Unrest in Syria began on 15th March, 2011 as part of the wider 2011 Arab spring protests out of discontent with the Syrian government, eventually leading to an armed conflict. The war is currently fought by several factions. The Syrian Civil War is second deadliest conflict of the 21st century after the Second Congo War. The conflict has caused a major refugee crisis with millions fleeing to neighbouring countries (source Wikipedia). This book by Syrian American author, Zeyn Joukhadar, is rooted in Syria and celebrates it with a double tale of voyage and exile. The first tale is about 16 year old Rawiya, set in 12th century, who leaves her house in Benzu, near Ceuta (Ceuta is a Spanish autonomous city on the north coast of Africa), in search of adventure and with a quest to explore the world beyond the desert. She becomes an apprentice with the renowned explorer and mapmaker al-Idrisi and sets out on this perilous and unforeseeable odyssey to assist al-Idrisi in sketching the map through the Maghreb and the Mediterranean. During this adventure of a lifetime, she comes across blood thirsty mystical creatures; vicious men; cruel, tyrant kings and their armies; and difficult terrain and weather. This only establishes Rawiya as a gallant warrior. Rawiya single handedly helps al-Idrisi in completing his exploration of the world whilst constantly battling attackers and reminding everyone through this pursuit that her gender is no barrier in achieving accolades and appreciation and in being one of the greatest warriors of her time.
The second tale is of the present day, 12 year old Nour who has moved to Homs in Syria from Manhattan after her father’s death; with her mother, who is a mapmaker and two sisters, Zahra and Huda. As she is adjusting to her new life in Syria while knowing only a few words of Arabic, she is now one amongst many who has got trapped in the Civil war. She experiences bombing of her house and from there on, her ordeal for survival begins. Instantly her status becomes that of a refugee as she manages to escape from Syria. She has to let go of her mother and sister Huda during this gut wrenching journey which takes her through Jordan, Libya, Algeria and finally to Ceuta. The tale is as much a portrayal of Nour’s resilience, as much as it is, about her coming to terms with the menacing traits of human behaviour and the rot that has crept into humanity at large.
The narrative constantly flips between the stories of Rawiya and Nour. It’s a slow paced read. Islamic history and ancient names of cities find a constant mention through the book. I had to refer to Google lot many times to educate myself about the same. The author brilliantly depicts the striking geographical similarities between the old world and the current. Maps form an integral part of the storyline throughout the book. There are constant references about stars, galaxies and various constellations. I did find Nour’s narrative a bit tedious, since it gets a lot metaphorical at times. It isn’t an easy book to read. How would it even be? How can any book that talks about a devastating civil war be pleasant in any way? The author deftly portrays the geopolitical dissimilarity in tales of Rawiya and Nour. Rawiya’s is about bringing the world together by sketching the map and defining the borders, whilst ironically in Nour’s, it’s about a disintegrated world and the battles at the borders.
~ JUST A GAY BOY. 😞