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Two parallel stories, centuries apart, that shine a light on Middle Eastern conflicts

The Map of Salt & Stars - Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

Map of Salt and Stars, Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, author; Lara Sawalha, narrator

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.