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Two Syrian teenage girls, 800 years apart

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Debut novelist Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
Debut novelist Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar's book, "The Map of Salt and Stars," tells the story of a Syrian-American teenager plunged into the horrors of the Syrian civil war.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

A new novel tells the story of a teenager thrust into the horrors of the Syrian civil war.

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar's story captures the tiny details of refugee life in "The Map of Salt and Stars." In the story, a family has to leave the house where they have been living at very short notice:

"We leave only clumps of our dust behind. Mama spends the morning ripping open the tongues of my sneakers and stuffing paper money inside, sewing them up with a double stitch, and I watch her without asking why.

Joukhadar said there are two stories, centuries apart, running through the book.

"Basically it's the story of Nour, a Syrian-American girl who is born in New York City, in Manhattan, and in 2011 she has just lost her father," she said. "So her mother decides to move Nour and her two older sisters back to Syria, to Homs, which is the town that both of Nour's parents are originally from."

But they arrive just as the brutal Syrian civil war tears through the town.

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s debut novel, 'The Map of Salt and Stars'
Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar's debut novel, "The Map of Salt and Stars"
Courtesy Simon and Schuster

"So what happens is they end up losing their home and they make the decision to leave the city and to leave Syria in order to find a relative who can hopefully help them," Joukhadar said.

As they flee, Nour comforts herself by retelling a story her late father told her of Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi, a 12th century mapmaker who created what was at the time the most accurate map of the world. Joukhadar said she tried to imagine what it would have been like during the cartographer's trip through the Levant, seeing the wonders of the Arab world.

"And I do that by looking through the eyes of a fictional apprentice named Rawiya, who is a 16-year-old girl who apprentices herself to al-Idrisi by running away from home and disguising herself as a boy," said Joukhadar. "And so Nour is telling herself the story of Rawiya, and what ends up happening is that as these mapmakers are on their journey they end up following the same geographical path as Nour and her family, just separated by 800 years." 

Joukhadar said the story came in part as a reaction to the Syrian civil war and the resulting displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. She was born and grew up in New York, but says as a Syrian-American she doesn't have the option of turning away from the Syrian crisis. The two elements of the novel allow her to help answer questions asked by Syrians, both those in Syria and those who have left or have been forced to flee, about keeping their culture alive.

"Even though perhaps they or their parents have lost a geographical, physical home, they can still take a bit of that home with them in the form of stories," she said.

Joukhadar will read from "The Map of Salt and Stars" Monday evening at Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis. The event is co-sponsored by Mizna, the Minneapolis-based Arab-American journal that published some of her early work. She says Mizna has long been important to her.

"It really is the only Arab-American literary magazine that we have, and so it was really precious to me to be able to read not just the stories, but poetry and essays, and see artwork by other Arab-Americans. That was always really moving to me," she said.

Joukhadar hopes her book will now move readers, and make them decide not to ignore the Syrian crisis.