"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 her father's spirit as she adjusts to her new home, 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 choose: stay and risk more violence or 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"--Amazon.com.
In parallel, the book shifts back to an ancient myth of a young girl, Rawiya, who goes on a heroic adventure impersonating a young man, and battling mythical creatures and invading armies. This alternate story serves as an inspiration to Nour as she sees Rawiya as a sort of role model, but I found these stories both to be good on their own, however, not that well connected.
Overall, this is a fascinating story and opens a view into lives very different than the safe ones we lead in the US. I did feel that the author throws every possible hardship into Nour's life. And although it brought out my sympathies after awhile I felt like it was just too much. Still a good story.
This book is written with such a fine hand that it is like reading poetry rather than a novel. However, because it is long and repetitive, with parallel narratives, it often became almost too lyrical, making listening to it sometimes tedious. I found myself occasionally slipping away and losing my concentration, even as the plight of the refugee was detailed vividly. Yet, at other times, the enormous burdens placed on the characters as they endured great suffering and loss in order to escape the turmoil in their countries, created so much tension that I had to suspend listening. The story contains magical realism and fantasy, history and the beauty of the countries and landscapes traveled contrasted with the war, poverty and lawlessness they encountered. Often, it felt surreal.
Two young girls travel the same lands in the Middle East, centuries apart. One character, Rawiya, 16 years old, is impersonating a boy and calling herself Rami, as she travels with Al-Idrisi, a well-known mapmaker who was commissioned by the king to map the entire world. Her father had died and she left her home to ease her mother’s financial burden. The time is some time in the twelfth century. In her story she encounters dangerous mystical creatures. She fights them with extraordinary courage.
The other girl is Nour. She is 12 years old and was born in America. Her mother is a mapmaker of some renown. Nour suffers from synesthesia and sees certain sights and sounds in color. In 2011, after her father’s death, her mother moves the family from New York City, back to her home of origin in Homs, Syria, and they unwittingly become trapped in the violence of the Syrian War, still going on today. When a bomb destroys their home, they are forced to run, seeking safety elsewhere. Nour’s favorite story, as told to her by her father, is actually the story of Rawiya’s journey with the mapmaker.
Both girls experience the terrors refugees face. They are constantly on the run trying to escape the violence around them. They experience tragedy, grief, destruction and bloodshed. Both girls are headstrong, independent, intelligent and creative thinkers. Both, unexpectedly, are adept at map reading. Both girls collect stones. Both girls exhibit great courage in the face of the great danger and ruin that they witness as they travel through the Middle East, hoping to find safety. Both girls travel the same route, and it is a bit of a scary thought to think that although centuries have passed, war rages on in the region and there is no peace.
In one story, the legend of the Rok, a mythical evil bird drops from the sky and terrorizes Rami and those with her. Her bravery conquers the bird of prey. In the other it is the bombs that drop causing death and destruction that terrorize Nour and her family. As they escape, Nour’s courage in the most difficult of situations is exemplary. In both stories the girls witness tragedies as they travel over land and sea, but they face all obstacles and continue onward.
The descriptions of the pain and suffering feel real. There are similar themes running through both narratives. Both stories are connected by a stone that is magical and beautiful. In the one story, Rami possesses it, in the other Nour searches for it. Both are traveling with a mapmaker. Both are fatherless. Both pass as boys, although for Rami it is deliberate and for Nour it is because of head lice forcing her mom to shave her head. Both girls suffer the ravages of war. Both girls suffer the loss of a loved one and rediscover love again. Sometimes the narrative became predictable.
The salt in the title represents loss, sorrow and tears which flow abundantly as the stories are revealed. At times the story feels like historic fiction and at times like a fairy tale written for children. The prose is very easy to follow with beautiful descriptive language to place the reader in the time and place, but the reader speaks in one voice making it hard to discern, at times, which story is being told, the past or present. At other times, I felt that the reader’s portrayal of events was competing with the author’s prose for attention.
