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Excerpt from The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Map of Salt and Stars

by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar X
The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
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  • First Published:
    May 2018, 368 pages
    Mar 2019, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Renner
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Print Excerpt

The winter before Baba went into the earth, he never missed a bedtime story. Some of them were short, like the one about the fig tree that grew in Baba's backyard when he was a little boy in Syria, and some of them were epics so twisting and incredible that I had to wait night after night to hear more. Baba made my favorite one, the story of the mapmaker's apprentice, last two whole months. Mama listened at the door, getting Baba a glass of water when he got hoarse. When he lost his voice, I told the ending. Then the story was ours.

Mama used to say stories were how Baba made sense of things. He had to untangle the world's knots, she said. Now, thirty thousand feet above him, I am trying to untangle the knot he left in me. He said one day I'd tell our story back to him. But my words are wild country, and I don't have a map.

I press my face to the plane window. On the island under us, Manhattan's holes look like lace. I look for the one where Baba is sleeping and try to remember how the story starts. My words tumble through the glass, falling to the earth.

AUGUST IN HOMS is hot and rainless. It's been three months since we moved to Syria, and Mama doesn't leave her tears on the pomegranates anymore. She doesn't leave them anywhere.

Today, like every day, I look for the salt where I left my voice—in the earth. I go out to the fig tree in Mama's garden, standing heavy with fruit just the way I imagined the fig Baba once had in his backyard. I press my nose to the fig's roots and breathe in. I'm belly-down, stone heat in my ribs, my hand up to the knuckles in reddish dirt. I want the fig to carry a story back to Baba on the other side of the ocean. I lean in to whisper, brushing the roots with my upper lip. I taste purple air and oil.

A yellow bird taps the ground, looking for worms. But the sea dried up here a long time ago, if it was ever here at all. Is Baba still lying where we left him, brown and stiff and dry as kindling? If I went back, would I have the big tears I should have had then, or is the sea dried up in me forever?

I rub the smell of water out of the fig's bark. I'll tell Baba our story, and maybe I'll find my way back to that place where my voice went, and Babaand I won't be so alone. I ask the tree to take my story in its roots and send it down where it's dark, where Baba sleeps.

"Make sure he gets it," I say. "Our favorite, about Rawiya and al-Idrisi. The one Baba told me every night. The one where they mapped the world."

But the earth and the fig don't know the story like I do, so I tell it again. I start the way Baba always did: "Everybody knows the story of Rawiya," I whisper. "They just don't know they know it." And then the words come back like they had never left, like it had been me telling the story all along.

Inside, Huda and Mama clank wooden bowls and porcelain. I forgot all about the special dinner for Abu Sayeed tonight. I might not be able to finish the story before Mama calls me in to help, her voice all red edges.

I press my nose to the ground and promise the fig I'll find a way to finish. "No matter where I am," I say, "I'll put my story in the ground and the water. Then it'll get to Baba, and it'll get to you too."

I imagine the vibrations of my voice traveling thousands of miles, cracking through the planet's crust, between the tectonic plates we learned about in science class last winter, burrowing into the dark where everything sleeps, where the world is all colors at once, where nobody dies.

I start again.

EVERYBODY KNOWS THE story of Rawiya. They just don't know they know it.

Once there was and was not a poor widow's daughter named Rawiya whose family was slowly starving. Rawiya's village, Benzú, lay by the sea in Ceuta—a city in modern-day Spain, a tiny district on an African peninsula that sticks into the Strait of Gibraltar.

Excerpted from The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. Copyright © 2018 by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. Excerpted by permission of Touchstone. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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