The Map of Salt and Stars

by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

Clock Icon 19 minute read

PART I
SYRIA

 

The Earth and the Fig

The island of Manhattan’s got holes in it, and that’s where Baba sleeps. When I said good night to him, the white bundle of him sagged so heavy, the hole they dug for him so deep. And there was a hole in me too, and that’s where my voice went. It went into the earth with Baba, deep in the white bone of the earth, and now it’s gone. My words sunk down like seeds, my vowels and the red space for stories crushed under my tongue.

I think Mama lost her words too, because instead of talking, her tears watered everything in the apartment. That winter, I found salt everywhere—under the coils of the electric burners, between my shoelaces and the envelopes of bills, on the skins of pomegranates in the gold-trimmed fruit bowl. The phone rang with calls from Syria, and Mama wrestled salt from the cord, fighting to untwist the coils.

Before Baba died, we hardly ever got calls from Syria, just emails. But Mama said in an emergency, you’ve got to hear a person’s voice.

It seemed like the only voice Mama had left spoke in Arabic. Even when the neighbor ladies brought casseroles and white carnations, Mama swallowed her words. How come people only ever have one language for grief?

That winter was the first time I heard Abu Sayeed’s honey-yellow voice. Huda and I sat outside the kitchen and listened sometimes, Huda’s ash-brown curls crushed against the doorjamb like spooled wool. Huda couldn’t see the color of his voice like I could, but we’d both know it was Abu Sayeed calling because Mama’s voice would click into place, like every word she’d said in English was only a shadow of itself. Huda figured it out before I did—that Abu Sayeed and Baba were two knots on the same string, a thread Mama was afraid to lose the end of.

Mama told Abu Sayeed what my sisters had been whispering about for weeks—the unopened electricity bills, the maps that wouldn’t sell, the last bridge Baba built before he got sick. Abu Sayeed said he knew people at the university in Homs, that he could help Mama sell her maps. He asked, what better place to raise three girls than the land that holds their grandparents?

When Mama showed us our plane tickets to Syria, the O in my name, Nour, was a thin blot of salt. My older sisters, Huda and Zahra, pestered her about the protests in Dara’a, things we had seen on the news. But Mama told them not to be silly, that Dara’a was as far south of Homs as Baltimore was from Manhattan. And Mama would know, because she makes maps for a living. Mama was sure things would calm down, that the reforms the government had promised would allow Syria to hope and shine again. And even though I didn’t want to leave, I was excited to meet Abu Sayeed, excited to see Mama smiling again.

I had only ever seen Abu Sayeed in Baba’s Polaroids from the seventies, before Baba left Syria. Abu Sayeed had a mustache and an orange shirt then, laughing with someone out of the frame, Baba always just behind him. Baba never called Abu Sayeed his brother, but I knew that’s what he was because he was everywhere: eating iftar on Ramadan evenings, playing cards with Sitto, grinning at a café table. Baba’s family had taken him in. They had made him their own.

When spring came, the horse chestnut trees bloomed white like fat grains of rock salt under our window. We left the Manhattan apartment and the tear-encrusted pomegranates. The plane’s wheels lifted like birds’ feet, and I squinted out the window at the narrow stripe of city where I’d lived for twelve whole years and at the hollow green scooped out by Central Park. I looked for Baba. But with the city so far down, I couldn’t see the holes anymore.

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. That’s how Baba was. People paid him to design bridges, but he told his stories for free. When Mama painted a map and a compass rose, Baba pointed out invisible sea monsters in the margins.

The winter before Baba went into the earth, he never missed a bedtime story. Some of them were short, like the one about the fig tree that grew in Baba’s backyard when he was a little boy in Syria, and some of them were epics so twisting and incredible that I had to wait night after night to hear more. Baba made my favorite one, the story of the mapmaker’s apprentice, last two whole months. Mama listened at the door, getting Baba a glass of water when he got hoarse. When he lost his voice, I told the ending. Then the story was ours.

