“Every lemon will bring forth a child, and the lemons will never die out.”
Zoulfa Katouh’s As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow (Little, Brown & Co 2022) is a love letter to Syria, each page solidifying that the “where” is always so much a part of the “who” when it comes to identity. The beautifully rendered novel echoes many of the sentiments found in The Map of Salt and Stars, which is also set in Homs, Syria during the revolution that began in 2011 and continues to this day. Both novels ache with a love and a hope for Syria, but Lemon Trees takes a different approach, showcasing what is happening in Homs and not just the escape. The blurb indicates it’s perfect for fans of Salt to the Sea and The Book Thief – both are easy comparisons, and I readily agree with that assessment.
Salama was a teenager studying to be a pharmacist when the revolution began in full force. Her brother and father were both captured for being “rebels” who protested and spoke out against the government. Her mother was killed in a bombing that also injured Salama. She suffered a blow to the head, which caused a TBI and PTSD that manifests in the form of hallucinations – particularly Khawf, a man who mocks, ridicules and threatens her in the night. Khawf’s literal translation from Arabic is fear.
With bodies being blown up around her, Salama is quickly enlisted to help at the hospital. Her limited training to be a pharmacist has elevated her to doctor in a Syria where medical professionals and hospitals treating the so-called rebels are main targets of the government. Salama is a teenager thrust into a world and career she didn’t choose. Her days are blood-soaked and full of death. Her nights are dark and nightmare filled. Her only family is her brother’s pregnant wife, Layla, and Salama is devoted to keeping Layla and the unborn child safe. Both Layla and Khawf have convinced her that she must flee. She must buy passage on a boat and seek freedom in Germany.
Salama’s struggle within her head and heart is wrought on her skin, just like the dark circles under her eyes and scars on her hands. When a young man with brilliant green eyes rushes into the hospital with his sister, her heart opens. A love story in a ravaged Syria blooms amongst the blood, bombs, and body parts. Salama fights as a healer. Kenan fights as a storyteller, recording the destruction and attacks and posting them on YouTube. Their love is the stuff stories are made of.
Halfway through this novel, an unease settled upon me; I knew what was coming. With each page, I begged to be wrong, but I wasn’t. I knew what was coming, and it still sucked the air out of me. I won’t spoil it because it is tragically and beautifully done, but it will break you.
Lemon Trees is a heartbreak. It’s bloody and broken. It’s loud and scary. It’s real fear and Khawf. But it’s also sunsets and lemons. It’s love. Above all, it’s hope.
Read this book.
*And be sure to read the author’s note and acknowledgements; they’ll make you love Katouh even more.