Margin Notes

GUEST WRITER ISOBEL O’BRION RECOMMENDS AS LONG AS THE LEMON TREES GROW BY ZOULFA KATOUH

Jun
11

As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow is a heartbreaking, inspiring, and insightful novel which takes place in 2011 Syria during the early Civil War. This book finds a way to fuse terrifying, devastating, unfathomable historical events with the innocence of youth, love, and relationships, ultimately humanizing complex issues and providing young readers a perspective that is both informative and relatable. Salama, the protagonist, is enduring something that many young, western readers will have never experienced, while giving a voice and story to many Syrian people who have undergone similar circumstances and have grappled with the same complexities and dilemmas throughout the ongoing civil war. Salama has lost so much already and is left to protect her best friend/sister-in-law who is pregnant with her niece, as well as the members of her community who need medical attention. She was studying to become a pharmacist, but her role in healthcare suddenly became much more than that. Katouh adeptly blends Salama’s youthful mind, filled with anxieties, dreams, and awkwardness, with the psyche of a traumatized, heroic figure which is fostered within Salama’s healer/protector identity. This story is anchored by a theme of fear and uncertainty. Salama fears what might happen if she leaves Syria, however, lives in fear every day she remains there. This feeling is something that many people can relate to, the uncertainty about leaving behind a context you feel the need to protect, or remain connected to, without thinking of yourself first. To me, this novel perfectly articulates this feeling and balances a love for Syria with a powerful, heartbreaking reality that is seeking refuge from your homeland.

There are many great literary strategies in this novel, balanced with casual dialogue and easy, relatable thoughts. I particularly love the contrast of the desolate world building with the warm memories, reference to Studio Ghibli films and landscape, and budding love story. Katouh uses a fascinating literary strategy where she represents Salama’s anxieties as a person, who acts as a sort of guide, much like a devil on her shoulder at times. This representation is so important for everyone who struggles to understand their anxieties either generally, in the face of adversity, from traumatic events, or as one navigates love for the first time, like Salama. Representation runs deep in this novel as it provides an incredible voice and hopeful, authentic narrative for Syria and for young Syrian women and girls. This book has something to offer everyone, touching your heart in ways that both shatter and warm it, as it skillfully balances the nightmares of war, loss, and fear with the themes of love, friendship, loyalty, and nostalgia all through the lens of Salama’s journey navigating so much for such a young woman.

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