Mama used to say stories were how Baba made sense of things. He had to untangle the world’s knots, she said. Now, thirty thousand feet above him, I am trying to untangle the knot he left in me. He said one day I’d tell our story back to him. But my words are wild country, and I don’t have a map.

Mama used to say stories were how Baba made sense of things. He had to untangle the world’s knots, she said. Now, I am trying to untangle the knot he left in me. But my words are wild country, and I don’t have a map.

I press my face to the plane window. On the island under us, Manhattan’s holes look like lace. I look for the one where Baba is sleeping and try to remember how the story starts. My words tumble through the glass, falling to the earth.

* * *

AUGUST IN HOMS is hot and rainless. It’s been three months since we moved to Syria, and Mama doesn’t leave her tears on the pomegranates anymore. She doesn’t leave them anywhere.

Today, like every day, I look for the salt where I left my voice—in the earth. I go out to the fig tree in Mama’s garden, standing heavy with fruit just the way I imagined the fig Baba once had in his backyard. I press my nose to the fig’s roots and breathe in. I’m belly-down, stone heat in my ribs, my hand up to the knuckles in reddish dirt. I want the fig to carry a story back to Baba on the other side of the ocean. I lean in to whisper, brushing the roots with my upper lip. I taste purple air and oil.

A yellow bird taps the ground, looking for worms. But the sea dried up here a long time ago, if it was ever here at all. Is Baba still lying where we left him, brown and stiff and dry as kindling? If I went back, would I have the big tears I should have had then, or is the sea dried up in me forever?

I rub the smell of water out of the fig’s bark. I’ll tell Baba our story, and maybe I’ll find my way back to that place where my voice went, and Baba and I won’t be so alone. I ask the tree to take my story in its roots and send it down where it’s dark, where Baba sleeps.

“Make sure he gets it,” I say. “Our favorite, about Rawiya and al-Idrisi. The one Baba told me every night. The one where they mapped the world.”

But the earth and the fig don’t know the story like I do, so I tell it again. I start the way Baba always did: “Everybody knows the story of Rawiya,” I whisper. “They just don’t know they know it.” And then the words come back like they had never left, like it had been me telling the story all along.

Inside, Huda and Mama clank wooden bowls and porcelain. I forgot all about the special dinner for Abu Sayeed tonight. I might not be able to finish the story before Mama calls me in to help, her voice all red edges.

I press my nose to the ground and promise the fig I’ll find a way to finish. “No matter where I am,” I say, “I’ll put my story in the ground and the water. Then it’ll get to Baba, and it’ll get to you too.”

I imagine the vibrations of my voice traveling thousands of miles, cracking through the planet’s crust, between the tectonic plates we learned about in science class last winter, burrowing into the dark where everything sleeps, where the world is all colors at once, where nobody dies.

I start again.

* * *

EVERYBODY KNOWS THE story of Rawiya. They just don’t know they know it.

Once there was and was not a poor widow’s daughter named Rawiya whose family was slowly starving. Rawiya’s village, Benzú, lay by the sea in Ceuta—a city in modern-day Spain, a tiny district on an African peninsula that sticks into the Strait of Gibraltar.

Rawiya dreamed of seeing the world, but she and her mother could barely afford couscous, even with the money Rawiya’s brother, Salim, brought home from his sea voyages. Rawiya tried to be content with her embroidery and her quiet life with her mother, but she was restless. She loved to ride up and down the hills and through the olive grove atop her beloved horse, Bauza, and dream of adventures. She wanted to go out and seek her fortune, to save her mother from a life of eating barley-flour porridge in their plaster house under the stony face of Jebel Musa, watching the shore for her brother’s ship.

When she finally decided to leave home at sixteen, all Rawiya had to take with her was her sling. Her father had made it for her when she was a little girl throwing rocks at dragonflies, and she wouldn’t leave it behind. She packed it in her leather bag and saddled Bauza by the fig tree next to her mother’s house.

