Mapping Identity: In conversation with Zeyn Joukhadar
Mike Donovan | Tuesday, February 18, 2020
There’s a map in the front of Syrian-American novelist Zeyn Joukhadar’s debut novel “The Map of Salt and Stars.” It depicts the Sahara Desert at the top of the frame (due South) and the European continent at the bottom (due North) as they sandwich a centrally located Mediterranean Sea.
“People have such a visceral reaction to [the map],” Joukhadar told our class (Reading the Body Politic: Literature as Moral Thermometer with Professor Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi). “Why wouldn’t you put North at the top?
“The way you arrange a map tells you something about what’s important to you.”
And the map at the beginning of “Salt and Stars,” based on Moroccan cartographer Muhammed al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana (the most accurate world map in existence at the time of its completion in 1154), is no exception.
The Tabula Rogeriana visualizes a world where prosperity lives in the South, sprouting from Africa’s lucrative trade routes, fruitful alliances and abundant resources. By placing Africa at the top of the frame — quite literally above the rest of the world — the map recognizes the region’s importance. Eyes to Africa, in the context of Al-Idrisi’s creation, face toward a bright economic future, away from Europe’s persistent darkness.
“Maps are political, dependent on who’s telling the story,” Joukhadar said.
Joukhadar uses the map in the beginning of his novel to uncouple the reader from dominant geopolitical orientations.
His inclusion of the map states, “I’m going to give you a context that may be different than what you expect.” And it serves his ongoing effort “to decenter the Western Canon, America” in his writing.
For Joukhadar — a transgender man living in America and writing about Syria — decentralization is a matter of identity.
“People who are born and raised in the U.S. — especially white people — think I’m somehow in between,” Joukhadar said. “That’s not the case … I don’t think of [the parts of my experience] as contradictory. They coexist in my body.”
Borders don’t define Joukhadar’s internal map as they do its political counterparts. His map is one of nuance, abstraction.
But political borders and identity intertwine often, creating webs out of reality and constructed fictions. When these kinds of interactions occur, Joukhadar said, “our internal reality doesn’t change, but [we find] this space — a meeting point — between the people we face and ourselves.”
We find this meeting point in the setting of “The Map of Salt and Stars,” a novel which is “influenced by borders, the way that war shapes borders, families interacting with borders that are abstract concepts … until they can’t get across.”
Nour, an American-born girl who moves to Syria at 12-years-old with her family, acts as the novel’s chief cartographer, “making a map of herself” as she tries to navigate the complexities of language, memory and relationships in the midst of conflict.
The novel employs her explorations and creations, Joukhadar explained, to posit questions about borders and space.
“How do we find spaces where we can meet each other?” he said. “How is she going to map what those places mean to her? Can you connect places separated by a distance of many miles, connect places that don’t exist?”
The last of these takes on a personal significance for Joukhadar, who cannot himself travel to Syria.
“Even if we can’t go somewhere that doesn’t mean it’s not part of our internal map,” he said.
For Joukhadar, Nour represents a way to engage Syria, a nation he knows intimately from his internal map but has never been able to experience in person. She maps his imagination.
Through Nour, Joukhadar models Syria for the Syrian Diaspora, bringing Syrians outside Syria into an intimate relationship with the people, culture and language underlying so much of their identity. Nour does not, Jouhkadar clarified, represent the experience of the Syrians living their country’s conflicts first-hand.
“Not my story to write,” Joukhadar said. “Not my experience. Didn’t want to risk doing harm. The way we think about something — the language we give it — matters.”
Though Joukhadar has dedicated “The Map of Salt and Stars” to the Syrian diaspora, “the Syrian people, both in Syria and the diaspora,” he knows it will find readers beyond its intended audience.
“I’m writing in the United States,” he said. “Even though I’m not writing for Europeans — but for the diaspora — people will read my book who do not have an understanding of the region.”
The novel offers these readers an image of the Middle East they may not have witnessed before, an image to which the term “Middle East” can’t adequately refer.
“You don’t hear [the term] ‘Middle East’ in Arabic,” Joukhadar said. “People only talk about ‘The Middle East’ in relation to the politics of Europe and America.”
Syrians actually consider their country part of The Levant, a geographic space the country shares with Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, separate from the rest of the Middle East.
Only with Western intervention (imperial conquest, followed by arbitrary division) did the term “Middle East” come into use, condensing a diverse and extremely complex collection of cultures into a single, news-friendly term.
In recent years, Joukhadar said, Western media has imposed a disingenuous image upon the Middle East, comprised mainly of “a lot of trauma pornography, a limited narrative for survivors of war and refugees” and a focus on “assimilation.”
“Why do we think that survivors of trauma are negatively defined by trauma?” he asked, criticizing the widespread misrepresentation of survivors as such.
But, Joukhadar concedes, “people are going to look at a story, a body, a border […] and put their own narrative on it.”
The authors’ only option, therefore, is to craft the best possible version of their chosen stories, bodies and borders in the hopes that their readers (whoever they are) might find within the narratives an effective moral compass.
This is what “The Map of Salt and Stars” aims to do.
“I’ll have to accept that not everybody will get it,” Joukhadar concedes. “Once you put the book out into the world, it belongs to the reader.”
“The Map of Salt and Stars” is out now. Joukhadar’s second novel, “The Thirty Names of Night,” is forthcoming.
Andrew Cameron, Dayonni Phillips, Natalie Weber, Evan McKenna, Jennifer Frantik, Hoang-Uyen Le, Alessandro Contreras, William Devers, Nelisha Silva, Emerode Barthelemy, Paige Curley and Professor Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi contributed to this piece.