The Map of Salt and Stars
Zeyn Joukhadar

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

I’m going to have to start a list of the best books I’ve read this year. Back in March I proclaimed Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine to be one of the best books I’d read in 2020 but we were only three months into the year, so what the hell did I know? My opinion of Eleanor Oliphant still stands, but she’s no longer alone on the pedestal because The Map of Salt and Stars was the best book I read in May and possibly the very best I’ve finished as of this writing. (I say “finished” because I’m currently 58% of the way through The Girl with the Louding Voice which is HOMGWONDERFUL so Eleanor Oliphant and Map are going to have some very stiff competition by the end of the week.)

The Map of Salt and Stars follows a twelve-year-old Syrian American girl, Nour, whose world turns upside down when her family relocates from New York to Syria following the death of her father. The move is less of a hardship for her two older sisters, Huda and Zahra, who were born in Syria, but Nour is unfamiliar with Syria and struggles to communicate with its Arabic-speaking residents, as she finds she is far less fluent than she thought. To cope with her grief for her father and her sudden move to a country she does not know, Nour begins to recount for herself the story of Rawiya, a young woman who disguises herself as a man in order to become the apprentice of legendary mapmaker Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi. Nour’s story alternates with Rawiya’s, and their journeys mirror each other throughout the course of the book as both girls fight to find their places in their respective worlds.

Half of the book is devoted to Nour’s story as she and her family travel together in search of safety after their house is shelled during the Syrian Civil War. On the road to Jordan they meet another family headed by a woman named Umm Yusuf, who is moving her daughter and a friend to Amman, and the two families stick together until differing opinions cause them to separate. Following complications with the shoulder wound Huda received when their house was shelled, Nour and Zahra are forced to strike off on their own in a desperate attempt to reach their uncle’s house on the northern coast of Africa while their mother takes Huda to the hospital, with the promise that she will catch up with them.

There are so many things to love about Nour’s story. The characters are wonderful. I particularly loved Abu Sayeed, a family friend who calls Nour “little cloud,” and Huda. I even ended up loving Zahra, who starts the book as a crappy teenager but is forced to grow up very quickly. I loved the inclusion of synesthesia, a rare condition of which I know very little, under which Nour associates sounds and smells with specific colors and shapes. And yet, though this is a condition to which relatively few of us can relate, it’s woven into the narrative so seamlessly that you don’t really question it.

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 was mildly confused at first, but as I got to know Nour a bit better it started to make more and more sense. Though her condition sets her apart, in the end she reaches safety by following a map her mother painted specifically for her, a map color-coded based on Nour’s “color game,” in which different letters are associated with different colors. Her synesthesia is never treated as a weakness, or as a hurdle that must be overcome. It is celebrated as a strength, a quality that both empowers her and makes her uniquely herself. Zahra ridicules her in the beginning, but she never lets herself be shamed for being different. And, though Zahra seems to have zero redeeming features in chapter 1, over the course of the book you come to understand that she’s been closing herself off and lashing out at everyone else out of grief for her father. You learn that she chose a less constructive method of grieving, but you also learn that she can still grow. She matures tremendously while traveling to safety with Nour; she isn’t permanently stained by the decisions she made before getting hit hard with a huge dose of perspective. It’s wonderful.

That being said, I can’t mince this: This book will break your heart, repeatedly, and then stomp on the pieces. I spent most of it wondering why everything has to happen to Huda because literally everything seems to happen to Huda, who is one of the kindest, gentlest characters in the book. She is the only person injured when the house is shelled. She suffers serious infections and complications from her wound, most likely because she doesn’t receive as much medical care as she actually needs and is forced to travel through several countries, all of which are hotter than hell, during a very short time frame. She is dragged into an alley and almost raped by two bored boys. She almost dies of a fever related to her shoulder wound and has to have part of her arm amputated as a result. Through it all, she consistently remains a kind, thoughtful sister to Nour, who adores her and calls her “Huppy,” and who fights like hell to keep those bored boys from getting what they want. In the end the boys are chased off by Abu Sayeed before they can carry out their evil plans, but then the book hits you with this:

I look up at Huda, but she won’t look at me. I wonder if “almost” can cost you as much as “did,” if the real wound is the moment you understand that you can do nothing.