Now Rawiya was afraid to tell her mother how long she’d be gone, thinking she might try and stop her. “I’m only going to the market in Fes,” Rawiya said, “to sell my embroidery.”

But Rawiya’s mother frowned and asked her to promise to be careful. The wind came strong off the strait that day, rattling through her mother’s scarf and the hem of her skirt.

Rawiya had wrapped a red cloth around her face and neck, hiding her new-cut hair. She told her mother, “I won’t stay longer than I have to.” She didn’t want her mother to know she was thinking of the story she’d heard many times—the story of the legendary mapmaker who came to the market in Fes once a year.

The wind opened and closed Rawiya’s scarf like a lung. The painful thought struck her that she did not know how long she would be gone.

Mistaking her daughter’s sadness for nerves, Rawiya’s mother smiled. She produced a misbaha of wooden beads from her pocket and set it in Rawiya’s hands. “My own mother gave me these prayer beads when I was a girl,” she said. “God willing, they will comfort you while you are away.”

Rawiya hugged her mother fiercely and told her she loved her, trying to commit her smell to memory. Then she climbed into Bauza’s saddle, and he clicked his teeth against his bit.

Rawiya’s mother smiled at the sea. She had once traveled to Fes, and she hadn’t forgotten the journey. She said to her daughter, “Every place you go becomes a part of you.”

“But none more so than home.” Rawiya meant this more than anything else she’d said. And then Rawiya of Benzú nudged her horse until he turned toward the inland road, past the high peaks and fertile plains of the mountainous Rif where the Berbers lived, toward the Atlas Mountains and the teeming markets of Fes beckoning from the south.

The trade road wound through limestone hills and green plains of barley and almond trees. For ten days, Rawiya and Bauza picked their way along the winding road ground flat by travelers’ shoes. Rawiya reminded herself of her plan: to find the legendary mapmaker, Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi. She planned to become his apprentice, pretending to be a merchant’s son, and make her fortune. She would give a fake name—Rami, meaning “the one who throws the arrow.” A good, strong name, she told herself.

Rawiya and Bauza crossed the green hills that separated the curved elbow of the Rif from the Atlas Mountains. They climbed high slopes topped by cedar forests and cork oak trees where monkeys rustled the branches. They curved down through valleys spread with yellow wildflowers.

The Atlas Mountains were the stronghold of the Almohads, a Berber dynasty seeking to conquer all of the Maghreb, the northern lands of Africa to the west of Egypt. Here, in their lands, every sound made Rawiya uneasy, even the snuffling of wild boar and the echoes of Bauza’s hooves on the limestone cliffs. At night, she heard the distant sounds of instruments and singing and found it hard to sleep. She thought of the stories she had heard as a child—tales of a menacing bird big enough to carry off elephants, legends of deadly valleys filled with giant emerald-scaled snakes.

Finally, Rawiya and Bauza came upon a walled city in a valley. Caravans of merchants from the Sahara and from Marrakesh spilled onto the grassy plain dotted by eucalyptus trees. The green rope of the Fes River split the city in two. The folded chins of the High Atlas cast long shadows.

Inside the city gates, Bauza trotted between plaster houses painted shades of rose and saffron, green-crowned minarets, and gilded window arches. Rawiya was dazzled by jade roofs and jacaranda trees blooming the color of purple lightning. In the Medina, merchants sat cross-kneed behind huge baskets of spices and grains. The tapestry of colors caught Rawiya’s eye: the frosted indigo of ripe figs, rust-red paprika. Hanging lanterns of wrought metal and colored glass sent tiny petals of light that clung to shadowed alleyways. Children pattered through the streets, smelling of tanned leather and spices.

