“It seems like people lose more than they can ever get back – a three-bedroom house, ten inches of hair, a whole color. But nobody ever says it. Does it make it easier to live with loss if you don’t name it? Or is that something you do as a mercy for other people?”
This is just one of the philosophical musings to be found in “The Map of Salt and Stars” by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. To say the story mashes together a present-day family of Syrian refugees and the journey of a legendary mapmaker and his apprentice family doesn’t even begin to cover the depth and breadth of this beautifully written novel. But that is exactly how the story begins.
Nour’s mother and sisters move back to Syria from New York City after her beloved Baba dies. The only one of the family not born in Syria, Nour grieves the loss of her father while acclimating to this new and strange land. To keep the memory of her father alive she tells the trees a story he used to tell her; the story of Rawiya, a 12th century girl who pretends to be a boy so she can travel with the famous mapmaker al-Idrisi. Al-Idrisi is on a quest to map out the “existing known world,” which is the Middle East and North Africa.
Nour and her family are settling into the quiet neighborhood of Homs but unrest is just outside their doors, quite literally. Every day they hear bombing in the distance. That distant destruction eventually finds them when a stray shell destroys their house and almost takes their lives. With nowhere else to go, they flee and become one of the thousands of refugees seeking a new home. Back in the 12th century, Rawiya and al-Idrisi embark on a fantastical map-making journey that features a revenge-seeking dragon. Nour and Rawiya travel the same route, each story living through similar challenges, although the tragedies of this novel are almost exclusively with Nour and her family. One of the interesting things about the story is that al-Idrisi is a real person and manuscripts of the map he made on this journey still exist.
I was drawn to this book because of its “Arabian Nights” vibe, and wasn’t disappointed. Joukhadar describes the sights, sounds, colors and smells of Syria wonderfully, especially when we are in the Rawiya chapters. But I will say that the Nour chapters are what kept me engrossed. Halfway through the book I realized I know pretty much nothing about the history of the Syrian people or their land except for the minimal stories in the news. Joukhadar is very thoughtful in her deliverance, taking pains to explain all sides in everything. The lyricism of her writing almost masks the tragedies she writes about.
But there were times I had to set the book aside and contemplate what I was reading. I can’t even begin to fathom being a child and having my home bombed. Then I am forced to travel from place to place while war rages around me and borders to other countries are closed, the realization slowly dawning that no one wants you and you have no place to go. People you know die, your sister is assaulted, you starve, you thirst and yet you go on. Each day another tragedy builds on the one from yesterday, leaving no time to grieve or recover. It is unimaginable how anyone can survive, most especially a child.
Please understand this is my observation on the subject matter and not the tone of the book itself. Joukhadar doesn’t dwell on these things and her writing is so beautiful I didn’t feel overpowered by sadness. It was truly an enjoyable book to read. And the Rawiya chapters, with their ancient Arabic fantasy, kept the story light. It seems Joulhadar’s goal was to tell a wonderful story set amidst current events but without the politics or grandstanding. She didn’t want to be obvious and make a statement. Yet she did:
“But what is the lesson?” Rawiya asked? “What is there to learn from all this – this brokenness, this chaos?”… “Must there be a lesson?” al-Idrisi said. “Perhaps the story simply goes on and on. Time rises and falls like an ever-breathing lung. The road comes and goes and suffering with it. But the generations of me, some kind and some cruel, go on and on beneath the stars.”
Thank you for your time!
Lynn Alexander is a recently published author and long-time book, food, cat and college football lover (Go Green!). Her career journey started in upstate New York, writing and recording commercials for radio. She moved to Venice, Florida to manage a restaurant which led her to Naples and Marco in 2002, where she currently books weddings and events for a local resort. Alexander is a Leadership Marco 2015 alum which fed her passion for history and learning. A butterfly at parties but a loner at heart, she loves nothing more than baking yummy desserts then retreating to a quiet corner to read.