The BookBrowse Review

Published May 15, 2019

ISSN: 1930-0018

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  • Blog:
    The Caribbean: A Reading List for Book Clubs and Bookworms
  • Wordplay:
    I I T S Form O F
  • Book Giveaway:
    My husband asked me to lie. Not a big lie...
The Map of Salt and Stars
The Map of Salt and Stars
by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

Paperback (12 Mar 2019), 384 pages.
Publisher: Atria Books
ISBN-13: 9781501169052
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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.

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.

Full Excerpt

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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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. What can you surmise from the novel about Baba's connection to each of his daughters and how the girls come to depend on those bonds after the bombing in Syria?
  2. How do the two different timelines influence the plot? Was this an effective way to tell the story? What demands does it place upon you, and what are its pleasures? Did it help you to feel closer to the characters? Why or why not?
  3. What effect does Baba's death have on Noor's mother and her relationship with her daughters?
  4. What affect does Abu Sayeed's arrival have on Nour and her family? Compare and contrast Abu Sayeed's relationship with Mama, Zahra, and Nour. Discuss the role of family and community in the lives of the characters. Provide examples of the different ways the author defines family in the novel.
  5. How is The Map of Salt and Stars like others novels you have read about refugees, and how is it different? How much did you know about the Syrian refuge crisis before reading the novel? How does the novel challenge your perception of the Syrian refugee crisis?
  6. How do the characters rely on their religion throughout the novel?
  7. What meaning does the title of the novel hold for the characters? Why do you think the author chose this and what does it mean to you?
  8. Child narrators in adult fiction are often used to question things that adults might take for granted. Did having Nour as the narrator for The Map of Salt and Stars change the way you viewed the events of the novel? Compare and contrast the benefits and disadvantages of having a young narrator.
  9. Evaluate the importance of the constellations and how the stars help to advance the story in both timelines. Discuss the symbolism of birds.
  10. What is the significance of the stone and why does Nour discard it?
  11. Khaldun says, "the words of others can overwhelm and drown out your own. So, you see, you must keep careful track of the borders of your stories, where your voice ends and another's begins" (page 133). Discuss the power of stories and the importance of the stories to the characters. Provide examples of the characters protecting their voices. How do you stay true to yourself?
  12. Nour says to Yusuf, "I thought you were like the other bad men" (page 223). Discuss the significance of Yusuf. Where you expecting a different outcome for his character? Explain your answers.
  13. How do the characters react to the trauma of sexual violence? What are its lasting effects? Analyze the reasons why Nour tells Yusuf and no one else about Huda's attack, and why Huda chooses not to choose to disclose the attack immediately. What was your reaction to that scene?
  14. Huda, Zahra, and Nour are very different? What makes them alike as sisters, and what sets them apart? How do they evolve over the course of the novel?
  15. Compare and contrast the storylines of Rawiya and Nour. Discuss how Nour's superpower and Rawiya's being the roc slayer helped to save their families.
  16. What is al-Idrisi's role in the story? Does knowing that this character is based on a real person affect the way you read the novel? What are some of the pleasures and drawbacks of reading historical novels? Discuss what might have happened to the planisphere "guarded forever, safe from selfish hands" (page 307).

Enhance Your Book Club

  1. Are you a synesthete? Go to this website https://www.synesthesiatest.org/ to find out.
  2. Create a map depicting places you traveled that had a major impact on your life when you were Nour's age. What did you learn from that time? How did you change after that experience?
  3. Name your top five favorite books with a child narrator. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a young narrator?
  4. The Map of Salt and Stars for the most part is a very realistic coming-of-age story of a Syrian refugee, but there are several instances when the story reveals magical elements. Provide examples from the novel of magical realism. How do these moments enhance the plot?
  5. Visit the author's website (http://www.jenniferjoukhadar.com/books/) to learn more and to read her collection of short stories and essays.

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Atria Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

This rich, moving, and lyrical debut novel places today's headlines in the sweep of history, where the pain of exile and the triumph of courage echo again and again.

Print Article

The war in Syria has raged for more than eight years now, obliterating cities and homes and casting the people who lived there adrift to seek lives elsewhere. The Map of Salt and Stars, a novel by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, puts a face on the tragedy of the Syrian refugee crisis. The reader experiences it through the eyes of one of the main characters, Nour. Nour's family is Syrian, but she was born and grew up in the United States.

After Nour's father dies of cancer, her family leaves New York City, the only place Nour knows well, and returns to Syria, a country she feels both is and is not her own. The strongest connection she holds to it is through history and story. All of her life, her father told her stories, weaving them out of legends, history and his own creations until they became something tangible, a lens through which Nour could see the world.

One of Nour's favorite stories is about a young, adventurous girl named Rawiya, who journeyed with famed mapmaker al-Idrisi on his voyages and explorations in the effort to make one of history's most famous maps: the Tabula Rogeriana (See Beyond the Book.) Though al-Idrisi is a real historical figure, Rawiya is a character of Joukhadar's creation. But Rawiya and her adventures seem so real to Nour that she begins to believe that maybe they are.

History, myth, and magic play a large role in the novel. In addition to her father's mythical stories, Nour has synesthesia, and sees colors whenever she hears sounds. She also begins to see accumulations of salt. The salt may be a kind of magically sublimated sorrow, a sorrow made tangible by its extremity. After Nour's father died, her mother refused to speak about her grief, and instead "her tears watered everything in the apartment. That winter I found salt everywhere."

