This “beguiling” (Seattle Times) and stunning novel begins in the summer of 2011. Nour has just lost her father to cancer, and her mother moves Nour and her sisters from New York City back to Syria to be closer to their family. In order to keep her father’s spirit alive as she adjusts to her new home, Nour tells herself their favorite story—the tale of Rawiya, a twelfth-century girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to apprentice herself to a famous mapmaker.
But the Syria Nour’s parents knew is changing, and it isn’t long before the war reaches 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 across seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa in search of safety—along the very route Rawiya and her mapmaker took eight hundred years before in their quest to chart the world. As Nour’s family decides to take the risk, their journey becomes more and more dangerous, until they face a choice that could mean the family will be separated forever.
Following alternating timelines and a pair of unforgettable heroines coming of age in perilous times, The Map of Salt and Stars is the “magical and heart-wrenching” (Christian Science Monitor) story of one girl telling herself the legend of another and learning that, if you listen to your own voice, some things can never be lost.
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Read an Excerpt
The Map of Salt and Stars
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.
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 Baba and 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.
Rawiya dreamed of seeing the world, but she and her mother could barely afford couscous, even with the money Rawiya’s brother, Salim, brought home from his sea voyages. Rawiya tried to be content with her embroidery and her quiet life with her mother, but she was restless. She loved to ride up and down the hills and through the olive grove atop her beloved horse, Bauza, and dream of adventures. She wanted to go out and seek her fortune, to save her mother from a life of eating barley-flour porridge in their plaster house under the stony face of Jebel Musa, watching the shore for her brother’s ship.
When she finally decided to leave home at sixteen, all Rawiya had to take with her was her sling. Her father had made it for her when she was a little girl throwing rocks at dragonflies, and she wouldn’t leave it behind. She packed it in her leather bag and saddled Bauza by the fig tree next to her mother’s house.
Now Rawiya was afraid to tell her mother how long she’d be gone, thinking she might try and stop her. “I’m only going to the market in Fes,” Rawiya said, “to sell my embroidery.”
But Rawiya’s mother frowned and asked her to promise to be careful. The wind came strong off the strait that day, rattling through her mother’s scarf and the hem of her skirt.
Rawiya had wrapped a red cloth around her face and neck, hiding her new-cut hair. She told her mother, “I won’t stay longer than I have to.” She didn’t want her mother to know she was thinking of the story she’d heard many times—the story of the legendary mapmaker who came to the market in Fes once a year.
The wind opened and closed Rawiya’s scarf like a lung. The painful thought struck her that she did not know how long she would be gone.
Mistaking her daughter’s sadness for nerves, Rawiya’s mother smiled. She produced a misbaha of wooden beads from her pocket and set it in Rawiya’s hands. “My own mother gave me these prayer beads when I was a girl,” she said. “God willing, they will comfort you while you are away.”
Rawiya hugged her mother fiercely and told her she loved her, trying to commit her smell to memory. Then she climbed into Bauza’s saddle, and he clicked his teeth against his bit.
Rawiya’s mother smiled at the sea. She had once traveled to Fes, and she hadn’t forgotten the journey. She said to her daughter, “Every place you go becomes a part of you.”
“But none more so than home.” Rawiya meant this more than anything else she’d said. And then Rawiya of Benzú nudged her horse until he turned toward the inland road, past the high peaks and fertile plains of the mountainous Rif where the Berbers lived, toward the Atlas Mountains and the teeming markets of Fes beckoning from the south.
The trade road wound through limestone hills and green plains of barley and almond trees. For ten days, Rawiya and Bauza picked their way along the winding road ground flat by travelers’ shoes. Rawiya reminded herself of her plan: to find the legendary mapmaker, Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi. She planned to become his apprentice, pretending to be a merchant’s son, and make her fortune. She would give a fake name—Rami, meaning “the one who throws the arrow.” A good, strong name, she told herself.
Rawiya and Bauza crossed the green hills that separated the curved elbow of the Rif from the Atlas Mountains. They climbed high slopes topped by cedar forests and cork oak trees where monkeys rustled the branches. They curved down through valleys spread with yellow wildflowers.
The Atlas Mountains were the stronghold of the Almohads, a Berber dynasty seeking to conquer all of the Maghreb, the northern lands of Africa to the west of Egypt. Here, in their lands, every sound made Rawiya uneasy, even the snuffling of wild boar and the echoes of Bauza’s hooves on the limestone cliffs. At night, she heard the distant sounds of instruments and singing and found it hard to sleep. She thought of the stories she had heard as a child—tales of a menacing bird big enough to carry off elephants, legends of deadly valleys filled with giant emerald-scaled snakes.
