Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar's debut novel captures the heart-wrenching human tragedy of what's happening with Syria and Syrian refugees, told through the parallel coming-of-age journeys of two teenage girls from the present and a mythic past.

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Book review

The BBC refers to Homs as the “Syrian revolution’s fallen capital” and it’s easy to see why. Syria’s military forces laid waste to the city, killing or displacing half of the city’s 1.4 million people.

By now we’ve all grown accustomed to searing images of bombed-out neighborhoods and shellshocked children, families walking across whole countries and braving rough seas in search of refuge.

Syrian-American author Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar captures this heart-wrenching human tragedy in her beguiling debut novel, “The Map of Salt and Stars.”

The novel follows the parallel coming-of-age journeys of two teenage girls from the present and a mythic past. Nour is a Syrian-American girl living in Manhattan with her mapmaker mother and her bridge-designer father, both immigrants. When he dies of cancer, Nour’s mom takes her and her two sisters to live with family in Homs, but it’s not long before the Syrian government launches its bombing campaign to dislodge anti-government rebels from the city. The family flees, like so many were forced to do during the onslaught.

To comfort herself, Nour recounts the popular ancient tale of Rawiya that her father used to tell her, the story of a 16-year-old girl who lived 800 years ago in the North African city of Ceuta, today under the control of Spain. Rawiya decides to leave home on an adventure of her own, disguising herself as a boy to work as an apprentice for the mapmaker known as al-Idrisi as he charts trade routes. The two girls’ journeys follow similar paths through the Arab word, evoked in transporting detail by Joukhadar, but while Nour’s story is marked by war and the many travails of a refugee, Rawiya’s is more focused on helping her impoverished mother back home.

“Rawiya dreamed of seeing the world, but she and her widowed mother could barely afford couscous,” Joukhadar writes.

The author moves back and forth between the two girls’ stories, one set in the harsh present, the other steeped in history. They are two girls charting paths along life-defining journeys, though for different reasons.

As dramatic as the flight of millions from Syria seems, it is part of a historic wave of displacement worldwide as people escape their homelands for security reasons. The U.N. Refugee Agency reported that some 65.5 million people around the world were forcibly displaced as of the end of 2016 because of war, violence and persecution. On average 20 people were driven from their homes every minute that year.

Joukhadar brings an intimacy to what is one of the stories of our age, and she does so with a language that leans heavily on the poetic.

The book literally begins with a poem printed in the shape of Syria:

It begins, “O beloved, you are dying of a broken heart. The women wail in the street. The rice is scattered and the lentils split. The good linen is trampled. The wadi runs with tears. In what language did you tell me that all we loved was a dream? I don’t dream in Arabic anymore — I don’t dream at all.”

Joukhadar’s prose is like a dream, which is fitting for this pair of stories, one drawn from fantastical legend, the other from nightmarish current events from which Syria has yet to awaken.

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“The Map of Salt and Stars,” by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, Touchstone, 368 pp., $27