THE MAP OF SALT AND STARS
By Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
360 pp. Touchstone. $27.
The ancient, sometimes mystical connection between maps, people and knowledge is central to Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s “The Map of Salt and Stars,” a double tale of voyage and exile that moves between contemporary war-torn Syria and the caravansaries and khans of its lost past. Maps are mentioned on almost every page: not just making them but the decisions that making them involves, what lands they cover and what lands they leave out.
In present-day Manhattan, the immigrant family of a young woman named Nour, reeling from the death of its patriarch, decides to relocate to their maternal home city of Homs, a refreshing reversal of the familiar tale of leaving an unstable country and heading to America. Despite their initial doubts and fears, Nour and her sisters accompany their mapmaking mother back to her “hot and rainless” country, where her tears finally stop falling.
Nour’s story of displacement is interwoven with the fantastical, speculative tale of another young woman, Rawiya, who runs away from her Syrian village centuries earlier. Seeking out a legendary mapmaker, Al-Idrisi, she joins him as his apprentice on a long voyage. The two stories unfold gracefully, mirroring and overlapping. Both Nour and Rawiya cut their hair, finding freedom and protection in their disguise as boys. Although more could have been made of gender transgressions within an Islamic context, Joukhadar is excellent at interweaving the short sections of her storytelling, always holding taut the narrative thread.
Grief is a constant echo, particularly the loss of Nour’s father. Without him the family members become increasingly unmoored; we feel Nour’s homesickness intensely, along with her sense of not belonging in her mother’s country. “What kind of Syrian are you?” her sister snaps. “You don’t even speak Arabic.”
Soon the rumble of bombs comes close. The dangerous complexity of the situation in Syria is dealt with very lightly, almost reduced to one sentence: “I’ve heard lots of rumors — crowds turning on each other, friends taking sides and picking up guns, people accusing each other of making trouble.” Soon the shelling begins: “A shrieking thrum. Then the weight hits like a slap on my back. Silence. Red goes black. There aren’t any colors anymore.”
There’s a dreamlike feel to these scenes, which don’t induce the stomach-churning trauma of watching a house and then an entire street annihilated on a television screen. When we come across a child with a mutilated ear, we connect with the horror but can’t fully feel it. More convincing are Joukhadar’s depictions of the anxiety and stress that bedevil the family as they become refugees.
Joukhadar’s confidence and joy in storytelling comes to life in the fantastical side of the novel. Here the ancient city of Homs is being terrorized by a fearful bird, the roc. War rages, forces are fighting, land is contested. Joukhadar’s pleasure in describing Islamic astronomy and cartography radiates through these passages set far in the past. Curiously, although the warring factions of yesteryear are detailed, there is no mention of the current Syrian regime, of Russian missiles or Isis.
Occasionally we get “One Thousand and One Nights”–style lines of wisdom, freighting the book: “Sometimes it’s not enough to put something down once. Sometimes it takes more than one try to get it right.” “Just because you add to something doesn’t mean it was broken. Maybe it just wasn’t finished.”
What Joukhadar does beautifully is to connect, in a vivid and urgent way, Syria and the United States. Al-Idrisi explains to the stargazing Rawiya that the Bedu see the constellation we call Cassiopeia “not as a damsel, but as a she-camel.” Same stars, different story. “The Map of Salt and Stars” is important and timely because it shows how interconnected two supposedly opposing worlds can be. Our many stories are part of the same larger tale, part of the same larger map.
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