Finally, Rawiya and Bauza came upon a walled city in a valley. Caravans of merchants from the Sahara and from Marrakesh spilled onto the grassy plain dotted by eucalyptus trees. The green rope of the Fes River split the city in two. The folded chins of the High Atlas cast long shadows.
Inside the city gates, Bauza trotted between plaster houses painted shades of rose and saffron, green-crowned minarets, and gilded window arches. Rawiya was dazzled by jade roofs and jacaranda trees blooming the color of purple lightning. In the Medina, merchants sat cross-kneed behind huge baskets of spices and grains. The tapestry of colors caught Rawiya’s eye: the frosted indigo of ripe figs, rust-red paprika. Hanging lanterns of wrought metal and colored glass sent tiny petals of light that clung to shadowed alleyways. Children pattered through the streets, smelling of tanned leather and spices.
Rawiya guided Bauza toward the center of the Medina, where she hoped to find the mapmaker. Dust from the streets painted Bauza’s hooves. In the heat of the day, the shade of carved stone and mosaic tile felt cool, refreshing. The cries of merchants and spice vendors deafened Rawiya. The air was thick with sweat and oil, the musk of horses and camels and men, the bite of pomegranates, the sugar-song of dates.
Rawiya searched among the merchants and travelers, interrupting sales of spices and perfumes and salt, asking about a man who traveled weighted down by leather-bound scrolls and parchment-paper sketches of the places he’d been, a man who had sailed the Mediterranean. No one knew where to find him.
Rawiya was about to give up when she heard a voice: “I know the person you seek.”
She turned and saw a man stooped in front of a camel tied to an olive tree. He sat in a small courtyard off the Medina, his white turban wrapped close around his head, his leather shoes and robe coated in a sheen of travel dust. He beckoned her closer.
“You know the mapmaker?” Rawiya stepped into the courtyard.
“What do you want with him?” The man had a short, dark beard, and his eyes as he studied her were polished obsidian.
Rawiya added up her words. “I am a merchant’s son,” she said. “I wish to offer my services to the mapmaker. I wish to learn the craft and earn a living.”
The man smiled, catlike. “I’ll tell you where to find him if you can answer three riddles. Do you accept?”
“The first riddle,” the man said, “is this.” And he said:
Who is the woman who lives forever,
Who tires never,
Who has eyes in all places
and a thousand faces?
“Let me think.” Rawiya patted Bauza’s neck. Hunger and heat had made her light-headed, and the mention of a woman made her think of her mother. Rawiya wondered what her mother was doing—probably watching the sea for Salim. It had been so long since she’d had Baba to watch the water with her, to walk with her through the olive grove. Rawiya remembered when she was small, how Baba had told her of the sea, that shape-shifting woman who never died—
“The sea,” Rawiya cried. “She lives forever, always changing her moods. The sea has a thousand faces.”
The man laughed. “Very good.” And he continued with the second riddle:
What is the map you take with you
everywhere you go—
the map that guides, sustains you
through field and sun and snow?
Rawiya frowned. “Who always carries a map? Do you mean a map in your head?” She looked down at her hands, at the delicate veins running the length of her wrist and palm. But then— “The blood makes a kind of map, a net of roads in the body.”
The man eyed her. “Well done,” he said.
Rawiya shifted from foot to foot, impatient. “The third riddle?”
The man leaned forward:
What is the most important place on a map?
“That’s it?” Rawiya said. “That’s not fair!”
But the man only pursed his lips and waited, so she groaned and thought hard.
“Wherever you are,” Rawiya said, “at that moment.”
The man smiled that cat smile again. “If you knew where you were, why would you need the map?”
Rawiya tugged at the sleeve of her robe. “Home, then. The place you’re going.”
“But you know that, if you’re going there. Is that your final answer?”
Rawiya knitted her brows. She had never even seen a map before. “This riddle has no answer,” she said. “You wouldn’t use a map unless you didn’t know where you were going, unless you’d never been to a place before—” Then it made sense, and Rawiya smiled. “That’s it. The most important places on a map are the places you’ve never been.”
The man stood. “Do you have a name, young riddle-solver?”
“My name is—Rami.” Rawiya looked back at the Medina. “Will you bring me to the mapmaker? I answered your questions.”
The man laughed. “My name is Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi, scholar and mapmaker. I am honored to make your acquaintance.”
The blood pounded in Rawiya’s chest. “Sir—” She bowed her head, flustered. “I am at your service.”
“Then you will sail with me to Sicily within a fortnight,” al-Idrisi said, “to the palace of King Roger the Second of Palermo, where a great and honorable task awaits us.”
I’VE JUST STARTED telling the story of Rawiya to the fig tree when a blast in the distance shakes the stones under my belly. My guts jump. A low booming comes from some other neighborhood of the city, deep and far away.
