THE MAP OF SALT AND STARS – Zeyn Joukhadar

“A person can be two things at the same time,” Itto says. “The land where your parents were born will always be in you.  Words survive. Borders are nothing to words and blood.”

The power of storytelling is something that will forever unite us.  Regardless of where on the map you call home, regardless of the languages you speak and the language of your heart, regardless of the color of your skin and the faith that brings you peace, stories are universal. We are more alike than we will ever be different, and stories remind me of that. 

*Zeyn Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars marvelously captures the unifying role of storytelling in The Map of Salt and Stars with a dual timeline where the story of  young girl fleeing Syria in 2011 is juxtaposed against one of the “old stories” of Rawiya and the mapmaker from the 1100s.  (While Rawiya was crafted from Joukhadar’s brilliant mind, the mapmaker she joins and The Book of Roger are very much real.)

Nour’s world is one of color, each sound having a different shade, and Baba’s voice creates the most beautiful shades for her stories.   The story of Rawiya, a brave young woman who pretends to be a boy so that she can apprentice under renowned mapmaker Al-Idrisi, is her favorite.  Born to Syrian parents living in New York, Nour’s knowledge of Syria is built on the words of her father and the maps of her beautiful mother.  When her beloved Baba loses his fight with cancer, her mother, craving an anchor and home, returns the family to Syria.

Nour struggles in a country that feels like a stranger.  Her Arabic is rudimentary, and her grief is immeasurable.  She recites the stories her father had fed her as she grieves in a land he’d loved but she doesn’t know.  The family is tossed into further turmoil when a shell destroys their home and they are forced to flee, their refugee journey mirroring Rawiya’s as she helped chart the world.  After Nour’s sister Huda’s injuries from the bombing become infected, Nour’s mother sends Nour and her other sister, Zahra, to continue the journey to safety without them.  Nour’s mother, a mapmaker, gives her a special map with hidden messages painted in the colors Nour sees with sounds.  The map will take them to safety.  

Each section of the novel opens with a love letter, printed in the shape of the country Nour (and Rawiya) are making their way through.  The concrete poetry is not only a beautiful way to open each new part of the journey, it also captures the grief and heartache of people who are forced to flee their homes due to political unrest and bloodshed.  “I carry the memory of borders in my skin.”

We are forever more alike than we are different, and stories like Nour’s and Rawiya’s have the ability to open hearts and minds to a very serious refugee crisis that too many would rather turn a blind eye to. Joukhadar’s writing is full of heart and home and the stories that make us – it’s a beautiful novel.

Diversify your shelves.  Open your hearts.

Read this book.

*The author was formerly known as Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, and I don’t have a reprint of the book. He now is known as Zeyn.*

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