Middle East refugee stories: The Mountains We Carry, by Zaid Brifkani, and A Map of Salt and Stars, by Zeyn Joukhadar

An unconscionable number of months have passed since I listened to these two audiobooks, back to back. However, the length of time between reading and review is no reflection of the impression they made.

The Map of Salt and Stars follows two journeys: An Arab-American family’s harrowing flight from Syria in 2011, and the travels of a young woman apprenticed to twelfth-century cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi. It is not uncommon, in dual-narrative stories, for one to overshadow the other. In this case, however, both plot lines hold equal appeal. The dangers and threats of the contemporary tale impose greater suspense. But the twelfth-century tale charms with its touch of mysticism, aptly reflected by the novel’s frame-worthy cover.

Always intrigued by history, I looked up mapmaker Al-Idrisi. He is, indeed, a monumental figure. A native of North Africa, he created an atlas composed of seventy maps of the known world, accompanied by commentary on each.

Given Joukhadar’s lyrical prose, the reader’s convincing rendering of the Arabic words and accents (though I’m not truly qualified to assess their accuracy) is a particular asset. And while the writing doesn’t privilege a single faith, I appreciated the generally faith-affirming nature of the narrative. Author interviews reveal that Joukhadar was raised by one Catholic and one Muslim parent.

One literary critic wrote that The Map of Salt and Stars is to Syria what The Kite Runner was to Afghanistan. If that is the case, The Mountains We Carry is The Kite Runner for the Kurds. Interestingly, both Brifkani (Mountains) and Hosseini (Kite Runnner) are doctors. Perhaps the same compassion reflected in their literary works prompted both men toward the physician’s profession.

Brifkani’s moving story is a testimony to the power of fiction. In college (several decades ago) I took a political geography class in which the professor offered the Kurds as an ongoing case study. Unfortunately, having no experience with and little interest in the Middle East at the time, I never truly engaged with or grasped the scenario the professor described.

The Mountains We Carry opens in the late 1980s, near the end of the Iran-Iraq war. The conclusion of the conflict was followed by intensified persecution of Kurds by the Iraqi government. Brifkani’s protagonists, an extended family, travel from their home in Iraq through Iran to Turkey. Even had I not spent time in both these countries, my investment in Brifkani’s characters and their trials would have made a far more lasting impression than did my university class, however well conceived.

The impact of Brifkani’s narrative was heightened by my simultaneous re-reading of Everything Sad Is Untrue. In this childhood memoir, Daniel Nayeri recounts how his mother, a converted Christian, fled certain death in Iran with her two children, eventually landing in Oklahoma. (Click here for my full review.) In all three of these books, the pressures faced by refugees lead to heartbreaking choices, fractured families, and unforeseeable consequences.

To conclude on a personal note, I similarly took a Russian history class merely on the strength of my college roommate’s recommendation. Sadly, looming graduation and other personal concerns diluted my attention to coursework. I had no inkling that only a few years later these two spheres–Russia and the Middle East–would intersect in what would prove to be a lifelong interest in Central Asia.

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