The intellectual heritage of the Middle East is central to Zeyn Joukhadar’s debut novel “The Map of Salt and Stars” as he presents a double tale of the voyages of two young girls between the contemporary Middle East and its empire-studded far past.
Beginning in present-day Manhattan, Nour is a young girl struggling to come to terms with the death of her beloved father. Nour and her family move back to their matrilineal “hot and rainless” city of Homs, Syria, where her mother is noticeably happier. Nour’s story is intertwined with the tale of Rawiya, a 12th century girl from what is now modern-day Morocco who travels with the mapmaker al-Idrisi (an actual historical figure) on a quest to map the Mediterranean. Nour is told Rawiya’s story by her cartographer father, and keeps it with her during their travail to safety.
The novel primarily humanizes refugees and since the Western media, especially in the past few years, has consistently portrayed refugees as a danger, this book serves a needed purpose. The plot progresses at a smooth pace and the book is separated into five parts, named after the regions the characters venture through with an accompanying poem about the region written by Joukhadar. The plot is enriched with the inclusion of Rawiya’s story and presents converse views of the Middle East. Joukhadar also includes many “One Thousand and One Night”-type mythologies that Rawiya and her friends encounter, such as battling the winged-beast Roc and their visits to gemstone-studded palaces.
The novel also successfully tackles topics like the death of family members and dual identities. Nour constantly struggles with the loss of her father, though it’s endearing as the story of Rawiya comforts her and is a piece of her father through all of their troubles. Additionally, Nour struggles with her identity as a Syrian-American and her inability to speak Arabic, even pointedly being scorned by her Syrian-born sister, “what kind of Syrian are you? You don’t even speak Arabic.” These two issues are constant for Nour throughout the story, and it adds a certain relatable depth to her character.
Though the main characters were rich and complex, those in supporting roles lacked consistent foundations. Unfortunately, Nour’s sisters didn’t feel all that real and the novel would have benefitted from a deeper study of her sisters that play central roles to Nour’s development as a character. Rawiya seems more underdeveloped as a character and instead seems like the previous incarnation of Nour. Though Rawiya’s journey is compelling, I preferred Nour’s because of its detail and service to the ultimate narrative. The other characters on Rawiya’s journey, especially her love interest, are hardly complex and the reader may struggle to connect with them. The mass of characters and little space to develop them may be one of the few downsides to a split-narrative format. However, the one exception would be Nour’s mother who was fairly well developed because Joukhadar described when she first met her husband and the reader gets some insight into her emotional state throughout the novel.
On a personal note, as a member of the Syrian diaspora I approached this book with much skepticism. The war is extremely polarizing and it’s been difficult to watch Syria become engulfed in war. I neither wanted to revisit that feeling nor did I want to be lectured politically about the current crisis, two things that I encounter all too frequently. So in this respect, Joukhadar’s book was a breath of fresh air and humanizes this population while explaining their circumstances sans an overt political message.
Despite some lackluster characters, “The Map of Salt and Stars” is a vivid read and Joukhadar balances the harsh and horrific nature of a refugee’s journey with a lyrical myth creating a stunning and vibrant work. Nour’s navigation of her identities and struggle with personal loss are deeply moving and presents a fresh and far kinder view of refugees that is normally obfuscated in the mainstream.
Verdict: Joukhadar’s debut novel gives a face to the depersonalized groups of refugees seen in the media. Coupled with the story of two wise young girls from different times, Joukhadar effectively crafts an interesting, beautiful and moving narrative on a sensitive topic. Though some characters lacked depth, the novel is overall a gripping read and Joukhadar’s future novels are eagerly anticipated.