The Maps of Our Destruction: Two Novels on Syria

30 May, 2021
World map, textured acrylic abstract by artist Anna Marija Bulka (courtesy  Saatchi Art )

World map, tex­tured acrylic abstract by artist Anna Mar­i­ja Bul­ka (cour­tesy Saatchi Art)

The Map of Salt and Stars  is available from  Touchstone .

The Map of Salt and Stars is avail­able from Touch­stone.

Round­about of Death, a nov­el by Faysal Khar­tash,
Trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Max Weiss
New Ves­sel Press (New York, May 2021)
ISBN 9781939931924 

The Map of Salt and Stars, a nov­el by Zeyn Joukhadar
Simon & Schuster/Touchstone Press (New York, 2018)
ISBN 9781501169052


Rana Asfour

In an arti­cle enti­tled “On Lit­er­ary Car­tog­ra­phy: Nar­ra­tive as a Spa­tial­ly Sym­bol­ic Act”, Robert Tal­ly wrote that “The human con­di­tion is one of being ‘at sea’ — both launched into the world and some­what lost in it — and, like the nav­i­ga­tor, we employ maps, logs, our own obser­va­tions and imag­i­na­tion to make sense of our place.” 

At present, with con­flicts in the Mid­dle East con­tin­u­ing to remap the geog­ra­phy and rede­fine — if not erad­i­cate — points of ref­er­ence, war sto­ries have become ever more social­ly and polit­i­cal­ly rel­e­vant, car­ry­ing a huge emo­tion­al res­o­nance with char­ac­ters that are often deal­ing with loss: a par­ent, a sib­ling, a friend, or some­thing not flesh-and-blood but nonethe­less mon­u­men­tal, like home, or their past. When such writ­ers map their world, they cre­ate a space that allows read­ers to engage in a man­ner that makes bet­ter sense nav­i­gat­ing a chang­ing world defined by loss and the absence of the familiar. 

Peter Turchi argues in his book Maps of the Imag­i­na­tion: The Writer as Car­tog­ra­ph­er that all writ­ers are map­mak­ers and that all writ­ing is like a map. “…[L]anguage is like a land, para­graphs are dis­tricts, sen­tences are streets, and words are only lines and curves con­struct­ed the way maps are made of lines and shapes,” he observes.

That said, it is not only all of the above that the two nov­els reviewed below, Round­about of Death by Faysal Khar­tash and The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar, have in com­mon, but they each chal­lenge read­ers to broad­en the tra­di­tion­al def­i­n­i­tion of ‘map’ to one trans­formed through lit­er­ary car­tog­ra­phy in which veins in blood­shot eyes are a roadmap of fear, hearts and tongues, words and lan­guage are guides to home.

The Map of Salt and Stars is an epic nov­el which deft­ly weaves togeth­er past and the present to cre­ate a com­pelling com­ing-of-age sto­ry of two hero­ines fac­ing per­ilous times. In the sum­mer of 2011, in New York, three Amer­i­can sis­ters, Huda, Zahra, and Nour lose their father to can­cer. In a bid to be clos­er to her fam­i­ly, their moth­er — a car­tog­ra­ph­er — decides to move them all back to “hot and rain­less” Homs, in Syr­ia, heed­less of the unrest bub­bling across the coun­try where she hopes to be able to sell her maps. They arrive in a coun­try with spo­radic elec­tric­i­ty cuts, protests, and dis­tant shelling. A city once bustling with peo­ple is now a ghostville with pave­ments ren­dered almost emp­ty of people.

