Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The Map of Salt and Stars

Posted by nliakos on June 23, 2018

by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (Touchstone 2018)

This novel by Syrian-American author Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar is actually two novels in one. The first one, set in Syria, Jordan, and North Africa in 2011, is the first-person account of the escape of one Syrian family from the conflict in their homeland. This family consists of the mother, a cartographer, and her three daughters, Huda, Zahra, and twelve-year-old narrator Nour. The family had been living in New York, where Nour was born, but decided to move back to Syria after the death of the husband and father to cancer. They have barely settled in to their home in Homs, and Nour’s Arabic is still quite rudimentary, when the house is destroyed by a shell, and they find themselves homeless. Joined by the father’s best friend, Abu Saeed, they begin to make their way westward, through Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and finally Morocco, seeking safety. They confront dangers of many kinds, lose one person when the ferry they are on sinks, are separated when the mother has to remain behind to take Huda to a hospital, and are finally reunited in Ceuta, the Spanish city across from Gibraltar, where the novel concludes.

We experience this harrowing journey through the eyes of Nour, who happens to be a synesthete; her descriptions are accordingly vivid, such as “a dog barks silver purple”, “the bare walls will be splashed with color from everybody’s singing”, and “I smell the brown-red brakes before we see the bus terminal”. (I wonder: Is Joukhadar also a synesthete?) She is still grieving for her father, as they all are, in their different ways. She idolizes her eldest sister Huda, but has to learn to love middle sister Zahra, who can be hard to like but who undergoes her own transformation as the novel unfolds. This is Nour’s coming-of-age; it could not happen in a more challenging setting.

The other novel within the novel is the story of another journey, undertaken nine centuries earlier in the same part of the world, that of Rawiya of Ceuta, who disguises herself as a boy so that she can apprentice herself to the famed (actual historic) mapmaker, al-Idrisi, as he travels throughout the then-known world to make the first accurate map of it for the Sicilian king, Roger II. Rawiya (aka Rami) is a kind of super-hero(ine), smart, courageous, highly skilled and seemingly indefatigable. Rawiya and al-Idrisi, together with another apprentice, Bakr, and the poet/singer Khaldun, make their way over the same lands as Nour and her family do, although some of the names are different (Aila for Aqaba, Barneek for Benghazi). This is a story that Nour’s parents have told her over and over again, a story that she tells herself, trying to take on the attributes of Rawiya, who never seems to be afraid, never panics, never loses sight of her goal, whether she is fighting people or mythical monsters (giant serpents, the roc). It is Rawiya’s story that will help Nour to reach the place where she and Zahra are reunited with their mother and Huda.

Both stories were engrossing, both protagonists admirable and likable, and I enjoyed the novel very much.

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