Joukhadar’s novel follows twin stories in alternate timelines, one set in recent Syria and North Africa during Islamic State and another set in the same are during the 1300s. Both stories feature girls who pose as boys, allowing them to do things that would otherwise be prohibited or unsafe for women.
Nour is our present day heroine, and she has returned to Syria with her mother and two older sisters following her father’s death from cancer in New York City. Although Nour was born in the US, the rest of her family was born in Syria and the financial and emotional burden of being a single parent in NYC draws her mother back to her homeland, despite the burgeoning threat posed by the Islamic State. When their house is shelled, the family sets off on a long journey across the middle east and North Africa, headed for Morocco where Nour’s maternal uncle still lives and the family hopes to find some semblance of normalcy. Because four women travelling alone is a risky proposition, Nour’s mother cuts her hair and has her pretend to be a boy. Along the way there are all sorts of hardships, disaster and heartbreak.
Rawiya is our medieval heroine and her story is one that Nour’s father used to tell her as a younger child. Born in Morocco, she lives with her mother in a small village where, without a male income earner, they get poorer by the day. Seeking adventure and a way to support her mother and herself, Rawiya cuts her hair and heads for the coast to find a job. She is hired as an assistant to a famed mapmaker, and together they travel to the middle east to begin mapping the southern Mediterranean coast for the rich Sicilian King Roger. The mapmaker’s journey is fraught with danger, from mythical evil birds out for blood (the Rok) to warring Egyptian factions who see the map as power to defeat their enemies.
There are a lot parallels between the two girls’ stories- the pretending to be a different gender, the dangerous trip through the Middle East and North Africa, the importance of maps to both girls (Nour’s mother is a mapmaker, and there is a strong plotline featuring a particular map she carries across the desert), etc. These are thoughtful similarities that Joukhadar builds in (and builds up as themes), while at the same time highlighting the history and storytelling traditions from these countries. Nour draws strength from remembering Rawiya’s story and boy does she need it- the migrant experience is rough.
I really liked this book. Although I think its aimed at a young adult audience, it was a good reminder of the risk and hardship that migrants go through to escape places they cannot stay. Aside from limited exceptions like the tragic Alan Kurdi photograph that went viral, in the west we are usually given stories of the migrants coming in, not the story of what they have done to get to that new place. Some of the events in Joukhadar’s book seem unrealistic (all of those things happening on one family’s migrant journey?) but then I thought: what do I actually know about those odds? Very little. This quieted my inner skeptic for the purposes of the story. I also thought there was in some ways less dwelling on some of the particularly heartbreaking incidents that happen along the way, but then also thought that was maybe the point- when you are on the journey, still facing danger, the path is forward and you don’t have the luxury of dwelling in your grief.
Really recommend this anyone looking for a story about the migrant experience, or the middle east, that is both entertaining and informative. CBR13 bingo Rep square.
FYI if you’re looking for this book the author previously went by Jennifer Zeynab (her) and now goes by Zeyn (him).