Rawiya guided Bauza toward the center of the Medina, where she hoped to find the mapmaker. Dust from the streets painted Bauza’s hooves. In the heat of the day, the shade of carved stone and mosaic tile felt cool, refreshing. The cries of merchants and spice vendors deafened Rawiya. The air was thick with sweat and oil, the musk of horses and camels and men, the bite of pomegranates, the sugar-song of dates.

Rawiya searched among the merchants and travelers, interrupting sales of spices and perfumes and salt, asking about a man who traveled weighted down by leather-bound scrolls and parchment-paper sketches of the places he’d been, a man who had sailed the Mediterranean. No one knew where to find him.

Rawiya was about to give up when she heard a voice: “I know the person you seek.”

She turned and saw a man stooped in front of a camel tied to an olive tree. He sat in a small courtyard off the Medina, his white turban wrapped close around his head, his leather shoes and robe coated in a sheen of travel dust. He beckoned her closer.

“You know the mapmaker?” Rawiya stepped into the courtyard.

“What do you want with him?” The man had a short, dark beard, and his eyes as he studied her were polished obsidian.

Rawiya added up her words. “I am a merchant’s son,” she said. “I wish to offer my services to the mapmaker. I wish to learn the craft and earn a living.”

The man smiled, catlike. “I’ll tell you where to find him if you can answer three riddles. Do you accept?”

Rawiya nodded.

“The first riddle,” the man said, “is this.” And he said:

Who is the woman who lives forever,

Who tires never,

Who has eyes in all places

and a thousand faces?

 

“Let me think.” Rawiya patted Bauza’s neck. Hunger and heat had made her light-headed, and the mention of a woman made her think of her mother. Rawiya wondered what her mother was doing—probably watching the sea for Salim. It had been so long since she’d had Baba to watch the water with her, to walk with her through the olive grove. Rawiya remembered when she was small, how Baba had told her of the sea, that shape-shifting woman who never died—

“The sea,” Rawiya cried. “She lives forever, always changing her moods. The sea has a thousand faces.”

The man laughed. “Very good.” And he continued with the second riddle:

 

What is the map you take with you

everywhere you go—

the map that guides, sustains you

through field and sun and snow?

 

Rawiya frowned. “Who always carries a map? Do you mean a map in your head?” She looked down at her hands, at the delicate veins running the length of her wrist and palm. But then— “The blood makes a kind of map, a net of roads in the body.”

The man eyed her. “Well done,” he said.

Rawiya shifted from foot to foot, impatient. “The third riddle?”

The man leaned forward:

 

What is the most important place on a map?

 

“That’s it?” Rawiya said. “That’s not fair!”

But the man only pursed his lips and waited, so she groaned and thought hard.

“Wherever you are,” Rawiya said, “at that moment.”

The man smiled that cat smile again. “If you knew where you were, why would you need the map?”

Rawiya tugged at the sleeve of her robe. “Home, then. The place you’re going.”

“But you know that, if you’re going there. Is that your final answer?”

Rawiya knitted her brows. She had never even seen a map before. “This riddle has no answer,” she said. “You wouldn’t use a map unless you didn’t know where you were going, unless you’d never been to a place before—” Then it made sense, and Rawiya smiled. “That’s it. The most important places on a map are the places you’ve never been.”

The man stood. “Do you have a name, young riddle-solver?”

“My name is—Rami.” Rawiya looked back at the Medina. “Will you bring me to the mapmaker? I answered your questions.”

The man laughed. “My name is Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi, scholar and mapmaker. I am honored to make your acquaintance.”

The blood pounded in Rawiya’s chest. “Sir—” She bowed her head, flustered. “I am at your service.”

“Then you will sail with me to Sicily within a fortnight,” al-Idrisi said, “to the palace of King Roger the Second of Palermo, where a great and honorable task awaits us.”

* * *

I’VE JUST STARTED telling the story of Rawiya to the fig tree when a blast in the distance shakes the stones under my belly. My guts jump. A low booming comes from some other neighborhood of the city, deep and far away.

