Synopsis (Goodreads): Nour is a young Syrian girl who has lost her father to cancer. Wanting to be close to her relatives, Nour’s mother – a cartographer who makes beautiful hand-painted maps – moves her family back to the city of Homs. Nour’s father was a real storyteller and he told her that the roots of the trees connect to the ground across the world. She knows they left her father in the ground back in America, so she starts telling him the ancient fable of Rawiya, whispering it into the ground so he might hear.
Rawiya left her home dressed as a boy in order to explore the world. She became apprenticed to Al Idrisi, who was a famous cartographer tasked by King Roger II of Sicily to make the first map of the world. Together with Al Idrisi, Rawiya travelled the globe, encountering adventures – including the mythical Roc and a battle in the Valley of Snakes – along the way. It is this story that gives Nour the courage to keep going when she has to leave Homs after it is bombed and faces a long journey as a refugee in search of a new home – a journey that closely mirrors that of Rawiya many centuries before.
When Nour and her sister are forced to part from their mother, she gives them a special map that contains clues that will lead them to safety. The two stories are beautifully told and interwoven, the real interspersed with the magical/imagined so that the overall effect is uplifting – about the strength of the human spirit, the strength of women in particular, the power of a journey, and what it takes to find a home.
I’m nostalgic for the days when there were no maps, and cartographers had all sorts of adventures travelling to exotic locations and mapping places as a job! Why oh why was I born in an era where pretty much everything on Earth has been mapped? Fun fact from this book: Al-Idrisi’s maps were so accurate they weren’t changed for 300 years!
Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s talk about this book which comprises of two tales set 800 years apart, interwoven and told in lyrical, poetic prose. The author skillfully weaves Nour and Rawiya’s stories together as they undertake the same journey in different time periods and for vastly different reasons – Nour because her hometown of Homs in Syria has been bombed and they become refugees, and Rawiya in search of adventure.
Both stories are rich with history and colour, with Nour’s story providing a lot of relevant detail in terms of what refugees may experience. Not only the pain and sadness from separation and loss, but also resilience and an overarching message of hope which comes from the kindness and hospitality of strangers, the healing power of stories and the bond of family.
Reading between the lines, the author’s love for her country and people shines through in the story and in the warmth of the characters scattered through the narrative – the Middle East and North Africa are regions I haven’t explored much as a traveller but this book makes me want to change that.
I’m going to leave you with five of my favourite messages from the book, and hope they inspire you to read it for yourself.
- Every place you go becomes a part of you.
- Stories are powerful, but gather too many words of others in your heart, and they will drown out your own.
- There is a goodness in the world that got me through, that taught me it’s important to know who you are. You can get lost. You have to listen to your own voice.
- Stories ease the pain of living, not dying. People always think dying is going to hurt. But it does not. It’s living that hurts us.
- We rarely know when we try to do good, if the outcomes of our actions will actually be good. Perhaps God plans it that way, to teach us that the planning is best left to him.