It’s the third explosion in three days. Since we moved to Homs, I’ve heard booming like that only a couple of times, and always far off. It’s gotten to be like thunder—scary if you thought about it too much, but not something that would hit your house. I’ve never heard it this close before, not near our neighborhood.
The vibrations fade. I wait for another clap of fear, but it never comes. I pull my fingers from the soil, my thumbs still twitching.
“Nour.” It’s Mama’s voice, warm cedar brown, its edges curled up into red. She’s annoyed. “Come in and help me.”
I kiss the fig’s roots and replace the dirt. “I’ll finish the story,” I tell it. “I promise I will.”
I roll back onto my heels and brush the dirt off my knees. My back is in sunshine, my shoulder blades stiff with heat. It’s a different kind of hot here, not like in New York where the humidity makes you lie on the floor in front of the fan. Here it’s dry-hot, and the air chaps your lips until they split.
Mama’s voice is so red it’s almost white. I tumble toward the door. I dodge the stretched canvas drying by the jamb, the framed maps Mama doesn’t have room for in the house. I plunge into the cool dark, my sandals slapping the stone.
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.
I kick off my sandals by the front door. In the kitchen, Mama mutters in Arabic and clucks her tongue. I can understand a little but not all of it. New words seem to sprout out of Mama all the time since we moved—turns of phrase, things I’ve never heard that sound like she’s said them all her life.
“Your sisters. Where are they?” Mama’s got her hands in a bowl of raw meat and spices, kneading it, giving off a prickly cilantro smell. She’s changed her dress slacks for a skirt today, a papery navy thing that swishes against the backs of her knees. She’s not wearing an apron, but she hasn’t got a single oil stain on her white silk blouse. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her with a speck of oil or a smear of flour on her clothes, not in my whole life.
“How should I know?” I peek up at the counter to see what she’s making—sfiha? I hope it’s sfiha. I love the spiced lamb and pine nuts, the thin disks of dough crisp with oil.
“Mama.” Huda comes in from the pantry, her rose-patterned headscarf streaked with flour, her arms heavy with jars of spices and bundles of herbs from the garden. She sets them down on the counter. “We’re out of cumin.”
“Again!” Mama throws up her hands, pink with the juice from the lamb. “And lazy Zahra, eh? She’s helping me with the pies, or what?”
“Locked in her room, I bet.” No one hears me. Zahra’s been buried in her phone or holed up in the room she shares with Huda since we moved to Homs. Since Baba died, she’s gotten mean, and now we’re trapped with her. The little things that kept us going while Baba was sick are gone now—buying candy from the bodega, playing wall ball on the sides of buildings. Mama makes her maps, Zahra plays on her phone, and all I do is wait out these long, scorching days.
Zahra and Huda always talked about Syria like it was home. They knew it long before Manhattan, said it felt more real to them than Lexington Avenue or Eighty-Fifth Street. But this is my first time outside Amreeka—which is what they call it here—and all the Arabic I thought I knew doesn’t add up to much. This doesn’t feel like home to me.
“Find your sister.” Mama’s voice is edged with red again, a warning. “Tonight is special. We want everything ready for Abu Sayeed, don’t we?”
That melts me, and I slink off to find Zahra. She’s not in her and Huda’s room. The pink walls sweat in the heat. Zahra’s clothes and jewelry are all over her wrinkled comforter and the rug. I pick my way over crumpled jeans and tee shirts and a stray bra. I inspect a bottle of Zahra’s perfume on the dresser. The glass bottle is a fat purple gem of a thing, like a see-through plum. I spray some on the back of my hand. It smells like rotten lilacs. I sneeze on Zahra’s bra.
I tiptoe back down the hall, through the kitchen, and into the living room. My toes burrow into the red-and-beige Persian rug, upsetting Mama’s careful vacuuming. A stereo blasts something that’s supposed to be music: red guitar trills, the black splotches of snare drums. Zahra is stretched out on the low couch, tapping at her smartphone, her legs over the floral-printed arm. If Mama saw her with her feet on the cushions, she’d scream.
“Summer twenty-eleven,” Zahra drawls through the heat. “I was supposed to graduate next year. Class of 2012. We planned out our road trip to Boston. It should have been the best year ever.” She turns her face to the cushions. “Instead I’m here. It’s a hundred and fifty degrees. We have no air conditioning and Mama’s dumb dinner tonight.”
She can’t see me boring holes into her back with my eyes. Zahra’s just jealous that Huda got to graduate high school before we left New York and she didn’t. She doesn’t seem to care at all how I feel, that it sucks just as much to lose your friends at twelve as it does at eighteen. I rap her back with my hand. “Your music is dumb, and it’s not a hundred and fifty degrees. Mama wants you in the kitchen.”
