Blossoming Amidst the Strife

The war that plagued Syria over the past couple of years has inevitably to a refugee crisis. Several graphic images of children dying due to this rush to get out of the country in peril has made its round in the world of social media. The tragic way they died, and the and circumstances they fled from made, perhaps unsurprisingly, the symbols of the refugee crisis. Vestiges of Syria’s refugee crisis can be read in many a literary work.

In her debut novel, The Map of Salt and Stars, Syrian-American author Zeyn Joukhadar puts his own spin into his home nation’s recent plight. The novel relates the story of Syrian-American teenager Nour whose comfortable life in New York City was sent tail-spinning by her father’s untimely death one fine summer day. To reconnect with her roots, she and her two sisters were transported back by their mother to their parent’s birthplace in Homs, Syria.

Beyond the borders of Homs, war was brewing. The family initially thought that they would be safe where they are. But then war discriminates no one and on one quotidian day, a stray shell fell from the sky, leaving Nour and her family deeply wounded and homeless. With nowhere safe, the family was forced to flee from Syria altogether and become a family of refugees.

“Don’t forget, stories ease the pain of living, not dying. People always think dying is going to hurt. But it does not. It’s living that hurts us.” ~ Zeyn Joukhadar, The Map of Salt and Stars

Arab authors have been known to be natural Scheherazade; their culture has been jotted with several tales, legends and myths including the ever popular One Thousand and One Nights. This natural compunction is translated well into their writing as they tailor their contemporary narratives with traditional tales. In The Map of Salt and Stars, Nour’s story was paralleled with that of Rawiya, a mythical female character who is Nour’s father’s favorite heroine.

In alternating voices and time periods, Nour and Rawiya charts their individual journeys – Nour with her retreating family and Rawiya with a motley crew headed by Al-Idrisi, a cartographer who wanted to map uncharted territories. 800-years apart, Nour and Rawiya subconsciously trudged the same paths, paths that were filled with challenges, heartbreaks and small victories.

Beyond the two heroine’s compelling adventures looms a dark figure that reverberated throughout the story – the war that has gripped Syria and the Middle East. Whilst it was not the centrifugal figure, it was the major factor in setting everything into motion, the refugee crisis remains to be the biggest of them. Although the novel was partly fantastical, the fusion of the war into the narrative anchored it to the ugly realities that we all watch in our televisions.

Despite Nour and her family being figments of author’s imagination, their stories intersect with the dark and ugly realities that many denizens of the Middle East are currently experiencing. The losses, both in lives and properties; the uncertainty of the future; and the unending grief were just some of these atrocities that were vividly depicted in the novel. These are sad realities that a healthy portion of mankind are experiencing right now.

“Stones don’t have to be whole to be lovely. Even cracked ones can be polished and set. Small diamonds, if they are clear and well cut, can be more valuable than big ones with impurities. Listen, sometimes the brightest stars shine brightest, no?” ~ Zeyn Joukhadar, The Map of Salt and Stars

Nour and Rawiya’s story also underlined what has been one of the biggest malefactors that hounded Arabian society – the role of women. Women have always been viewed as the weaker gender, vulnerable and are unable to fend for themselves. Their fate lies on the presence of men and in the absence of men, they are weak and helpless. On the contrary, the ingenuity of Nour and Rawiya made them at par with their male counterparts.

The strength of character women possessed was greatly reflected through Nour’s mother. Recognizing that she was the only pillar left, she was unfazed by the challenges her family faced. She possessed an indomitable resolve to protect her family at all cost. Often times her courage came off as murmurs but it was ever-present.

As the two heroines go about their adventure, they slowly grow and transform. As widely contrasting as their journeys are, their individual evolutions made them blossom in a landscape contoured by strife and tumult. These wonderful transformations and the novel’s elements of fantasy, reality and contrasting stories were weaved together by Joukhadar’s capable hands into a vivid tapestry that was brimming with a kaleidoscope of colors and evocative imagery.

In reference to colors, Nour’s synesthesia made her associate sights and sounds with colors. This gave the storytelling a vibrant and compelling texture. Through Nour, Joukhadar was able to paint vivid and colorful descriptions landscapes. Joukhadar’s endeavors on the technical side enhanced the overall reading experience. His writing and character development were on-point and were amongst the novel’s best facets.

“She had thought the open sea would be flat, like a mirror or a coin. But it had colors and shapes, turning green or black under approaching storm. Sometimes it was red and purple and silver and white gold. It had sharp hedges. It had its tempers, its blue spells, its fits of laughter.” ~ Zeyn Joukhadar, The Map of Salt and Stars

In Joukhadar’s debut novel, he was able to accomplish a lot. His writing and descriptions of his home nation and its current plight are very evocative. He did an impressive and commendable job of highlighting an important subject in present society. And whilst the main subject was dark and heavy, the execution was brimming with colors and palatable imagery. Joukhadar truly fed the readers’ insatiable appetite with an incredible story of two young women who charted their own destinies amidst strife and a plethora of atrocities and uncertainties.

Rating:

92%

Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 27%
Writing (25%) – 23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 14%

The Map of Salt and Stars is truly a gem of a find. When I began reading the book, I never had any expectations as I have never heard of Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar before. The only thing that compelled me towards buying the book is its interesting title and cover. Moreover, knowing that it deals with a very critical and very current issue makes it all the more important.

It wasn’t only the interesting premise and the vivid characters that kept my interest. Joukhadar’s writing was also stellar. For a debut novel, she did herself proud and makes me look forward to her other works. This is definitely one of my favorite reads in 2019.

Book Specs

Author: Zeyn Joukhadar
Publisher:
Touchstone
Publishing Date: 2018
Number of Pages: 352 pages
Genre: Historical, Bildungsroman

Synopsis

In the summer of 2011, just after Nour loses her father to cancer, her mother moves Nour and her sisters from New York City back to Syria to be closer to their family. In order to keep their father’s spirit alive, Nour tells herself their favorite story – the tale of Rawiya, a twelfth-century girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to apprentice herself to a famous mapmaker.

But the Syria Nour’s parents knew is changing, and it isn’t long before the war reaches their quiet Homs neighborhood. When a stray shell destroys Nour’s house and almost takes her life, she and her family are forced to flee across seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa in search of safety – along the very route Rawiya and her mapmaker took eight hundred years before in their quest to chart the world. As their journey becomes more and more dangerous, they face a choice that could mean the family will be separated forever.

Following alternating timelines and heroines coming of age in perilous times, The Map of Salt and Stars is the epic story of one girl telling herself the legend of another and learning that, if you listen to your own voice, some things can never be lost.

About the Author

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Picture by MPRnews.org

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar was born to a Muslim father and a Catholic mother. Recently, Joukhadar came out as a transgender and began using the name Zeyn Joukhadar and the pronoun he/his.

He is originally from New York City. Before pursuing writing as a full time career, he worked as a biomedical research scientist. He has earned a PhD in the Pathobiology Graduate Program at Brown University. Joukhadar is a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI), and of the American Mensa.

Prior to debuting as a novelist, his literary works were published in various magazines and publications such as Salon, The Paris Review Daily, The Kenyon Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and PANK Magazine. In 2018, he published his first novel, The Map of Salt and Stars, to critical acclaim. It won the 2018 Middle East Book Award, was a finalist in Historical Fiction for the 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards, and was shortlisted for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize. His second novel, The Thirty Names of Eight is set to be published on May 2020.

Joukhadar is well-traveled and has been an artist in residence at a score of cultural and arts centers such as the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California; the Fes Medina Project in Fes, Morocco, and the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

In 2020, Joukhadar will again be an artist in residence at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France and the Albers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut.