Title: The Map of Salt and Stars
Author: Zeyn Joukhadar
Genre/Themes: Dual Timeline, Grief, Refugees, Syria
Blurb from Goodreads
Nour is a young Syrian girl who has lost her father to cancer. Wanting to be close to her relatives, Nour’s mother – a cartographer who makes beautiful hand-painted maps – moves her family back to the city of Homs. Nour’s father was a real storyteller and he told her that the roots of the trees connect to the ground across the world. She knows they left her father in the ground back in America, so she starts telling him the ancient fable of Rawiya, whispering it into the ground so he might hear.
Rawiya left her home dressed as a boy in order to explore the world. She became apprenticed to Al Idrisi, who was a famous cartographer tasked by King Roger II of Sicily to make the first map of the world. Together with Al Idrisi, Rawiya travelled the globe, encountering adventures – including the mythical Roc and a battle in the Valley of Snakes – along the way. It is this story that gives Nour the courage to keep going when she has to leave Homs after it is bombed and faces a long journey as a refugee in search of a new home – a journey that closely mirrors that of Rawiya many centuries before.
When Nour and her sister are forced to part from their mother, she gives them a special map that contains clues that will lead them to safety. The two stories are beautifully told and interwoven, the real interspersed with the magical/imagined so that the overall effect is uplifting – about the strength of the human spirit, the strength of women in particular, the power of a journey, and what it takes to find a home.
You know that wonderful feeling when you read the last page of a truly great story and then you clutch the book to your chest as if to hug the world within those pages? That’s how I’m feeling right now. I loved this book. It was so simple and honest, laden with the most lyrically beautiful prose, and filled with gloriously human characters whose stories have touched me deeply.
The story unfurls through two time periods.
In the contemporary setting Syrian-American Nour’s life is upended when her beloved father dies and her mother moves the family back to Syria to the city of Homs. 12 year old Nour grieves for her father and deals with that grief by recounting to the earth the story of her and her father’s favourite heroine Rawiya and her adventures with the mapmaker Al-Idrisi. Nour hopes that somehow, somewhere in the ground, her father will hear her words and keep alive his spirit.
One day soon after the city of Homs is shelled leaving Nour and her family injured and homeless, and so they flee both the city and the country becoming refugees. The book intertwines their journey with that of Rawiya’s, and together the two stories bring alive the countries of Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco together with the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on the North African coast.
Nour’s story is a story painted with colour as she has a type of synaesthesia that makes her associate sights and sounds with colour. This truly adds to the vibrancy of the storytelling and makes for an incredibly vivid reading experience. As Syria and Syrian refugees are sadly so often in our newspapers and on our tv screens this story felt even more vital to me. The terrors that the family went through; the losses, the grief, the atrocities that they experienced, were made all the more real because even though Nour and her family are fictional characters these are all genuine experiences of real people today. The relationships that Nour had with her mother, her sisters and her uncle felt so true to me. Her mother was this wonderfully stoic woman. Her commitment to keeping her family alive was incredible to read about and she has become one of my favourite mothering characters that I’ve ever read about. Huda and Zahra are Nour’s two elder sisters and both are polar opposites. Huda is definitely Nour’s favourite and the love between the two of them is heartfelt and pure, but Zahra is probably more compelling to read about as there is much more to her than meets the eye.
Rawiya’s story is set in the twelfth century and it is coloured by fable and legend. The author has brought together entirely fictional characters such as Rawiya with the historical cartographer called Al-Idrisi to create a unique and memorable story. Rawiya disguises herself as a boy and becomes a sort of apprentice / companion to Al-Idrisi and accompanies him on a journey creating maps of the Middle East and North Africa that mirrors the journey that Nour’s family are taking. Rawiya’s story is filled with mythical creatures, otherworldly magic, crusading battles, great deeds for honour and respect, and is equally as touching as Nour’s which I was hugely surprised by as I did not expect to be so moved by a storyline that had elements of the fantastical about it. I loved the evolution of Rawiya throughout the story as she became this fearsome warrior whose battles were fought in a more literal sense than Nour’s. Yet somehow the author managed to weave these two disparate stories together, whereby one became an almost echo of the other, and it really set the scene for the reader to give a taster of Arabic culture and to begin to give some indication of what life must be like for those who are refugees and displaced from the place they call home.
A truly wonderful read that I would highly recommend to anyone who loves realistic stories AND retellings of old folk tales similar to Arabian Nights.
Note: If anyone is wondering as to the name change of the author from what appears on the first number of printing runs it is because Zeyn announced publicly that he is transgender and is currently transitioning and using he/him pronouns.