“Like hell.” Zahra covers her eyes with her arm. Her black curls hang over the side of the couch, her stubborn eyes half-lidded. The gold bracelet on her wrist makes her look haughty and grown-up, like a rich lady.
“You’re supposed to help with the pies.” I tug on her arm. “Come on. It’s too hot to keep pulling you.”
“See, genius?” Zahra lurches up from the couch, taking lazy barefoot steps to shut the stereo off.
“We’re out of cumin again.” Huda comes in, wiping her hands on a rag. “Want to come?”
“Let’s get ice cream.” I wrap myself around Huda’s waist. Zahra leans back on the arm of the couch.
Huda jerks her thumb toward the kitchen. “There’s a bowl of lamb with your name on it,” she says to Zahra, “if you don’t want to run errands.”
Zahra rolls her eyes to the ceiling and follows us out.
Mama calls to us as we pass by. “I want you on your best behavior tonight—all of you.” She tilts her chin down, eyeing Zahra. She pushes cilantro into the lamb, breaking the meat apart. “And here—in my pocket.” She motions to Huda, holding up her oily hands. “A little extra, in case the price is up again.”
Huda sighs and tugs a few coins from the pocket of Mama’s skirt. “I’m sure it won’t be that much.”
“Don’t argue.” Mama turns back to the lamb. “All the prices have gone up in the last month. Bread, tahina, the cost of life itself. And listen—watch your steps. No crowds, none of this crazy business. You go to the shop and then directly home.”
“Mama.” Huda picks at dried flour paste on the countertop. “We won’t have any part in that.”
“Good.” Mama glances at Huda. “But today is Friday. It will be worse.”
“We’ll be careful.” Huda leans an elbow against the counter and looks up from under her thick eyebrows, beading with sweat. She shuffles her feet, setting the hem of her gauzy skirt rippling. “Really.”
For the last two months, Mama’s always told us to avoid crowds. It seems like they pop up everywhere—crowds of boys protesting, people protesting the protests, rumors of fighting between the two. The last few weeks, they’ve gotten so loud and angry you can hear their singing and megaphones all through the neighborhood. Mama’s said for months that being in the wrong place at the wrong time can get you arrested—or worse. But just like in New York, keeping to yourself doesn’t always keep trouble from finding you.
I close my eyes and try to think about something else. I take in all the spice smells in the kitchen, so deep I feel the colors in my chest. “Gold and yellow,” I say. “Oil dough. I knew it was sfiha.”
“That’s my Nour, in her world of color.” Mama smiles into the lamb, sweat shimmering at her hairline. “Shapes and colors for smells, sounds, and letters. I wish I could see it.”
Huda tightens her shoelaces. “They say synesthesia is tied to memory. Photographic memory, you know? Where you can go back and see things in your mind’s eye. So your synesthesia is like a superpower, Nour.”
Zahra snickers. “More like a mental disorder.”
“Stop your tongue.” Mama scrubs her hands. “And get going, for heaven’s sake. It’s nearly five.” She shakes the water from her fingers before drying them. “If the power goes out again today, we’ll have to eat cold lamb and rice.”
Zahra heads for the door. “Good memory, huh? Is that why Nour has to tell Baba’s al-Idrisi story a hundred times?”
“Shut up, Zahra.” Without waiting for an answer, I slip my sandals back on and open the front door. I swipe the curtain of fig branches out of my face. Dappled shadows shift on Mama’s maps. Past our little alley, blue marbles of conversation roll in to us. A car swishes by, its tires making a gray hiss. A breeze rustles white on chestnut leaves.
I walk in the shadow of the building next door, shuffling my feet while I wait for Huda and Zahra to tie their shoes. I want to press my face back into the salty garden dirt, but I poke the corners of Mama’s canvases with my toe instead. “Why does she leave all these out here?”
Huda comes out. She glances at the painted maps, stacked to dry like dominoes against the wall. “There are too many to keep them in the house,” she says. “They dry faster outside.”
“The maps don’t sell like they did when we first moved,” Zahra says, wiping sweat off the side of her face. “Have you noticed?”
“Nothing is selling,” Huda says. She takes my hand. “Yalla. Let’s get moving.”
“What do you mean, nothing’s selling?” I ask. Huda’s rose-print hijab blocks the sun. “We buy pistachios and ice cream all the time.”
Huda laughs. I’ve always liked her laugh. It’s not like Zahra’s, all nose and squeak. Huda’s got a nice laugh, pink purple and flicked up at the end. She says, “Ice cream always sells.”
The sidewalk stones steam like bread out of the oven, and they scorch the bottoms of my feet through my plastic sandals. I hop from foot to foot, trying not to let Zahra see.