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.
— Nour

To cope with her grief, Nour, the youngest of the sis­ters and the clos­est to their late father, becomes obsessed with one of his bed­time sto­ries about Rawiya, a father­less 12th-cen­tu­ry adven­tur­er from Ceu­ta, who at six­teen dis­guised her­self as a boy to seek her for­tune to save her moth­er from star­va­tion. She joined the car­a­vanserai of Mus­lim schol­ar and geo­g­ra­ph­er Abu Abd Allah Muham­mad Al-Idris­si on his quest to cre­ate the Nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ikhtirāq al-āfāq, known in the West as the Tab­u­la Roge­ri­ana, a book that Idris­si worked on for fif­teen years at the court of the Nor­man King Roger II of Sici­ly, who com­mis­sioned the work around 1138. Writ­ten in Ara­bic, and divid­ed into sev­en cli­mate zones, each of which is sub-divid­ed into ten sec­tions, the book con­tains maps show­ing the Eurasian con­ti­nent in its entire­ty, but only the north­ern part of the African con­ti­nent. The map is ori­ent­ed with the North at the bot­tom and the text incor­po­rates exhaus­tive descrip­tions of the phys­i­cal, cul­tur­al, polit­i­cal and socioe­co­nom­ic con­di­tions of each region; each of the 70 sec­tions has a cor­re­spond­ing map.

Back in Homs, Nour strug­gles to adjust to her new sur­round­ings, in part due to her lim­it­ed knowl­edge of Ara­bic that “fills the air like a flock of star­tled birds.” Also, Nour has synes­the­sia, a neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tion that affects her reac­tions and allows her to expe­ri­ence the world in a dif­fer­ent way than those around her. It is in these pas­sages that the author’s fig­u­ra­tive lan­guage bursts resplen­dent. For Nour, Man­hat­tan horse chest­nut trees bloomed “white like the fat grains of rock salt under the apart­ment win­dow in spring,” and in the fam­i­ly’s tree roots in Homs she tastes “pur­ple air and oil.” When the shrap­nel appears it is “a red word that sounds like met­al and anger and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It sounds like the red and yel­low things inside of peo­ple. The fear and rage that rot a per­son out until they rot out some­body else.” The voic­es of boys jostling each oth­er in the neigh­bour­hood’s clock tow­er are “chalk and choco­late,” the after­math of a blast “a plume of gray dust like ink in a glass of water” in which the shout­ing “bleats and pounds like angry music” and “black sounds roll like mar­bles in the throat.”

After a stray shell demol­ish­es the fam­i­ly home and Huda is seri­ous­ly injured, the fam­i­ly mem­bers quick­ly pack what they can car­ry of their belong­ings into a fam­i­ly friend’s car and head out, first to Dam­as­cus for med­ical assis­tance for Huda and then to the Amer­i­can embassy, locat­ed in neigh­bor­ing coun­try Jor­dan. How­ev­er, com­pli­ca­tions arise and it is soon appar­ent that in order to find safe­ty the fam­i­ly will have to trav­el across sev­en coun­tries of the Mid­dle East and North Africa — along the very route Rawiya and the map­mak­er took 800 years before. For Nour though, it is her moth­er’s per­son­al map inlaid with a secret col­or-cod­ing sys­tem and cached fam­i­ly his­to­ry in the form of poems, which “map the soul in the guise of words,” that will guide her to safe­ty when the fam­i­ly is forced to separate.

‘A per­son can be two things at the same time,’ Itto says. ‘The land where your par­ents were born will always be in you. Words sur­vive. Bor­ders are noth­ing to words and blood.’
— Zeyn Joukhadar

Joukhadar’s choice to jux­ta­pose the expe­ri­ences of his two female char­ac­ters Rawiya and Nour is inge­nious not only in show­ing the his­toric dis­crim­i­na­tion, dis­missal and vio­lence young women had and con­tin­ue to have to deal with, in soci­eties need­ing them to con­form, but they are also sto­ries of two young women map­ping out their place in the world and where and how they will ever fit in to it when all that they have ever learned of home and safe­ty is snatched away and they are left to ques­tion whether “the world is noth­ing more than a col­lec­tion of sense­less hurts wait­ing to hap­pen, one long cut wait­ing to bleed,” and that even­tu­al­ly it is not death that hurts, but living.