Rawiya's story unfolds alongside Nour's in alternating chapters, giving the reader the sense that Rawiya's story is either part of Nour's imagination or a history so distinctly a part of Nour's psyche she gives it equal importance to her own. I began to anticipate Rawiya and Nour crossing paths in some magical way, and the longer the story went on without that happening, the more disappointed I felt. Their stories align in some ways – the vastness of Syria's history, told through the journeys of al-Idrisi and Rawiya is important to Nour and the heart of the novel – but I was left with a feeling of unfulfilled anticipation.

However, this doesn't detract from the vivid beauty of the novel's prose and the importance of its historical metaphor. Joukhadar's language choices lilt with melancholy, elegy, and images so distinct that the reader can smell, taste and touch the world of her creation. Nour describes their house in Homs, Syria:

Inside, the walls breathe sumac and sigh out the tang of olives. Oil and fat sizzle in a pan, popping up in yellow and black bursts in my ears. The colors of voices and smells tangle in front of me like they're projected on a screen: the peaks and curves of Huda's pink-and-purple laugh, the brick-red ping of a kitchen timer, the green bite of baking yeast.

The novel is filled with effortlessly stunning passages like this, a true feat of writing. The most important aspect of the novel, however, is its treatment of history. Though it touches on myth and magic, many of the historical characters like Al-Idrisi are real and an integral part of, not only world history, but Nour's cultural sense of self. The major message of The Map of Salt and Stars is that the destruction of a homeland threatens to destroy history, but that history can never die as long as people, like Nour, choose to remember.

Reviewed by Rebecca Renner

Library Journal
A wise, vibrantly told story for a wide range of readers, particularly relevant now

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. [An] ambitious debut… Joukhadar plunges the Western reader full force into the refugee world with sensual imagery.

Author Blurb Hala Alyan, author of Salt Houses
With clear, exquisite prose, Joukhadar unspools a brightly imagined tale of family and grief, mapmaking and migration. This important book is a love letter to the vanished - and to what remains.

Author Blurb Chris Bohjalian, bestselling author of The Flight Attendant and The Guest Room
E. M. Forster taught us that 'fiction is truer than history because it goes beyond the evidence.' Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar's magic first novel is a testimony to that maxim. We've all been aware of the plight of Syrian refugees, but in this richly imaginative story we see one small family – both haunted by history and saved by myth – work their way west. It's beautiful and lovely and eye-opening.

Author Blurb Kirstin Chen, author of Bury What We Cannot Take and Soy Sauce for Beginners
The Map of Salt and Stars is the sweeping, thrillingly ambitious tale of Nour, Rawiya, and their parallel searches for home. In twin narratives that unfold eight hundred years apart, Joukhadar captures the unrelenting courage of those who persist amid the trials of exile. A truly remarkable debut.

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Ancient Cartography

Imago MundiMapmaking has been a vital part of human curiosity for millennia. The oldest known world map is the Babylonian Map of the World, also known as the Imago Mundi, which dates back to the 5th century BCE. This early map is not alone. Archaeologists have found many map-like representations in caves, some of which even show images of star patterns ancient people saw in the night sky. And there is the possibility of a much older extant map in the form of a wall painting found in 1961 in Turkey which is believed to be more than 8,000 years old and is generally considered to be either the earliest landscape painting or the earliest known map.

Maps have come a long way since then as humanity has explored the world, discovered new media for art and pioneered technology for digital cartography. While maps featuring satellite images have now become commonplace, cartographers and explorers once took the helm in cartography – literally.

Muhammad Al-IdrisiDuring the Middle Ages, Muslim scholars, building on the work of their forbearers like the Roman mathematician Ptolemy, made great leaps forward in cartography. Scholar-adventurers like Ibn Batutta and Muhammad al-Idrisi combined the study of astronomy and geometry with the information they found with ships' navigators in order to create the most accurate maps the world had seen up until that point. Among their major contributions, the Muslim scholars brought the concept of meridians and parallels into broader use. This application of lines on maps we all take for granted helped build the modern science of cartography as we know it.

Al-Idrisi, a central character in Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar's The Map of Salt and Stars was born in the year 1100 in Ceuta, Spain, in a time when Spain was under Moorish rule. He soon ventured out into the world, visiting nearby countries such as Portugal and North Africa, as well as far flung ones like Anatolia and Hungary. During much of al-Idrisi's life, "Al-Andalus," the name of Moorish Spain, was turbulent and war-torn and so he and many of his contemporaries fled to Sicily. Being at the heart of the Mediterranean positioned Sicily as the ideal base for a mapmaker. Merchants, sailors and explorers of many nations passed through, sharing knowledge of their travels.

Tabula RogerianaIn 1138, King Roger II of Sicily commissioned al-Idrisi to compose the most accurate map of the ancient world. The Tabula Rogeriana is the end result of al-Idrisi's 18 years of work at the Sicilian court. The map is inscribed in Arabic and Latin and includes all of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The version of the map given to King Roger II was engraved on a massive 300 pound disk of silver. Al-Idrisi also wrote a book with the map which details and comments on its illustrations, including the climates and cultures of the illustrated regions. The book's Arabic name نزهة المشتاق في اختراق الآفاق‎, literally translates to "the book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands."

Imago Mundi courtesy of www.geolounge.com
Al-Idrisi
Tabula Rogeriana

By Rebecca Renner

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