Beirut-born author Yara Zgheib’s skills have become even more finely honed in the years since her excellent 2019 debut, The Girls at 17 Swann Street. Her devastating second novel, No Land to Light On, is an illuminating, intimate look at the Syrian refugee crisis and the immigrant experience in America during the Trump administration.
On January 27, 2017, Executive Order 13769 banned entry of individuals—including refugees and preexisting visa holders—from seven Middle Eastern countries into the United States. No Land to Light On chronicles this directive’s cruel impact on one married couple, Sama and Hadi. Hailing from Syria, they separately immigrated to America—Sama to attend Harvard University, Hadi as a refugee—where they subsequently met and fell madly in love, marrying within months.
Sama is five months pregnant when Hadi is summoned abroad to attend to the sudden death of his father, and he promises to return to her in a few short days. Unfortunately, he returns just one day after the travel ban against majority-Muslim countries, which effectively bars him from entering the U.S. As Hadi is detained for questioning, Sama enters premature labor, giving birth to an American son whose father is in the process of being deported. Within the blink of an eye, their elusive and ever-so-precious American dream is transformed into the stuff of nightmares.
Shuttling between times, perspectives and countries, Zgheib’s novel deftly documents Sama’s and Hadi’s lives in Syria and the circumstances that prompted them to leave, as well as their ensuing experiences as American immigrants. The narrative is purposefully fragmented, an artful reflection of the ways in which the lives of immigrants and refugees are uprooted and disrupted. Within the context of a tense and bittersweet love story—one with a healthy dose of nostalgia for days when hope and possibility seemed likely to prevail—Zgheib offers nuanced insights into the complex psychology of and challenges faced by displaced people, and effectively makes the consequences of anti-immigrant sentiments and policies feel personal to all readers.
Written in soul-searing prose, No Land to Light On is an essential, compassionate story that reinstates a sense of humanity for the countless people affected by U.S. travel bans.