The heartbreak is all the more acute because it’s so beautifully written.

The other half of the book is less depressing because it is devoted to Rawiya, who leaves home at sixteen to apprentice herself to al-Idrisi. (Apparently I need to read more carefully because I was picturing her as Nour’s age the whole time so it was a surprise when the story fast-forwarded six years and she was suddenly 24, but whatever.) She leaves not for personal glory, but to try to bring money to her mother, who is extremely poor. Disguised as a young man named Rami, Rawiya impresses al-Idrisi by answering three riddles, and accompanies him on his two-year journey to create the Tabula Rogeriana. Over the course of the journey it becomes clear that Rawiya is not just an extremely clever sixteen-year-old, she’s also an unstoppable badass. Desert storms? No problem. Rude, overbearing soldiers? No problem. Murderous birds the size of mountains? NO PROBLEM. While her male companions wail and fret, Rawiya is out there gettin’ shit done, usually just armed with a sling, and I am HERE FOR IT. She never lets her gender decide what she can and can’t do. She never longs to be a man; she never curses the fate that made her a woman. While battling soldiers in King Roger’s palace, she gives the best line in the book:

I am a woman and a warrior. If you think I can’t be both, you’ve been lied to.

Eventually she falls in love with sensitive poet Khaldun, who swore fealty to her after she fixed his biggest problem, and reveals her true identity to him while they are imprisoned by Almohad warriors. She worries that he will angrily reject her, but instead he does this:

Khaldun knelt before her and lowered his face. “Whoever you are, I am at your service,” he said, “for saving my life and my honor. I only hope God will grant me the courage and the opportunity to return the favor. Man or woman, I have promised to follow you until the day I die, and I will keep my pledge.”

WHAT A MAN. ❤️ Al-Idrisi takes the news slightly less well and spends a few minutes lamenting her deception during their final battle with the vengeful roc that’s been pursuing them for most of their journey, but eventually he comes around:

Al-Idrisi called out to Rawiya, “I was wrong to judge your secret. Though I never told you, I had a wife and daughter in Ceuta. They drowned in the strait, crossing from Ceuta to al-Andalus. You have all the courage and strength I would have wished for my daughter. Nothing can change that.”

Then there’s this magical moment, where the entire male crew realizes she’s just saved their collective ass and is actually grateful:

As Khaldun helped Rawiya to her feet, al-Idrisi drew his scimitar. Taking it in both hands, he bowed his head and knelt. He offered the blade to Rawiya, saying, “Forgive me.”

“There is no need,” Rawiya said, holding her ribs. “We have both given up our secrets, both lost something precious. I have only done my duty for my friends.”

But soon the whole crew followed. The Norman sailors went silent and knelt on the deck. Soon the ship was an unbroken carpet of bowed heads.

Seriously, somebody please turn this into a TV show so I can watch this one scene.

Final Thoughts

The Map of Salt and Stars is magical, heartbreaking, and beautifully written. One of my favorite elements of the book, at least as far as design goes, is the poems that precede each section, which take the shape of the countries Nour and her family visit. I cannot recommend this book enough (and I also can’t stress enough how grateful I am that it had a happy ending).

If you’re unfamiliar with Arabic, like I am, I also recommend the audiobook so you can figure out how to pronounce all the names. As an added bonus, the print book includes a thoughtful, informative author’s note, in which Joukhadar discusses his research and talks a bit about the Imazighen (singular “Amazigh”), an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa, who briefly appear in the book. Though their history is not fleshed out, Joukhadar encourages the reader to learn more about them and recommends a couple of Amazigh authors, whose works I will be reading in the future.

If you’re not sure about this book, read it anyway. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I can’t wait to read more of Joukhadar’s works.