We turn out onto the main street. A few cars and blue buses circle the square, twisting across the lanes. It’s Ramadan, and people seem to drive slower, walk slower. After iftar tonight, gray-haired men with full bellies will stroll the streets of the Old City with their hands clasped behind their backs, and the tables outside the cafés will be full of people drinking coffee with cardamom and passing the hoses of narghiles. But for now, the sidewalks are almost empty, even in our mostly Christian neighborhood. Mama always says Christians and Muslims have been living side by side in this city for centuries, that they’ll go on borrowing each others’ flour and sewing needles for years to come.
Zahra’s gold bracelet bounces, throwing ovals of light. She eyes Huda’s scarf. “Are you hot?”
Huda side-eyes Zahra. “It doesn’t bother me,” she says, which is what she’s been saying ever since she started wearing her scarf last year, when Baba first got sick. “Aren’t you?”
“Maybe I’ll wear one when I’m older.” I reach up and skim my fingers along the cotton hem. “This one’s my favorite, because of the roses.”
Huda laughs. “You’re too young to worry about that.”
“You don’t even have your period yet,” Zahra says.
“Bleeding isn’t what makes you grown-up,” I say.
Zahra inspects her fingernails. “Clearly you don’t know what it means to be grown-up.”
We turn at a brick building. Heat shimmers off the pavement and Zahra’s black hair. Down the street, a man sells tea from a silver jug on his back, but he doesn’t have any customers. He eases himself down on the steps of an apartment building, swiping sweat from under his hat.
Huda says, “I wear the scarf to remember I belong to God.”
I think about our bookshelf in the city, the Qur’an and the Bible next to each other, Mama and Baba swapping notes. Mama used to take us to Mass some Sundays and, on special Fridays, Baba used to take us to jum’ah.
I ask, “But how did you decide?”
“You’ll understand one day.”
I cross my arms. “When I’m older, right?”
“Not necessarily.” Huda takes my hand again, teasing my arms apart. “Just when it’s time.”
I frown and wonder what that means. I ask, “How old is Abu Sayeed?”
“Isn’t tonight his birthday dinner?”
Zahra laughs. “Do you ever pay attention, stupid?”
“It’s not her fault,” Huda says. “I never told her.” She holds her hand against her thigh, her fingers stiff. There’s something she doesn’t want to say. “Today is the anniversary of when Abu Sayeed lost his son. Mama didn’t want him to be alone.”
“He had a son?” Somehow I never imagined Abu Sayeed had a family.
“And we’re distracting him with food.” Zahra kicks a stone and scoffs. She seems almost mad. “We’re worried about cumin.”
“Abu Sayeed is like us, then.” I look down at my plastic sandals, still warm from the sidewalk stones. “He’s missing the most important ingredient.”
Huda slows. “I never thought of it that way.”
The sun simmers the silver roofs of cars.
“We should play the spinning game with him,” I say.
“Spinning game?” Zahra smirks. “Speaking of made-up.”
Huda checks the street signs before we turn away from the tangle of cars. It’s cooler on this street, and the iron gates of the houses are curled into the shapes of birds and the tufts of flower petals. Ladies in crisp dresses water window boxes or fan themselves on the upper balconies. We pass an apartment walk lined with tiny gray-and-white filler stones, and I snatch up a pebble.
Huda catches hold of my hand again and squeezes it. “The spinning game. How do you play?”
I grin and hop in front of her, walking backward and swinging my hands. “You close your eyes and spin around. Then the magic takes you through different levels, and you count to ten while you spin, one spin for each level you pass through. And when you open your eyes, things look the same, but the magic makes them different.”
“Levels?” Huda tilts her head toward voices in the distance, the black-orange bark of a car backfiring.
“Levels of existence,” I say, throwing open my arms. “There are different layers of realness. Like, underneath this one there’s another one, and another one below that. And all kinds of things are going on all the time that we don’t even know about, things that won’t happen for a million years or things that already happened a long, long time ago.” I forget to watch my feet, and I bump into the curb.
“Nour’s lost it again,” Zahra says.
“So these other realities,” Huda says, “are running alongside ours at the same time, like different streams from the same river? Then there’s a level where Magellan is still sailing around the world.”
“And one where Nour is normal,” Zahra says.
“Maybe there’s a level where we all have wings,” Huda says.
“And a level where you can hear Baba’s voice,” I say.
The words grab me like my feet have grown roots to the other side of the planet, and I stop in front of the iron gate of an apartment building. Panic weights my ankles, the thought that I’ll never hear Baba’s stories or his voice ever again. Why should a missing story leave a hole so big when it’s just a string of words?
