“The land where your parents were born will always be in you. Words survive. Borders are nothing to words and blood.”
Title: The Map of Salt and Stars
Author: Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
Genre: Historical Fiction / Contemporary (yes, both of them at the same time)
Page number: 361
Synopsis (from Goodreads)
This rich, moving, and lyrical debut novel is to Syria what The Kite Runner was to Afghanistan; the story of two girls living eight hundred years apart—a modern-day Syrian refugee seeking safety and a medieval adventurer apprenticed to a legendary mapmaker—places today’s headlines in the sweep of history, where the pain of exile and the triumph of courage echo again and again.
It is the summer of 2011, and Nour has just lost her father to cancer. Her mother, a cartographer who creates unusual, hand-painted maps, decides to move Nour and her sisters from New York City back to Syria to be closer to their family. But the country Nour’s mother once knew is changing, and it isn’t long before protests and shelling threaten their quiet Homs neighborhood. When a shell destroys Nour’s house and almost takes her life, she and her family are forced to choose: stay and risk more violence or flee as refugees across seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa in search of safety. As their journey becomes more and more challenging, Nour’s idea of home becomes a dream she struggles to remember and a hope she cannot live without.
More than eight hundred years earlier, Rawiya, sixteen and a widow’s daughter, knows she must do something to help her impoverished mother. Restless and longing to see the world, she leaves home to seek her fortune. Disguising herself as a boy named Rami, she becomes an apprentice to al-Idrisi, who has been commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily to create a map of the world. In his employ, Rawiya embarks on an epic journey across the Middle East and the north of Africa where she encounters ferocious mythical beasts, epic battles, and real historical figures.
A deep immersion into the richly varied cultures of the Middle East and North Africa, The Map of Salt and Stars follows the journeys of Nour and Rawiya as they travel along identical paths across the region eight hundred years apart, braving the unknown beside their companions as they are pulled by the promise of reaching home at last.
🌙 🧕—Muslim & Arab Reading Month #1 (this book features Arabs as well as hijabi women)
Trigger warning: attempted rape, violence, death.
Did I finally, finally find the book that seemed to speak to me, rather than just narrate a story?
Why yes. Yes I did, and the proof is right there on the dedication page:
“For the Syrian people,
both in Syria and in diaspora,
and for all refugees”
The Map of Salt and Stars is about a 12-year-old girl, Nour, who has to move from New York back to Homs, Syria, with her family after the death of her father. Nour has a difficult time adjusting, especially considering that her two elder sisters know Arabic much better than she does. They have memories of Syria, while she doesn’t. All she has to hold on to is the stories of her late father, more specifically, the story of Rawiya.
“Everybody knows the story of Rawiya. They just don’t know they know it.”
Rawiya is a skilled, ambitious 12th century girl. In search of fame and glory, she decides to leave home, dressed as a boy, to become the apprentice of a map-maker, Al-Idrisi. She also journeys with his other apprentice, Bakr.
First of all, let me just say that if I make no sense in this review, that’s because this book has stolen all the words from me. The poignancy and truth it carries is so powerful that I don’t even know how to describe it.
I love that this story is told from the point of view of a 12-year-old girl. A 12-year-old girl who has to worry about things like food and hygiene while she’s on the run for her life. She’s supposed to be going to school and making friends and copying homework off her classmates—not getting shot at and shelled.
“I would’ve been starting seventh grade soon. I was looking forward to science class, to filling in maps with tectonic plates and making my own battery out of a potato. Do they make batteries out of potatoes in Jordan? Will I have to sell tissues instead?”
“People make such beautiful things, I think, even though they destroy so much.”
Nour’s description of the places and events was refreshing and vivid; she’s one of those characters who expresses herself with colours. She remembers people’s voices and gives them their very own colours. This is called synaesthesia. She’s also constantly terrified of forgetting her father’s, but her friends and family reassure her that the memories she has with him can never be buried. With all the horrible things and harsh realities that Nour is exposed to on this journey, her mindset slowly starts to shift. She starts worrying more, wondering more about her uncertain future, thinking about her roots and about why someone like her has been targeted when she hasn’t done anything bad at all.
