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March 11, 2021

Hala Alyan's Playlist for Her Novel "The Arsonists' City"

The Arsonists' City by Hala Alyan

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Hala Alyan's second novel The Arsonists' City is a spellbinding family epic, as lyrical as it is profound.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Riveting...Alyan is masterful at clarifying the complicated sociopolitical realities surrounding Lebanon's and Syria’s intertwined histories in terms of class, caste, colonialism, and tribalism. But even more masterful her laserlike focus on her multifaceted characters in big and small moments that come together to create a singular family."

In her words, here is Hala Alyan's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Arsonists' City:

“Pink Rabbits” by The National

This is a song that the characters sing towards the end of the book, when Mimi (grudgingly) agrees to get on stage with Naj. I love that moment and I love this song: it captures a tender, aching, reluctant mood that I think is really present in the siblings’ dynamic.

“Nassam Alayna el-Hawa” by Fairuz

Few things get me as homesick as this song. It’s like a diasporic national anthem, beautifully captured in Fairuz’s haunting voice. I have to imagine Mazna and Idris gave this song a few listens over their long, small-town years in California.

“Motion Sickness” by Phoebe Bridgers

My characters aren’t known for their robustly healthy, straightforward love lives, and I am always moved by how much this song encompasses and travels in a few short minutes: ranging from longing to regret to reclamation. It reminds me the codependency and attachment issues that some of the characters in the novel are...well...working through.

“Ahwak” by Abdel Halim Hafez

Oh, my heart: this song! It’s a song I deeply associate with Arab cities, long car rides with my parents in the front, that general malaise that is an Arab love song. It evokes Beirut—though the singer is Egyptian—and that bridge between generations (particularly in immigration), how it’s often traversed through music. I like to think that Mazna, Zakaria, and Idris listened to this song together at some point: either lazing around in The House or on one of their drives across the border

“Street Joy” by White Denim

When I started storyboarding Mimi’s character, I did some digging into the music scene in Austin and found some gems. I really love this song and listened to it often while writing the Austin chapters. The sound is really inventive and raw, and helped me imagine what sort of music Mimi might be listening to (and trying to emulate).

“Ana Albi Dalili” by Leila Mourad

This song is a powerhouse (and performed by one!) from the opening line: My heart is my guide/it told me I will love. I think this song reminds me of the book because virtually every character is risking something in order to love—for some, that love is a person or relationship, for others, it’s their art, a city, even a secret. Say what you will about this family: they listen to their hearts.

“Fasateen” by Mashrou’ Leila

When I think of the words “star” and “Beirut” and “music,” I instantly picture Hamed Sinno, the dynamic lead singer of Mashrou’ Leila, and the rest of this brilliant band. There are dozens of their songs I could pick, but this is the first I heard by them. It’s a classic and honestly the one I listened to over and over while coming up with Naj’s life in Beirut.

“Promises of the Storm” by Marcel Khalifé

My brother introduced me to this song, which is a performance by Khalifé of Mahmoud Darwish’s spectacular poetry. It reminded me so deeply of Zakaria’s character, particularly these lines: And so it shall be/I must refuse to die. It’s a perfect marriage of music, voice and language, and it—frankly—breaks one’s heart.

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 forthcoming novel The Arsonists’ City and four award-winning collections of poetry, most recently The Twenty-Ninth Year. Her work has been published by The New Yorker, the Academy of American Poets, LitHub,the New York Times Book Review, and Guernica. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, where she works as a clinical psychologist.

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