The sun drip-drops along the leaves of a crooked poplar tree. The next block is lined with closed halal markets and shawarma shops, the owners heading home early to break their fasts. No one says anything, not even Zahra. Nobody mentions how Mama and Baba used to live here in the Old City when Huda and Zahra were just babies. Nobody brags that they know all the shops and restaurants, how even Zahra speaks better Arabic than me.
But I feel all those things, the not-homeness of this city, the way nobody hangs blankets from their balconies in New York, the way Central Park had maples instead of date palms, how there are no pizza shops or pretzel carts on the streets here. How Arabic sounds funny in my mouth. How I can’t walk to school with my friends anymore or buy gum from Mr. Harcourt at the newspaper stand. How sometimes this city shakes and crumbles in the distance now, how it makes me bite my lip so hard I swallow blood. How home is gone. How, without Baba, I feel like home is gone forever.
Huda’s sneakers cast red afternoon shadows. The high-faced buildings yawn up in yellow and white stone. Somewhere, someone pours a cup of water out a window, and the droplets run white and silver into the gutter.
Huda squats on the pavement in front of me, gathering the folds of her skirt between her knees. “Don’t cry,” she says. She dries my face with a cotton rose at the corner of her hijab.
“I’m not crying, Huppy.” I stab my forearm across my face, missing my nose. Huda gathers me in, and I curve into her like a wooden bowl. She’s warm, the heat of her red gold like McIntosh apples. I press my face into the soft folds of fabric where her scarf meets the neck of her shirt.
Zahra’s laugh is all gravel. “What are you, three? Nobody calls her Huppy anymore.”
I scowl at Zahra. “Shut up.”
Huda says, “She can call me whatever she wants to.”
We walk in silence the rest of the block to the spice shop, and Zahra dodges my eyes. I should have known better: nobody’s said much about Baba since the funeral. Baba is the ghost we don’t talk about. Sometimes I wonder if Mama and Huda and Zahra want to pretend his sickness never happened, that the cancer never rotted out his liver and his heart. I guess it’s like the spinning game: sometimes you’d rather be on any magic level but your own. But I don’t want to forget him. I don’t want it to be like he was never here at all.
Inside the spice shop, the shelves are crammed with sacks and tins and jars, open bowls of red and yellow powder with tiny handwritten Arabic labels. A man smiles at us from behind the counter, spreading his hands. I stand on my tiptoes and push my fingers toward baskets filled with whole cloves and uncrushed cardamom pods like tiny wooden beads.
Zahra catches Huda’s arm, her bracelet swinging.
“I thought of a game,” Zahra says in English so I can understand. She smiles in a slow, careful way that comes off cruel somehow. “Why doesn’t Nour ask for the cumin?”
Huda darts her eyes to Zahra. “Don’t.”
“She can practice her Arabic,” Zahra says. She smiles with her hand over her mouth.
The man behind the counter waits, scratching the shadow of his incoming beard. I wipe my clammy hands on my shorts. Outside, the tea seller passes by. “Shai,” he calls. “Shai.”
I think, Tea. I know that word. I squint at a pull in a tapestry at the back of the shop, a loose thread of red wool shivering under the fan. I try to remember how to say I want.
The man behind the counter asks me a question I don’t understand. His voice is all green swoops, the black dots of consonants between them.
“Come on,” Huda says, “that’s not—”
“Ana . . .” My voice breaks the heat, and everyone goes quiet. I’ve only gotten out the word I. I swallow, digging my nails into my palm, using the pain to stop my nerves. “Ana . . .” My brain pricks and boils, sunbursts of red and pink, and even though I can remember the word for cumin—al-kamun—I still can’t remember how to say I want. I must have said it dozens of times, but with everyone staring at me, my mind goes blank.
The man says, “Shu?” What?
The man is laughing.
“You’re cumin?” Zahra belly-laughs.
“Ana ureedu al-kamun.” I say it again, louder. “I know how to say it. I do!”
“I know you do,” Huda says.
Zahra haggles with the shopkeeper. I press my cheek into my shoulder to keep my eyes from tearing. The coins clink in Huda’s palm while she counts them. On the way out, she lets out a low whistle. Over my tangle of frizz, she whispers to Zahra, “Mama was right about the price.”
On the way home, Zahra refuses to shut up. “What kind of Syrian are you? You don’t even speak Arabic.”
Inside, I hear what she really means: that I don’t know what it means to be Syrian.
“Stop it,” Huda says.
“Oh right,” Zahra says, “I forgot. You’re not Syrian. You don’t even remember our house before we moved to the States. You’re American. All you speak is English.”
“Zahra!” Huda squeezes her nails into Zahra’s arm.
Zahra howls, wrenching her arm away. “It was just a joke. God.”
It doesn’t feel like a joke. Zahra crosses her arms, her gold bracelet winking on her wrist. I want to rip it off and throw it in the street for a car to flatten.
