The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (Novel, 2018).
Whether it’s the mood of the country/world, various authors responding to what’s in the news or just plain coinicidence, I’ve noted several recurrent themes in novels (and even nonfiction books) I’ve been reading.
For one thing, I’ve been encountering plots involving women in either the past or present who must disguise themselves as boys/young men to escape cultural taboos and/or grave dangers. This first novel features two such characters and the epic journeys they embark on, happening centuries apart and yet profoundly linked.
Another obvious trend I can’t overlook deals with the ongoing tragedy of the Syrian civil war.
This impressive first novel incorporates both of these ‘hot’ themes and adds a bit of magical spice in legendary Arabian Nights fashion.
Nour is a 12-year-old, born and raised in New York City. It’s 2011 and her Syrian-born father has died of cancer. Her mother decides to bring Nour and her two older sisters back to the old country, as most of their extended family is there. Alas, they arrive just in time for the country to explode into a brutal internal war.
The family’s home is destroyed; they become refugees like so many others. They flee the carnage, cross over multiple national borders (traveling through Jordan, Egypt, a Libya as shattered by war as the Syria they’ve left behind, Algeria and Morocco, finally reaching the North African Spanish enclave of Ceuta, where another relative is thought to be living). Pretending to be a young boy is some small protection for her, though it isn’t an option for her teenaged older sisters. Along the way, American-born Nour experiences her share of culture-shock in these unfamiliar-to-her lands and faces dangers both physical and emotional. Some loved ones are lost outright, others gravely wounded and separated, with reunions uncertain at best. The plight of suddenly homeless and vulnerable refugees is detailed in stark and dramatic fashion. It’s a hair-raising and moving journey that tests the spirits of all concerned.
One thing that helps sustain her is the memory of the stories her late father told her about another girl, a native of Ceuta about 800 years before. Rawiya has lost her father, too. She disguises herself as an adolescent boy and sets off to make her fortune (and hopefully return to her mother, in time). Hooking up with a famous Arab mapmaker (which, not incidentally, is also the profession of Nour’s mother), she crosses the Mediterranean and, upon reaching Syria, follows a near-identical course through the Middle East and North Africa. The dangers she and her companions face in this epic cartography expedition are everybit as intense what nour’s family encounters, and includes battles with the legendary giant bird, the Roc.
Besides the alternating timelines, another unusual (and compelling) feature of the novel is the poetry the author uses as Nour’s family wanders from one nation to the next. Each is a concrete verse, rendered in the shape of the particular nation involved (beginning, of course, with Syria). Each serves as a heartfelt lament/love poem to the Syrian nation and the losses it has suffered.
Finally, I should note that al-Idrisi, the mapmaker/explorer, is one of a few real-life people featured in the book. The historical man was so accomplished that for generations afterward his groundbreaking maps were the most reliable in that part of the world, copied and used by people throughout the Mediterranean area. There’s no telling if the fictional version Joukhadar presents here is close to the man’s actual personality. But an interesting Author’s Note at the novel’s end puts this influencial figure’s actual story in perspective and is a small, but welcome bonus, to this very capably rendered and exciting tale of parallel lives and journeys. And the version presented here is but one of many fascinating and memorable characters found here.