(RE)VIEW: The Map of Salt and Stars

“Stories are powerful, but gather too many of the words of others in your heart, and they will drown out your own. Remember that.”

We are first introduced to Nour, a Syrian-American girl, who is mourning the loss of her father and simultaneously trying to acclimate to her new life in Homs. Although her two sisters and both parents had called Syria home, she was born in the United States. 

Early on, an explosion destroys their home and Nour and her family become Syrian refugees on a journey to find safety. The obstacles they face are numerous. Prepare your heart for hope that is often ripped out of your chest. This tale is not for the light of heart, but it is a reality that many have faced and is often overlooked.

As Nour attempts to find freedom and purpose, the author simultaneously tells the story of Rawiya, a legend that Nour’s father recounted to her ritually before his death. A story of a young girl, disguised as a boy, whose courage and ambition brought her to be the apprentice of Al-Idrisi. Rawiya travels the same land as Nour centuries earlier. 

The novel is divided into five parts, which separate the story by the land each girl is navigating. Each chapter is split into two perspectives, Rawiya’s and Nour’s. The beginning of each part is initiated with a poem in the shape of the land the subsequent chapters will explore. 

It is difficult to summarize this impressive fiction novel that takes real life (i.e. Syrian Refugee Crisis) historical figures (i.e. geographer Muhammad Al-Idrisi and apprentice Bakr) and mythology popularized by Arabian fairy tales to weave a captivating story of resilience. 

I walked away from this story reflecting on my definition of home and the idea of ancestral stories as maps to said home. Both characters face brokenness and loss, but do not let it define them. Both characters find home in their language, their stories, their memories. And the author unfolds both narratives in a way that left me either mourning or at the edge of my seat.

Zeynab penned a brilliant debut novel that has been described to be to Syria what “The Kite Runner” was to Afghanistan. 

I cannot argue Zeynab’s meticulous and mesmerizing craft. But I don’t agree with “The Kite Runner” analogy and here’s why.

Zeynab has made it clear at her public appearances that dhe does not wish to be the canon of literature for Syria. She, herself, is a Syrian American and recognizes that she did not live the life of a Syrian refugee. 

She has no interest in being the one voice that speaks for Syria. In fact, one of the calls to action she makes to readers is that they go read more stories about Syrian refugees in their own words. She also calls for readers to be aware and raise support for a more inclusive and supportive American stance on refugees.

The Map of Salt and Stars: A Novel” is not an easy read. It will make you think, question and investigate. But is that not the purpose of literature?

Zeynab came out swinging with this inaugural novel and I am looking forward to reading hernext book, which she is already working on. 

Have you read “The Map of Salt and Stars”? What are your thoughts? Your favorite quotes? I’ll leave you with a few of mine:

“The blood makes a kind of map, a net of roads in the body”

“Nothing feels real. It feels like the minute before you have to throw up, and you can’t think about anything else, just getting through the next five seconds. It feels like that. I wonder if the whole city is flattened out there.”

“Most precious things, don’t come out of the earth looking that way. In the earth, even the  loveliest gems look rough and worthless. You might see the deepest indigo, but you see dirt, too, and salt. But if you are patient, if you polish them with sandpaper and a rag – well, lots of things can become beautiful.”

“Shrapnel is a red word. To me, it sounds like metal and anger and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“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.”

“If you don’t know the tale of where you came from the words of others can overwhelm and drown out your own. So, you see, you must keep careful track of the borders of your stories, where your voice ends and another’s begins.”

“A hard red knot glues itself to my ribs like indigestion, the tangled-up knot of all the things I’ve loved that will be buried one day all the things I know I am bound to forget.”

“And I think to myself how many people have created beautiful things here, how many people go on creating beautiful things even when life is full of pain.”

“Mama was right. Sometimes pain comes with its own sorts of blessings.”

“I am a woman and a warrior. If you think I can’t be both, you’ve been lied to.”

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