The Map of Salt and Stars, is being trans­lat­ed into twen­ty lan­guages, and was a 2018 Mid­dle East Book Award win­ner in Youth Lit­er­a­ture. The author who iden­ti­fies as Zeyn Joukhadar released his lat­est nov­el The Thir­ty Names of Night (Atria/Simon & Schus­ter, 2020) which won the 2021 Bar­bara Git­tings Stonewall Book Award, was a 2021 Lamb­da Lit­er­ary Awards final­ist in Trans­gen­der Fic­tion, and was a Decem­ber 2020 Indie Next Book Pick. 

Joukhadar is a mem­ber of the Radius of Arab Amer­i­can Writ­ers (RAWI) whose work has appeared in KINK: Sto­ries (eds. RO Kwon & Garth Green­well), Salon, The Paris Review, Shon­da­land, [PANK], Miz­na, and else­where, and has been nom­i­nat­ed for the Push­cart Prize and the Best of the Net. He is also the guest edi­tor of the 2020 Queer + Trans Voic­es issue of Miz­na and a Periplus Col­lec­tive mentor.

— • —

… it is a cru­el irony of his­to­ry that the jaw-drop­ping and awe-inspir­ing city of Alep­po now seems to be inscribed in glob­al con­scious­ness at the moment of its anni­hi­la­tion.
— Max Weiss, translator

Roundabout of Death  is available from  New Vessel Press .

Round­about of Death is avail­able from New Ves­sel Press.

First pub­lished in Ara­bic in 2017 as Dawwār al-mawt mā bay­na Hal­ab wa-l-Raqqa, Faysal Khar­tash’s Round­about of Death is the first of his nov­els to be trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, despite an exten­sive bib­li­og­ra­phy of work in Ara­bic. Khar­tash, who was born in 1952 and still lives in Alep­po, is con­sid­ered part of a gen­er­a­tion of dis­il­lu­sioned Syr­i­an writ­ers who were rel­a­tive­ly iso­lat­ed from the rest of their coun­try and lit­tle known out­side of it who, as his trans­la­tor Max Weiss notes, “nev­er­the­less con­tin­ued to live, write and work lan­guish­ing away for many of their days in dingy, smoke-filled cafes, bars, and restau­rants, under the alter­na­tive­ly lazy and watch­ful eye of state censorship.”

Like the author, the nov­el­’s pro­tag­o­nist Jumaa Abd Al Jaleel lives in Alep­po. In 2012, the war has arrived in fury to the city once accord­ed the pro­tect­ed sta­tus of a UNESCO World Her­itage Site. Jumaa, a high school teacher of Ara­bic, is now job­less and forced to live under hor­rif­ic con­di­tions in which run­ning dai­ly errands has become a life-threat­en­ing task.  Read­ers meet Jumaa on the morn­ing he has wok­en up to dis­cov­er that his head, which had always been round, has turned egg-shaped “with two tiny bumps bulging out in arousal,” mak­ing him “appear as some kind of sex­u­al deviant.” This, how­ev­er, mir­rors the con­fu­sion of chaos that sur­rounds him, and he is unsure as to how or why these bumps have appeared or if they’re even real. 

From the moment in which Jumaa makes up his mind to ignore his con­di­tion and instead to set about his dai­ly rou­tine start­ing at the Joha Café over­look­ing the Saadal­lah al-Jabiri Square, read­ers are con­front­ed with a hell­ish tour of the city’s warscape as Jumaa lat­er nav­i­gates the city on bus, on foot, and in car espe­cial­ly when he strug­gles to reach his moth­er’s house on the East­ern side of the city, which is con­trolled by the Free Syr­i­an Army. Through­out it all, Jumaa notes the ever increas­ing num­ber of check­points and the geo­graph­i­cal remap­ping tak­ing place on a near dai­ly basis. Read­ers would do well to make a list of the actu­al names of places and mon­u­ments men­tioned in the nov­el. Some, like the uni­ver­si­ty build­ing now hous­es refugees and the inter­nal­ly dis­placed, schools are con­vert­ed to store­hous­es for air­plane parts and pro­jec­tiles, and yet oth­ers have been com­plete­ly “wiped off the map of Alep­po,” for­ev­er lost, as a result of the inces­sant drop­ping of five hun­dred kilo­gram bombs from regime fight­er jets cir­cling the sky and the pound­ing bom­bard­ment of attacks and coun­ter­at­tacks of mili­tias heav­i­ly armed with Russ­ian artillery from the ground that have oblit­er­at­ed his­tor­i­cal land­marks, caus­ing the city’s sew­ers and water mains to flood, raz­ing hous­es, shops, mosques, even­tu­al­ly leav­ing “who­ev­er is left alive to wait for the next round of shelling, a role cre­at­ed for them … until the pilot com­pletes his mis­sion and returns safe­ly back to base, wash­es his hands, runs off to scarf down his meal and head to sleep because it’s well past his bedtime.” 

