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
    Paperback:
    Mar 12, 2019, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Renner
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Print Excerpt

The Earth and the Fig

The island of Manhattan's got holes in it, and that's where Baba sleeps. When I said good night to him, the white bundle of him sagged so heavy, the hole they dug for him so deep. And there was a hole in me too, and that's where my voice went. It went into the earth with Baba, deep in the white bone of the earth, and now it's gone. My words sunk down like seeds, my vowels and the red space for stories crushed under my tongue.

I think Mama lost her words too, because instead of talking, her tears watered everything in the apartment. That winter, I found salt everywhere—under the coils of the electric burners, between my shoelaces and the envelopes of bills, on the skins of pomegranates in the gold-trimmed fruit bowl. The phone rang with calls from Syria, and Mama wrestled salt from the cord, fighting to untwist the coils.

Before Baba died, we hardly ever got calls from Syria, just emails. But Mama said in an emergency, you've got to hear a person's voice.

It seemed like the only voice Mama had left spoke in Arabic. Even when the neighbor ladies brought casseroles and white carnations, Mama swallowed her words. How come people only ever have one language for grief?

That winter was the first time I heard Abu Sayeed's honey-yellow voice. Huda and I sat outside the kitchen and listened sometimes, Huda's ash-brown curls crushed against the doorjamb like spooled wool. Huda couldn't see the color of his voice like I could, but we'd both know it was Abu Sayeed calling because Mama's voice would click into place, like every word she'd said in English was only a shadow of itself. Huda figured it out before I did—that Abu Sayeed and Baba were two knots on the same string, a thread Mama was afraid to lose the end of.

Mama told Abu Sayeed what my sisters had been whispering about for weeks—the unopened electricity bills, the maps that wouldn't sell, the last bridge Baba built before he got sick. Abu Sayeed said he knew people at the university in Homs, that he could help Mama sell her maps. He asked, what better place to raise three girls than the land that holds their grandparents?

When Mama showed us our plane tickets to Syria, the O in my name, Nour, was a thin blot of salt. My older sisters, Huda and Zahra, pestered her about the protests in Dara'a, things we had seen on the news. But Mama told them not to be silly, that Dara'a was as far south of Homs as Baltimore was from Manhattan. And Mama would know, because she makes maps for a living. Mama was sure things would calm down, that the reforms the government had promised would allow Syria to hope and shine again. And even though I didn't want to leave, I was excited to meet Abu Sayeed, excited to see Mama smiling again.

I had only ever seen Abu Sayeed in Baba's Polaroids from the seventies, before Baba left Syria. Abu Sayeed had a mustache and an orange shirt then, laughing with someone out of the frame, Baba always just behind him. Baba never called Abu Sayeed his brother, but I knew that's what he was because he was everywhere: eating iftar on Ramadan evenings, playing cards with Sitto, grinning at a café table. Baba's family had taken him in. They had made him their own.

When spring came, the horse chestnut trees bloomed white like fat grains of rock salt under our window. We left the Manhattan apartment and the tear-encrusted pomegranates. The plane's wheels lifted like birds' feet, and I squinted out the window at the narrow stripe of city where I'd lived for twelve whole years and at the hollow green scooped out by Central Park. I looked for Baba. But with the city so far down, I couldn't see the holes anymore.

Mama once said the city was a map of all the people who'd lived and died in it, and Baba said every map was really a story. That's how Baba was. People paid him to design bridges, but he told his stories for free. When Mama painted a map and a compass rose, Baba pointed out invisible sea monsters in the margins.

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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