The story of a contemporary girl's flight into exile from the Syrian civil war is deepened by the parallel tale of a 12th-century girl whose journey of discovery covers the same geography in Syrian-American writer Joukhadar's ambitious debut.
The poem in the shape of Syria that opens this novel—“O / beloved, you are / dying of a broken heart”—sets the tone of deep-rooted melancholy for the story that follows. Twelve-year-old Nour was born and raised in Manhattan by immigrant parents, her mother a cartographer and her father a bridge designer. Shortly after her father’s death from cancer in 2011, her mother moves Nour and her two older sisters, Huda and Zahra, to Homs, Syria, where they have relatives to help out. But soon bombs are dropping in Homs. As the family takes flight, Nour comforts herself with a fairy tale–like story her father used to tell, and Joukhadar weaves it into the narrative. "Everybody knows the story of Rawiya," she writes. "They just don't know they know it." The heroine, 16-year-old Rawiya, left her home in Ceuta—a Spanish city in North Africa where Nour’s parents once lived—to avoid starvation. Disguised as a boy, she apprenticed herself to al-Idrisi—an actual 12th-century mapmaker—as he traveled around charting trade routes. The route of Rawiya’s story corresponds with Nour’s as she finds and loses refuge in Jordan, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria. Passing as a boy for safety’s sake, as Rawiya did, Nour endures cold, hunger, and red tape. Though she lives at the epicenter of world crises, what affects her day to day are more personal crises experienced in bus terminals, small groceries, and dusty streets. More dramatically, her sister Huda is injured by a bomb and sexually attacked by a gang of boys; a family friend drowns when a ferry to Egypt catches fire. While Rawiya had a romantic adventure, Nour experiences the terrors of being a refugee. Yet both are fatherless girls growing into young womanhood, and they share a similar search for the meaning of home, both physical and spiritual.
Joukhadar plunges the Western reader full force into the refugee world with sensual imagery that is immediate, intense, and at times overwhelming.