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6 Reasons Why You Should Read “As Long As The Lemon Trees Grow”

Author: Zoulfa Katouh Genre: Historical Fiction, Contemporary, Young Adult

Themes: War, Love, Tragedy 389 Pages, 39 Chapters

A review by ELEVEN Contributors: Sofiya, Jamie, Mazi, Syaumi



Set in Homs during the initial years of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, Salama Kassab, an 18-year-old pharmacy student, found herself grappling with the challenges of a war-torn reality. As conflict erupted, Salama and her family had to adapt to the unsettling new normal of concealing their actions and living cautiously. As the political situation deteriorated, so did their living conditions.

Presently, Salama resides with her pregnant best friend and sister-in-law, Layla, while working at a hospital to aid the daily influx of wounded individuals. Her elder brother and father have been taken captive by the occupying forces, and her mother perished in a bombing. In this harsh and unforgiving environment, Salama must navigate life while ensuring Layla's safety. Despite the overwhelming adversity, Salama harbours a secret plan to leave Syria with Layla, driven by her determination to fulfill promises made to her family. To cope with the mounting pressures, she has conjured Khawf, a tangible representation of her fears, anxieties and traumas, which shadows her every move, compelling her to depart her homeland.

Despite Khawf urging her to depart, Salama grapples with conflicting feelings, torn between her loyalty to her country and her determination to survive.

Reason #1: Extremely Educational (yet fictional)

The book goes beyond fiction to teach us about Syria's history and the challenges its people face. Through the characters' stories, we get a heartfelt glimpse into the real struggles during the Syrian civil war. The novel becomes a cultural journey, opening a window into Syrian life, traditions and how the war affects their rich heritage. It is like taking a trip to Syria through the characters' eyes.

The book does not just tell a story; it educates us on social issues like the consequences of war, mental health struggles and the tough choices refugees have to make. These themes connect with global experiences, making the lessons universal. A big part of what we learn is about the psychological toll of war. Salama’s journey shows us the impact of trauma and the challenges of navigating life in such harsh circumstances.

Although fictional, the story helps us understand the political realities of the Syrian conflict. The novel addresses human rights issues, shedding light on the struggle for dignity amidst conflict. Fiction becomes a powerful tool to help us understand the real human experiences of war.

Lastly, Salama's internal battles and the tough choices she faces make us reflect on our values and the ethical dilemmas people encounter in crisis. It encourages us to think deeply about our own beliefs and the tough decisions others face in challenging times. In simple terms, it's not just a story; it's a journey that makes us think, feel and understand the complexities of being human in times of hardship.

Reason #2: Halal Love (we get it, girls, we really do)

Here it is, girls and boys, the hehe part of the review.

Amid the instability of their climate, ‘halal romance’ develops between Salama and Kenan, a YouTube war documentarian. Salama matures faster than many young adult protagonists, as the war forces her to a level of personal and professional growth beyond her years.

The romance between Salama and Kenan brings a soothing effect to the otherwise heavy narrative. Their relationship is described as achingly adorable and heartwarming, with moments that just make you giggle and scream into your pillow - yeah girl, we KNOW.

The characters’ connections, both romantic and familial, contribute to the overall sense of humanity and perseverance in the face of despair. The story shows that love transcends physical touch and acts of immodesty. We adore how the protagonists knew their boundaries despite their circumstances - especially in times when they so desperately needed comforting. Words of affirmation and acts of service seemed to drive their love story, which also creates a deeper connection for readers.

When Salama confessed her love for Kenan, his immediate thoughts were to court her in the halal way - marriage. (got us squealing and kicking our feet, obviously)

Reason #3: The Writing

Zoulfa Katouh's writing skilfully weaves together the devastating realities of war and the profound emotions of the characters. The scenes at the hospital come alive with a mix of beauty and pain, making readers feel a rollercoaster of emotions - from falling in love with the characters to experiencing the gut-wrenching horrors of the war.

We went on a journey with Salama as she struggles to decide between staying in Syria to fight for her people, or leaving the country she loves to save her family, all while managing her rapidly deteriorating mental health. This book also showed the twisted outcome of trauma that Salama faced by displaying her inner thoughts. The author paints a vivid picture of Salama unraveling not just her actions but the dreams and fears that reside deep within her. We both fear and cherish Khawf, Salama's imaginary companion, who mirrors the traumas she endures. It’s more than a story - it's an intimate exploration of Salama's resilience in the face of trauma, allowing readers to connect with her on a deeply personal level.