I am conflicted when reading about the Middle East and the beauty of bygone and present days. I am not welcome or safe in many of the places that the girls traveled, so their beauty is lost on me. In some way, I believe that the book presents a prettier, more positive view of Syria than one gets today from the news media or the current events.
Their flight out of Syria and across revolution-torn north Africa parallels the path taken by the 12th-century north African mapmaker, al-Idrisi. All her life, Nour’s parents have told her stories of this famous geographer. The legends of his journeys are brought to life in the novel by a young girl disguised as a boy, Rawiya, who accompanies al-Idrisi and his entourage on their long trek. These stories and histories, along with the memories of her happy childhood in New York and her beloved father, help to sustain Nour in the family’s harrowing, and (to Nour), bewildering flight to safety.
Beautifully written and highly recommended.
Joukhadar uses dual story lines and two young heroines to tell this story of family, loss, perseverance, grief, love and success. Nour’s story takes place in 2011; she has returned to Syria from Manhattan with her mother and sisters, after her father’s death. But it is not the safe haven her mother expected, because war is tearing the country apart. Rawiya, is a 12th-century girl who, legend has it, disguised herself as a boy to travel with renowned mapmaker al-Idrisi. Her story is the favorite one of Nour’s father’s tales and Nour recites it to herself as a way of keeping her father close. But there are parallels to the girls’ journeys, one as she explores new lands, the other as she flees across many countries to find safety once again.
I liked both Nour and Rawiya, and loved some of the supporting characters. Both girls must navigate through harsh territory and face numerous dangers from both the environment and the people they encounter. Both sometimes rely on being disguised or taken for a boy. Both find an unlikely champion / savior on more than one occasion. I was a little suspicious at first about Abu Sayeed, but came to love him and the gentle way he helped and protected Nour and her family. Like Nour, I relaxed in the safety he provided: I am covered with a thick rind of safety, like an orange.
I did find myself more drawn to Nour’s modern-day story, probably because I’m less inclined towards “fairytales” at this stage of my life. Dual timelines seems to be all the rage in novels these days, as well as dual narrators. But it’s a difficult style to pull off well. Joukhadar is a talented writer, but I felt tossed back and forth, getting invested in one story only to be yanked across centuries to a completely different scenario when I turned the page. I enjoyed the legendary tale but would have preferred to read a book that was set entirely in the present.
Still, Joukhadar gave me a compelling read with well-drawn characters and some interesting parallels. I also rather liked the opening of each part of the novel, where the author gave us a passage from a seemingly ancient text, printed, in each case, in the outline of that country. I checked the author notes but didn’t find any specific citation, so I assume that Joukhadar wrote these passages, rather than quote them. Though they fascinated me, they represented yet another style / storyline to try to get straight within the context of the entire book.
At one point Nour reflects on a scar left on her leg: Life draws blood and leaves its jewelry in our skin. This novel doesn’t draw any blood, but will definitely leave its mark on the reader.
NOTE: Author is a transgender male. The book was originally published with the author listed as Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. But the author now goes by Zeyn Joukhabar.
Nour’s and Rawiya’s stories become entwined as both girls travelled very similar trails through Jordan, Egypt, Libya and Algeria. Nour also disguises herself as a boy for safety’s sake, and both girls face cold, hunger and frequent bureaucracy. While Rawiya’s story is more of an adventure, Nour’s is the harrowing story of a refugee.
The Map of Salt and Stars is a remarkable debut novel. This coming of age story is enhanced by Nour’s synesthesia which brings an added richness to the descriptions. While both girls have to make hard choices and sacrifices, I was much more invested in the contemporary story but I do wish that the book had included a map that showed exactly where these girls travelled.
Quotes and Snippets
Part 6: It used to make me wonder if the really important things we used to see in god are in each other
I wonder if almost can cost you as much as did. If the real wound is the moment you can understand you can do nothing.
Part 12: a person can be two things at the same time. The land where your parents where born will always be in you. Words survive. Borders are nothing to words and blood.
Colors used as descriptions for shapes and emotions.