The Map of Salt and Stars

Written by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhdar
Review by Pam Ferrell

Nour, a twelve-year-old Syrian-American girl, her two teenaged sisters, and their recently widowed mother, a mapmaker, have returned to Homs, Syria, after more than a decade living in New York City. Unfortunately, the Syrian civil war begins and quickly envelops them. Their house is shelled, and they are forced to become refugees, fleeing Syria.

Their flight out of Syria and across revolution-torn north Africa parallels the path taken by the 12th-century north African mapmaker, al-Idrisi. All her life, Nour’s parents have told her stories of this famous geographer. The legends of his journeys are brought to life in the novel by a young girl disguised as a boy, Rawiya, who accompanies al-Idrisi and his entourage on their long trek. These stories and histories, along with the memories of her happy childhood in New York and her beloved father, help to sustain Nour in the family’s harrowing, and (to Nour), bewildering flight to safety.

These parallel stories are accompanied by evocative shape poems which enhance both stories. Truly beautiful writing captures the reader’s interest in both stories, but it is when Nour relates her family’s desperate fight to survive that the reader is caught up in her attempts to understand humanity’s cruelties and insanity. In spite of the immediacy and rawness of Syria’s plight in the 21st century, the skill of the author and the depth of her writing keep the novel and Nour from falling into despair. It’s a haunting, inspiring story, one which remains in this reviewer’s mind long after the final pages. Highly recommended.