The Map of Salt and Stars
By Zeyn Joukhader
Read Nov 2019
Joukhader gives us two parallel stories of girls, eight hundred years apart, travelling from Syria across north Africa. In the modern story, twelve year-old Nour, her sisters, and map-maker mother have returned to her mother’s home city of Homs in Syria, from Manhattan, after Nour’s father’s death. Nour is the only one in the family who wasn’t born in Syria and she speaks little Arabic. She does not feel at home in this land. They become refugees and journey across north Africa in search of safety with family in Morocco. In the ancient story, actually a fantastical story Nour’s father told her and she now tells herself, Rawiya, a sixteen year-old girl, tricks her mother into thinking she is going to a nearby town for provisions. She actually disguises herself as a boy and takes her horse on a journey to find and become apprenticed to a famous map-maker.
The two stories parallel each other in the girl’s journey across Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and Morocco. Interestingly, each part of the novel begins with a poem in the shape of a country the girls are crossing. Each girl faces various dangers. In the modern story, we don’t learn much about the political situation leading to the need for the journey but rather the author focuses on the personal story of what is happening during the journey and what the main character is feeling. She has the condition/capability of synesthesia which drives her perceptions of various situations and feeling to appear to her in colors. In the ancient story, the main character faces down various perils including battles with the great white roc—a legendary bird of prey- and giant snakes. The contrast between the stories is that Rawiya is seeking (and finding) adventure away from her family while Nour is seeking safety with her family.
At times this reader wished the novel focused on Nour’s story of fleeing Syria and encountering many obstacles on her journey. Certainly the descriptions of Rawiya’s adverntures were beautifully written. They just felt somewhat distracting from the “real” story of Nour’s family’s journey. But that is likely due to this reader’s limited taste for fantasy. It’s possible that remembering the ancient adventure story with its successes of Rawiya made it easier for Nour to to bear the real challenges her family faces. And possibly it makes it easier for the reader to read about these challenges. Joukhader is to be congratulated in using this interesting approach to tell get the reality of the flight of refugees read by an audience that might not readily choose that topic.