It’s the third explosion in three days. Since we moved to Homs, I’ve heard booming like that only a couple of times, and always far off. It’s gotten to be like thunder—scary if you thought about it too much, but not something that would hit your house. I’ve never heard it this close before, not near our neighborhood.

The vibrations fade. I wait for another clap of fear, but it never comes. I pull my fingers from the soil, my thumbs still twitching.

“Nour.” It’s Mama’s voice, warm cedar brown, its edges curled up into red. She’s annoyed. “Come in and help me.”

I kiss the fig’s roots and replace the dirt. “I’ll finish the story,” I tell it. “I promise I will.”

I roll back onto my heels and brush the dirt off my knees. My back is in sunshine, my shoulder blades stiff with heat. It’s a different kind of hot here, not like in New York where the humidity makes you lie on the floor in front of the fan. Here it’s dry-hot, and the air chaps your lips until they split.

“Nour!”

Mama’s voice is so red it’s almost white. I tumble toward the door. I dodge the stretched canvas drying by the jamb, the framed maps Mama doesn’t have room for in the house. I plunge into the cool dark, my sandals slapping the stone.

Inside, the walls breathe sumac and sigh out the tang of olives. Oil and fat sizzle in a pan, popping up in yellow and black bursts in my ears. The colors of voices and smells tangle in front of me like they’re projected on a screen: the peaks and curves of Huda’s pink-and-purple laugh, the brick-red ping of a kitchen timer, the green bite of baking yeast.

I kick off my sandals by the front door. In the kitchen, Mama mutters in Arabic and clucks her tongue. I can understand a little but not all of it. New words seem to sprout out of Mama all the time since we moved—turns of phrase, things I’ve never heard that sound like she’s said them all her life.

“Your sisters. Where are they?” Mama’s got her hands in a bowl of raw meat and spices, kneading it, giving off a prickly cilantro smell. She’s changed her dress slacks for a skirt today, a papery navy thing that swishes against the backs of her knees. She’s not wearing an apron, but she hasn’t got a single oil stain on her white silk blouse. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her with a speck of oil or a smear of flour on her clothes, not in my whole life.

“How should I know?” I peek up at the counter to see what she’s making—sfiha? I hope it’s sfiha. I love the spiced lamb and pine nuts, the thin disks of dough crisp with oil.

“Mama.” Huda comes in from the pantry, her rose-patterned headscarf streaked with flour, her arms heavy with jars of spices and bundles of herbs from the garden. She sets them down on the counter. “We’re out of cumin.”

“Again!” Mama throws up her hands, pink with the juice from the lamb. “And lazy Zahra, eh? She’s helping me with the pies, or what?”

“Locked in her room, I bet.” No one hears me. Zahra’s been buried in her phone or holed up in the room she shares with Huda since we moved to Homs. Since Baba died, she’s gotten mean, and now we’re trapped with her. The little things that kept us going while Baba was sick are gone now—buying candy from the bodega, playing wall ball on the sides of buildings. Mama makes her maps, Zahra plays on her phone, and all I do is wait out these long, scorching days.

Zahra and Huda always talked about Syria like it was home. They knew it long before Manhattan, said it felt more real to them than Lexington Avenue or Eighty-Fifth Street. But this is my first time outside Amreeka—which is what they call it here—and all the Arabic I thought I knew doesn’t add up to much. This doesn’t feel like home to me.

“Find your sister.” Mama’s voice is edged with red again, a warning. “Tonight is special. We want everything ready for Abu Sayeed, don’t we?”

That melts me, and I slink off to find Zahra. She’s not in her and Huda’s room. The pink walls sweat in the heat. Zahra’s clothes and jewelry are all over her wrinkled comforter and the rug. I pick my way over crumpled jeans and tee shirts and a stray bra. I inspect a bottle of Zahra’s perfume on the dresser. The glass bottle is a fat purple gem of a thing, like a see-through plum. I spray some on the back of my hand. It smells like rotten lilacs. I sneeze on Zahra’s bra.