Syrian novelist Faysal Khartash

Syr­i­an nov­el­ist Faysal Khartash

Although not much hap­pens in terms of plot in the nov­el, the writ­ing is gut- wrench­ing and insight­ful. “Peo­ple can­not find bread to eat,” Jumaa laments at one point, “in a coun­try cov­ered with wheat.” Although Round­about is con­cen­trat­ed on the fight­ing and the treach­er­ous con­di­tions with­in Alep­po, oth­er cities like Raqqa, under ISIS con­trol, are men­tioned when Jumaa, egged on by his wife, scouts it out as a pos­si­ble safer place to live after his son’s arrest, tor­ture and even­tu­al release by regime forces. How­ev­er, Jumaa soon changes his mind when on this vis­it, he observes Tunisian, Libyan and Moroc­can mili­ti­a­men humil­i­at­ing peo­ple, Mujahids loot­ing shops after a mar­ket blast, women wrapped up tight in their clothes with only their eyes vis­i­ble, threat­ened with the whip if they trans­gress, and when he even­tu­al­ly runs into a French film­mak­er he once met in Paris, now turned “to Jihad in the path of God” and liv­ing in Raqqa after mak­ing his way into Syr­ia through Turkey await­ing orders to car­ry out a jiha­di oper­a­tion, he knows that this is not the place for him. And so Jumaa returns to Alep­po, and to yet anoth­er bit of dev­as­tat­ing news. His cousin Fati­ma is shot by regime forces from the minaret of the mosque where his moth­er used to say prayers and bless­ings for her chil­dren. His Pales­tin­ian friend’s son is expe­ri­enc­ing “extreme pho­bias” that the doc­tor has diag­nosed as “com­plete­ly nor­mal” But, at least his son Nawwar has crossed suc­cess­ful­ly into Istan­bul — he is safe but it remains to be seen whether Jumaa will sur­vive the war to ever see his son again.  Round­about of Death is a sweep­ing tale of war and the oblit­er­a­tion of a city, but it is also one that maps absence, grief and loss.

By the mid­dle of Decem­ber 2016, Bashar Al-Assad’s gov­ern­ment forces announced that they had alleged­ly defeat­ed the rebels in Alep­po and tak­en back con­trol of the city that lay com­plete­ly flat­tened, with hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple inter­nal­ly dis­placed and many more becom­ing refugees. “What­ev­er the case,” writes trans­la­tor Max Weiss in his intro­duc­tion, “it is a cru­el irony of his­to­ry that the jaw-drop­ping and awe-inspir­ing city of Alep­po now seems to be inscribed in glob­al con­scious­ness at the moment of its anni­hi­la­tion…Round­about of Death can be read as a mon­u­men­tal tes­ta­ment to the pow­er of lit­er­a­ture as a means of doc­u­ment­ing wartime atroc­i­ties, but one should not neglect to appre­ci­ate how such a lit­er­ary text can also more mod­est­ly cap­ture moments of psy­cho­log­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, phys­i­cal dan­ger, and geo­graph­i­cal remapping.”


Inline Feedbacks
View all comments