We walk back through the empty streets of Old Homs, the sun red and long, the shopkeepers ratcheting down their metal blinds. I look around for the exposed roots of a date palm or a patch of clean, bare earth.
We pass the bald ankles of the crooked poplar again. I imagine pressing my fingers into the rough bark, folding my voice into the roots.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Map of Salt and Stars includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The Map of Salt and Stars is the story of Nour, a Syrian American girl reeling from the recent loss of her beloved Baba (father) to cancer. After returning to Syria before the war breaks out, Nour and her family then must flee across the Middle East and North Africa in a desperate and dangerous search for safety. Her journey intertwines with the story of Rawiya and the legendary mapmaker al-Idrisi who made the same journey nine hundred years before in their quest to map the world. This rich, moving, compelling, and lyrical debut novel is the first to bring the headlines about the Syrian crisis to life, placing our current moment in the sweep of history.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
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.
A Conversation with Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
How do you think The Map of Salt and Stars can help readers to understand the Syrian refugee crisis?
I hope that this novel will serve as a starting point for readers to seek out accounts of the Syrian refugee crisis written by Syrians. It’s important to me that readers understand that this novel was written by an author with a mostly Western perspective, an author born in the United States and not in Syria, an author who has not lived through the war in Syria or been a refugee. While I have more nuanced insight into the situation as a Syrian American than someone without a link to Syria, my insight is still incomplete; and because it is impossible for a writer to ever entirely discard their lens of nationality, race, gender, and other factors, it is impossible for my American upbringing not to leave traces on this novel. That said, I wrote this book primarily for people like me: people living in the Syrian diaspora, unable to return to their ancestral homeland, who are in deep pain and grieving the beloved people, places, and heritage that have been lost and that continue to be lost every day. What can we take with us? What can be salvaged? Where can we call home? These are the questions I primarily concerned myself with in writing this book. I do hope, however, that non-Syrian readers will also, by reading the fictional story of a single family, have increased empathy for refugees and feel more personally connected to and invested in the situation in Syria after reading this novel, and that this emotional, empathic connection will help spur readers to combat the antirefugee, anti-Arab, and Islamophobic rhetoric that is deeply wounding the communities of which I am a part.
Tell us more about the selection of the poems and the novel’s structure. What inspired you to choose the poems that open each part? Who wrote the poems? Who is the “beloved” of the poems?
I wrote the poems. Each poem focuses on the themes and events of each of the book’s five parts. Although I prefer to leave my work up to the reader’s interpretation, I read the “beloved” of the poems in a couple of different ways. When I was writing the poems, I wrote them from the point of view of a character addressing Syria, but I think there are other valid interpretations, which I won’t reveal here to keep from spoiling the ending.
Synesthesia alters perception, allowing people who have the condition to see the world differently. Which variation of synesthesia do you have and how does the condition influence your writing?
I have several types of synesthesia, including grapheme-color synesthesia (letters and numbers evoke colors); sound-color synesthesia; smell-color synesthesia; taste-color synesthesia; and a few other, rarer types. It’s hard to say how it affects my writing because I will never know what it is like to not have it. For me, synesthesia makes everyday life an intensely colorful and sensory experience. Synesthesia links my senses together so that no experience is ever ordinary, and I suppose that shows in my writing.
You mention in the author’s note that one of your areas of interest is early Arab and Islamic astronomy. Tell your readers more about
I’ve always been interested in the stars. The constellations and star names known in the West mostly come from Ptolemy’s Almagest (which in turn drew on even earlier sources), but the Arabs named these same stars and described their own constellations as well. Of these two traditions, I am far more interested in the star lore and knowledge of the natural world that my Arab ancestors possessed. I’m always interested in alternatives to Western traditional knowledge, and I think it’s important for non-European peoples to draw on their own rich traditions—for example, the breadth and depth of scientific knowledge created during the Islamic Golden Age, which is rarely acknowledged in the West.
You worked as a biomedical research scientist before switching careers. What made you leave science to pursue a career in writing? What do you enjoy about both professions?
I was a writer long before I was a scientist—I started writing short novels at the age of nineand I wrote throughout my education and my career as a scientist. My dream had always been to be a novelist. But I think my interest in science and my interest in writing stem from the same place, which is a desire to know why the world is the way it is. Scientific inquiry offers one set of explanations, and writing, by examining the emotional reality of the human condition, offers another.
One of your many interests is learning new languages. How many languages do you speak? Which is your favorite?
In addition to my native English, I’m proficient in Spanish and German, and I speak (and read) some Arabic as well. I taught myself Latin in high school, which has been very helpful for my writing. I can understand a fair bit of French and Italian, too, which I learned during my vocal training in high school and college. (I’m a classically trained lyric soprano.)