I tiptoe back down the hall, through the kitchen, and into the living room. My toes burrow into the red-and-beige Persian rug, upsetting Mama’s careful vacuuming. A stereo blasts something that’s supposed to be music: red guitar trills, the black splotches of snare drums. Zahra is stretched out on the low couch, tapping at her smartphone, her legs over the floral-printed arm. If Mama saw her with her feet on the cushions, she’d scream.

“Summer twenty-eleven,” Zahra drawls through the heat. “I was supposed to graduate next year. Class of 2012. We planned out our road trip to Boston. It should have been the best year ever.” She turns her face to the cushions. “Instead I’m here. It’s a hundred and fifty degrees. We have no air conditioning and Mama’s dumb dinner tonight.”

She can’t see me boring holes into her back with my eyes. Zahra’s just jealous that Huda got to graduate high school before we left New York and she didn’t. She doesn’t seem to care at all how I feel, that it sucks just as much to lose your friends at twelve as it does at eighteen. I rap her back with my hand. “Your music is dumb, and it’s not a hundred and fifty degrees. Mama wants you in the kitchen.”

“Like hell.” Zahra covers her eyes with her arm. Her black curls hang over the side of the couch, her stubborn eyes half-lidded. The gold bracelet on her wrist makes her look haughty and grown-up, like a rich lady.

“You’re supposed to help with the pies.” I tug on her arm. “Come on. It’s too hot to keep pulling you.”

“See, genius?” Zahra lurches up from the couch, taking lazy barefoot steps to shut the stereo off.

“We’re out of cumin again.” Huda comes in, wiping her hands on a rag. “Want to come?”

“Let’s get ice cream.” I wrap myself around Huda’s waist. Zahra leans back on the arm of the couch.

Huda jerks her thumb toward the kitchen. “There’s a bowl of lamb with your name on it,” she says to Zahra, “if you don’t want to run errands.”

Zahra rolls her eyes to the ceiling and follows us out.

Mama calls to us as we pass by. “I want you on your best behavior tonight—all of you.” She tilts her chin down, eyeing Zahra. She pushes cilantro into the lamb, breaking the meat apart. “And here—in my pocket.” She motions to Huda, holding up her oily hands. “A little extra, in case the price is up again.”

Huda sighs and tugs a few coins from the pocket of Mama’s skirt. “I’m sure it won’t be that much.”

“Don’t argue.” Mama turns back to the lamb. “All the prices have gone up in the last month. Bread, tahina, the cost of life itself. And listen—watch your steps. No crowds, none of this crazy business. You go to the shop and then directly home.”

“Mama.” Huda picks at dried flour paste on the countertop. “We won’t have any part in that.”

“Good.” Mama glances at Huda. “But today is Friday. It will be worse.”

“We’ll be careful.” Huda leans an elbow against the counter and looks up from under her thick eyebrows, beading with sweat. She shuffles her feet, setting the hem of her gauzy skirt rippling. “Really.”

For the last two months, Mama’s always told us to avoid crowds. It seems like they pop up everywhere—crowds of boys protesting, people protesting the protests, rumors of fighting between the two. The last few weeks, they’ve gotten so loud and angry you can hear their singing and megaphones all through the neighborhood. Mama’s said for months that being in the wrong place at the wrong time can get you arrested—or worse. But just like in New York, keeping to yourself doesn’t always keep trouble from finding you.

I close my eyes and try to think about something else. I take in all the spice smells in the kitchen, so deep I feel the colors in my chest. “Gold and yellow,” I say. “Oil dough. I knew it was sfiha.”

“That’s my Nour, in her world of color.” Mama smiles into the lamb, sweat shimmering at her hairline. “Shapes and colors for smells, sounds, and letters. I wish I could see it.”

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