STARRED REVIEW
May 2018

Two lives, a thousand years apart

By Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

In many ways, The Map of Salt and Stars is at once a testament to the brutality of the current Syrian conflict and a reverent ode to ancient Arabian history. Syrian-American writer Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar has crafted an audacious debut, ambitious and sprawling in both time and space.

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Among the many things the violence of war obliterates, perhaps the most malicious is history. Now in its seventh year, the civil war that has turned Syria into the site of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises has also corseted one of the oldest societies on earth into a kind of perpetual infancy. Syria, it sometimes seems, only began to exist seven years ago, as a place defined only by its current calamity.

In many ways, The Map of Salt and Stars is at once a testament to the brutality of the current Syrian conflict and a reverent ode to ancient Arabian history. Syrian-American writer Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar has crafted an audacious debut, ambitious and sprawling in both time and space.

The book follows the story of Nour, a Syrian-American girl living in New York. In 2011, after Nour loses her father to cancer, her mother decides to move the family back to Homs to be close to their extended family. But Nour’s arrival coincides with Syria’s slide into civil war. Amid grotesque violence, Nour is made a refugee, a traveler through Syria’s neighboring lands.

Almost a thousand years earlier, another girl’s story unfolds. Rawiya, seeking a better life for her mother, disguises herself as a boy and joins a legendary cartographer on a quest to map the known world.

The two stories unfold side by side, split by time but joined by a common geography. Because the modern part of Joukhadar’s narrative carries the urgency of the present tense, but the ancient half reads like an old Arabian fairy tale, the dual story structure is at first jarring. But soon the book finds its pace, and the intertwining tales complement each other in ways a single narrative could not. A swooping bird of prey that threatens to devour the ancient story’s traveling companions finds its modern-day analogy in the form of Syrian fighter planes dropping bombs on besieged cities.

There is a heartfelt quality to the story, evident in the meticulous historical research that must have gone into the creation of the ancient part of the book. The Map of Salt and Stars presents an Arab world in full possession of its immense historical and cultural biography, marred by its modern tragedies but not exclusively defined by them.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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The Map of Salt and Stars

The Map of Salt and Stars

By Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
Touchstone
ISBN 9781501169038

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