What does the title The Map of Salt and Stars mean to you?
Salt symbolizes several related themes in the book, including grief and healing from it, not only in terms of the sea’s salt but also the way that salt occurs as an imperfection in precious stones. For me, this symbolizes life’s traumas that, on the one hand, can be “polished” from us (healed) by the love of family, community, belonging—but also, on the other hand, the losses and pains of life that we have no choice but to endure. In its own way, grief and healing make us the precious stones that we are. We can’t always see this, just as we can’t always see the value of a raw gemstone when it comes out of the earth. This does not mean that suffering is inherently good or even necessary, but because we cannot avoid suffering and trauma, it’s important to remember that our traumas do not make us unlovable. They do not make us irreparably damaged. They do not make us worthless. There is life after trauma, and it can absolutely be filled with love and wonder.
This lesson, dear reader, is for you.
You signed with an agent through a #DVpit referral. What was that experience like? What advice would you give new writers?
#DVPit was exhilarating, and I’m so grateful for the work that Beth Phelan does to organize #DVPit for maginalized writers. I think it’s a space that’s very necessary and opens doors for a lot of talented writers. Many of the other authors I’ve met as a result of #DVPit have become friends whose work I deeply respect.
The experience of pitching was surreal. I had never participated in a pitching event before, and the day went fast. I signed with my agent, Michelle Brower, through a referral from #DVPit-participating agent Amy Rosenbaum, and I knew immediately that Michelle and I were on the same page about our visions for what we wanted the book to be. Michelle is very insightful and absolutely helped to push The Map of Salt and Stars to be the best version of itself that it could be. I’m so grateful to have her in my corner.
As for advice for new writers: read a lot. Read everything. Don’t put too much pressure on your first novel; give yourself permission to play, and write it for you. Write the book you want to read that only you can write. I’m a firm believer in writing for yourself first, and this is especially true while you’re honing your craft. You don’t have to blow anyone’s mind with your first effort. You just have to finish it. Part of what makes you a writer is the fact that there will always be another project. Eventually, try to find other writers whose work you respect to read and critique your work. But whatever you do, make sure you don’t write just what you think others want to read. It took me a long time to start writing about people like me: Arab Americans, people with interfaith families, people living in diaspora, people struggling with trauma or feeling like they didn’t belong. But it was only once I started writing from those difficult places that my work began to come alive. Don’t let anyone tell you that people like you are not worthy of being the heroes of your stories.
Why did you decide to make Nour the narrator of The Map of Salt and Stars? What are her strengths as narrator?
I think young or child narrators allow us to see the absurdity, terror, or joy in certain situations much more clearly because they don’t try to rationalize the world the way that adults do. They observe things and can hold contradictions without trying to explain them away. That was a quality I wanted in the narrator of The Map of Salt and Stars; I wanted a narrator who would not flinch or look away from the pain inherent in the story, so that readers would not be able to look away either, but I also wanted a narrator who would find beauty and joy in unexpected places. I think Nour does that very well.
You are also an award-winning author of short stories. What is the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel?
The most challenging and rewarding thing for me about writing short stories is that because of their length, every single word has to be in just the right place and has to do a minimum of double duty—better yet, it has to advance the plot, build character, create tone, and convey theme at the same time. To waste a single sentence in a short story can unravel it. I think of both short stories and novels as engines; they just have to be different sizes, because they power completely different story vehicles. A short story engine is delicate where a novel engine must be robust. I do love that because short stories don’t have to sustain themselves over many pages, you can create a much more delicate story milieu that would be impossible to sustain over three to four hundred pages.
The intersection between short stories and novels, for me, is in the fact that a short story has the same pieces as a novel, just writ smaller: you can have a complete three-act structure in a short story, and you certainly need to have a character arc, but you can gesture at parts of these structures that would need to be more fully developed in a novel. For this reason, I like to write each of my novels as a short story first, a kind of thumbnail sketch or bird’s-eye view where I can see the novel’s structure as a whole and make sure it’s working before I expand it. I talked about this at more length in an essay I wrote for Bird’s Thumb in 2017.
Which authors have influenced your writing the most?
My earliest influences were mostly fantasy novels like Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet. As I got older my writing was also influenced by the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude is tied for my favorite book of all time) and Jorge Luis Borges. Some of my favorite contemporary authors include Helen Oyeyemi, Roxane Gay, Rabih Alameddine (The Hakawati and The Angel of History are tied for my other two favorite books), Randa Jarrar, and Celeste Ng.
What’s next for you?
Without saying too much, I’m working on a second standalone novel that discusses Syrian immigration to the United States over the last century, Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment in post-9/11 America, and the particular mythology of New York City. Served up, of course, with a healthy dose of magical realism.