“‘Some people get angry. They think we are dangerous. We scare them.’
‘I didn’t want to scare them,’ I say. I bury my face in Huda’s hijab. ‘I just wanted to come home.’”
She learns that people will always be sceptical of refugees, and that they often don’t care about their age or their physical or mental health. All they can see is the face the media shows them—the face of a thief or a killer, when in reality, it’s simply someone who’s lost their home and wants to find their way back. They didn’t have a choice.
I think the release of this book came at a perfect timing. With the refugee crisis and the numerous misconceptions going on right now, it’s important that more books start talking about why we need to help instead of push away.
Nour also learns that, when wars are involved, innocent people are affected. People who never even wanted any violence, who were living peacefully up until everything they had was ripped away from them.
“‘I don’t understand why we were shelled.’ Mama speaks soft like she thinks we’re asleep, like she’s afraid to wake us.
Abu Sayeed says nothing at first. The car’s tires hum. The engine clacks and complains.
‘We may never understand,’ he replies, just as quiet. ‘In times like these, it’s the small people who suffer.’”
This part just hit close to home so much—not because I’ve been through this, but simply because that’s precisely what’s happening. Look at all these people fleeing into foreign countries, hoping for safety, but getting discriminated against and rejected instead. They can’t go back and they can’t go forward. How horrible must it be?
“‘I am a woman and a warrior,’ Rawiya said, her blade cutting into his club. ‘If you think I can’t be both, you’ve been lied to.’”
What can I say about Rawiya that isn’t already obvious from the quote above? She is a queen among queens. She’s skilled with the sling, quick-witted, and adorable as well. She battles soldiers, armies, and mythological creatures, even, and she doesn’t complain once. She loses and she wins and she loves and she hates. She’s a very well-built character and I’m so happy we finally have a strong Arab lead in literature.
Rawiya also has a very sweet romance sub-plot and it’s just the purest thing ever!! Lately I’ve been reading a bunch of romances that are more about the feelings between the characters and how these emotions build up, rather than sudden, spontaneous to start kissing or something. It was simple, it was hella cute, and it was easy to follow. Now if only we could have more of those, please.
Why I especially loved this historically fictitious bit of the story is because it shows what the Arab world was like before all the wars and the fighting. It’s rich in Arab and African history and culture: Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Ceuta. As a person who’s obsessed with the world, I had so much fun reading this.
Speaking of what the Arab world used to be, Nour also continues to learn more about how Syria was from her sisters, Huda and Zahra, who have spent more time there than she has.
“‘You should have seen Syria—how it used to be. We used to get fresh green beans and make loubieh bi zeit and rice. We would take out our plates and some folding chairs into the driveway under the chestnut tree. Sitto used to come over, Mama’s clients, everybody. That was Syria to me. The green beans, the sagging folding chairs, the oil on people’s hands.’
I bury my face in my elbow. ‘Now it’s gone.’
‘But not from us.’ Zahra rubs her thumb across the back of her hand like she’s spreading an invisible oil stain. ‘The Syria I knew is in me somewhere. And I guess it’s in you too, in its own way.’”
It’s bittersweet to see the whole family, including family friends—Abu Sayeed—and other strangers they come across on the way—Um Yusuf, Yusuf, Sitt Shadid—join hands to survive. Nour meets many people on her journey, some not even allowed to cross borders because of document complications, like a hakawati; a man whose job is to tell stories. Even his brief appearance impacts her for life.
Do I recommend this? Definitely. Do I think this book has enough hype? Nope. I’m a bit shocked why this isn’t as popular as other books, because this is a novel we so desperately need right now. Everyone should read this; it really gives us all some questions and scenarios to think about.
Have you read The Map of Salt and Stars? What did you think? Don’t hesitate to tell me!