Nour is a young Syrian girl who has lost her father to cancer. Wanting to be close to her relatives, Nour’s mother – a cartographer who makes beautiful hand-painted maps – moves her family back to the city of Homs. Nour’s father was a real storyteller and he told her that the roots of the trees connect to the ground across the world. She knows they left her father in the ground back in America, so she starts telling him the ancient fable of Rawiya, whispering it into the ground so he might hear.
Rawiya left her home dressed as a boy in order to explore the world. She became apprenticed to Al Idrisi, who was a famous cartographer tasked by King Roger II of Sicily to make the first map of the world. Together with Al Idrisi, Rawiya travelled the globe, encountering adventures – including the mythical Roc and a battle in the Valley of Snakes – along the way. It is this story that gives Nour the courage to keep going when she has to leave Homs after it is bombed and faces a long journey as a refugee in search of a new home – a journey that closely mirrors that of Rawiya many centuries before.
When Nour and her sister are forced to part from their mother, she gives them a special map that contains clues that will lead them to safety. The two stories are beautifully told and interwoven, the real interspersed with the magical/imagined so that the overall effect is uplifting – about the strength of the human spirit, the strength of women in particular, the power of a journey, and what it takes to find a home.
I received a copy of The Map of Salt and Stars from Netgalley. The cover caught my eye, and the premise sold the book to me. I find maps to be very intriguing objects, and I think there is much subjectivity in the topic of mapmaking, which leads me to being more invested in learning how the map was created.
This book is #ownvoices for Syrian representation.
Upon seeing the cover, I assumed that the book would be fantasy. I was half-right. The story follows Nour and her family fleeing from Homs, Syria. Nour also narrates her favourite story, that her late father used to tell her: it’s about a young girl called Rawiya, who becomes an apprentice to a famous cartographer, and her life. Thus, the book intertwines two different stories into one, Nour’s and Rawiya’s. Both girls go to the same cities, Nour as a refugee and Rawiya as an apprentice. At the beginning, the two stories seem to not be connected at all, but once you finish the book, you start to notice all of the connections.
Nour has synesthesia. The story doesn’t focus on this, but it is part of who Nour is. She’s a great character, as a young child she has many flaws and does not understand some of the things that are happening. For example, the reader realises that her sister was almost raped, whereas she doesn’t know what exactly is happening. She is unsure about how Syrian she is, since she doesn’t speak Arabic fluently – this is something I could relate so much to, coming from the diaspora. There is one character who tells her that she can be two things at once, and I feel this is something that people in the diaspora as well as transracial and multiracial people should hear more often.
It was so lovely to know that Nour’s parents had a stable relationship. A prevailing stereotype that I have encountered is that inter-faith relationships don’t work. Nour’s mother is Christian, her father was Muslim, and they managed to do it. That made me so happy!
There were interesting musings about mapmaking. For example, maps always need to be fixed because the world changes so quickly – which is true, and something we should be more aware of.
The author’s note was awesome! I didn’t realise that Arab scholars used to create maps that were oriented with south on top! Through the note, I gain a deeper understanding of the stories and how they were connected.
There are some ableist words in this book.
The Map of Salt and Stars is an emotional and detailed story that combines fantasy and contemporary, the story of a refugee with the story of an apprentice. It delivers a child’s perspective on the Syrian refugee crisis. It shows how harrowing it is to flee from a country, and how difficult it is to get from the starting point to the end point. This story should make every reader realise that no country should turn people away from its border.
Trigger warnings: attempted rape, bombing, violence.
Will you be reading The Map of Salt and Stars?