Book Review: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

Map of Salt and StarsThe Map of Salt and Stars
Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
9781501169038, Touchstone Books (Simon & Schuster), Pub. Date: May 2018

Publisher’s Description: This rich, moving, and lyrical debut novel is to Syria what The Kite Runner was to Afghanistan; the story of two girls living eight hundred years apart—a modern-day Syrian refugee seeking safety and a medieval adventurer apprenticed to a legendary mapmaker—places today’s headlines in the sweep of history, where the pain of exile and the triumph of courage echo again and again.

It is the summer of 2011, and Nour has just lost her father to cancer. Her mother, a cartographer who creates unusual, hand-painted maps, decides to move Nour and her sisters from New York City back to Syria to be closer to their family. But the country Nour’s mother once knew is changing, and it isn’t long before protests and shelling threaten their quiet Homs neighborhood. When a shell destroys Nour’s house and almost takes her life, she and her family are forced to choose: stay and risk more violence or flee as refugees across seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa in search of safety. As their journey becomes more and more challenging, Nour’s idea of home becomes a dream she struggles to remember and a hope she cannot live without.

More than eight hundred years earlier, Rawiya, sixteen and a widow’s daughter, knows she must do something to help her impoverished mother. Restless and longing to see the world, she leaves home to seek her fortune. Disguising herself as a boy named Rami, she becomes an apprentice to al-Idrisi, who has been commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily to create a map of the world. In his employ, Rawiya embarks on an epic journey across the Middle East and the north of Africa where she encounters ferocious mythical beasts, epic battles, and real historical figures.

A deep immersion into the richly varied cultures of the Middle East and North Africa, The Map of Salt and Stars follows the journeys of Nour and Rawiya as they travel along identical paths across the region eight hundred years apart, braving the unknown beside their companions as they are pulled by the promise of reaching home at last.

WildlyRead Shelftaker: Scheherazade’s “The Thousand and One Nights” meets Alan Gratz’s “Refugee” in this important debut novel. A 12th century fable about an apprentice mapmaker is interwoven with a modern-day Syrian refugee searching for home, as the plot follows both girls through the Middle East, encountering tremendous dangers and immense acts of kindness. A must-read for teens and adults, this is an incredibly moving and lushly described story of family and friends, meaningful culture, changing landscapes, and universal hope.

WildlyRead Thoughts: I finished reading this book at 2 a.m. There are parts that will make your heart stop and parts that will make it beat again. It’s an incredible force, with the most vivid descriptions that made me long to see, smell, and taste everything described. It’s cliche, but the closest I can come right now is ordering food from my local Middle Eastern cafe for lunch – and how lucky am I that I have a “local Middle Eastern cafe”?

I’m also lucky in that I have my own memories of some of the places Rawiya and Nour go to. In 2005, I spent part of May and June backpacking in the Middle East, specifically in Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. I saw national parks and temples, rode trains and hitchhiked, and stayed with locals and in hostels. Two of my favorite experiences were the four days I spent in a hut on the beach in Sinai, Egypt, and hiking Petra, in Jordan. Petra, where Rawiya travels, took my breath away.

As someone who grew up doing Anthropology/Archaeology work with her parents, it was a dream come true to stand in a place with so much rich cultural history. On the way into Petra, there’s a long corridor between high canyon walls, with grooves dug right into the wall. Those grooves used to hold rivers of oil, lit on fire to provide light for the never-ending market that was held along this important road in and out of the city. If you stood in the middle of that now empty canyon and closed your eyes, you could almost feel the rush of the people around you, feel the heat and press of bodies, smell the spices and animals, hear the chatter and laughter of those long passed. Only a couple of months after coming back to the States, I found out that a few of the places I had just traveled to had been bombed or partially destroyed by fighting. Just one more way in which I’m lucky – I wasn’t there, I got to see these places before they were lost – and yet I still feel slightly shattered to know the very real horrors that people I may have met experienced.

Having that memory made reading The Map of Salt and Stars even more meaningful to me.

I already can hardly wait to read what Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar publishes next.

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