The realism and timeliness of the book spark a reminder of the real lives affected by the Syrian revolution. Readers are compelled by the urgency of the narrative, realising that the war in Syria is not just history; it’s a painful reality that still persists. The book becomes a beacon, shining light on the ongoing struggles in Syria, urging readers to see beyond the headlines and be aware of the human stories that often go unnoticed.

Symbolisation also played a massive part in the writing. The lemons and lemon trees aren’t just symbols; they are threads of hope and determination woven throughout the narrative. Readers may find solace in the powerful metaphor, reminding them that even in the darkest times, hope can persist. Like witnessing the growth of seedlings in a blue ceramic pot - a poignant symbol of Syria's strength and beauty. The author's use of metaphor creates a deeply personal connection to the characters' experiences.

The book left an indelible mark, making it difficult to put into words the profound emotions experienced. The narrative, described as both heavy and heartwarming, becomes a part of readers' lives. It’s not just about the war; it’s about the moments of joy, the depths of love and the resilience of the human spirit. The characters, especially Salama and Kenan, become more than just words on a page; they become companions on an emotional journey.

Reason #4: Support a Syrian Author!

Supporting authors, especially those from places like Syria, carries immense importance, particularly in times of conflict like the war. When we engage with the works of writers such as Zoulfa Katouh, we are not just reading words on a page. We are immersing ourselves in the lives, stories and experiences of real people facing real challenges. Though the book is fictional, it can still evoke emotions that resonate with universal human experiences, forging a bridge of shared feelings that transcends geographical and cultural boundaries.

These authors offer us a window into their world, a world that might be overshadowed by geopolitical events. By supporting them, we’re not only appreciating the richness of Syrian culture but also recognising the resilience and humanity of individuals caught up in challenging circumstances.

– Chapter 5

In the midst of global conflicts, literature becomes a bridge, connecting us on a deeply human level. Through the pages of a book, we can gain insights that headlines might miss - the personal stories, the dreams, the struggles. It’s a way of breaking down barriers and fostering empathy, which is so crucial, especially in times of tension.

In supporting Syrian authors, we do not just endorse their words; but we stand up for the power of storytelling to promote understanding, to humanise complex situations and ultimately, to contribute, in our own small way, to a more compassionate and connected world.

Reason #5: A Resilient Main Character

Imagine this: Your country is in a war. You witness the horrors of it every day by volunteering at your local hospital. Your brother is in jail and his pregnant wife is expecting soon. People are fleeing left and right, and you are torn between staying and helping people or seeking refuge somewhere safe.

Those scenarios are Salama’s circumstances. Her life turned upside down once the civil war in Syria started. From being a pharmacy student, she transitioned into volunteering at her local hospital, treating injured people because of the war.

“I was supposed to be a pharmacist. I wasn't supposed to cut into children's stomachs in their homes.”

Despite what happened, she remained steadfast and resilient. Salama illustrates how she overcame her fears regardless of how persistent they may appear. She demonstrates that even if you are unable to fully recover from the trauma and pain, you can still find happiness and love. The author frequently mentions lemon trees in the book, as a nod to Nizar Qabbani's poem. According to Katouh in an interview, a "lemon" represents resiliency and hope. She expressed her desire for Salama's narrative to portray the hardships faced by Syrians while also sending a powerful message of hope.

“This is my land, and just like the lemon trees that have been growing here for centuries, spilled blood won’t stop us.”

Reason #6: The “Light” (wink wink) at the end of the Tunnel

“Don’t focus on the darkness and sadness,” she says, and I glance up at her. She smiles warmly. “If you do, you won’t see the light even if it’s staring you in the face.”

— Chapter 4, As Long As The Lemon Trees Grow

Introduced at the very start of the book, the author uses this quote to show us how she wants the book to be perceived - as a guiding light, a beacon of hope for the rest of us. It depicts the immense levels of faith that the characters in the book possess, showcasing their ability to keep a positive outlook despite their circumstances.

Focusing on the darkness and sadness can sometimes blind us to the opportunities for joy and positivity that may be present. The metaphor of not being able to see the light, even if it’s right in front of us, underscores the idea that our mindset plays a crucial role in shaping our experiences. It suggests that by consciously choosing to focus on the positive aspects of life, we are more likely to notice and appreciate the light and goodness around us.



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