Salt, and I was intrigued. Now that I’m teaching a global literature course this fall, I’ve been reading as much international literature as I can. While I don’t think I’ll be able to teach this novel this cycle, I am keeping it for another semester. It’s an incredible work.
Pillars of Salt focuses on the stories of two Jordanian women, Maha and Um Saad, who find themselves in a psychiatric hospital during the British Mandate. At first, they are suspicious of one another, but begin to converse at night when all the women are supposed to be asleep. As they share their stories, they become friends and develop an understanding of each other’s stories. Maha fell in love with the fearless horseman Harb, but theirs is a love fractured by the violence surrounding them. Um Saad, conversely is married too young to a man who treats her ignobly and then disrespects her by openly taking a mistress in their home when she goes gray. A storyteller mythologizes the story of Maha, casting her actions in a devilish light but leaving hope open for her future.
To say that this novel was incredible was an understatement. The writing is good, and the stories weave together with increasing complexity. Both Maha and Um Saad are subtle and complex characters, and I sympathized with their narratives, while also cheering their assertiveness as they came into themselves. The end is wrenching, but fits beautifully with the story created.