Each year, there is a YA event in Utrecht, as part of a bigger festival. The past 2 years, due to well-known reasons, the event has been held in a different way. This year, it was back to normal and people could actually get in the audience again. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it this year. One of the present authors was Zoulfa Katouh. Her debut novel As Long As The lemon Trees grow immediately got my attention. This novel tells the story of the civvil war in Syria, a war we’ve seen on television daily just a few short years ago. These images say a lot, but ot everything. Thankfully, books can help us out here and stories of this civil war get told and published slowly now.
*TRIGGER WARNING: This book contains many triggers such as PTSD, grief, death, losing loved ones and graphic descriptions of battle injuries, amputations et cetera. Please consider whether to continue reading this review. If so, please take care.*
Title: As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow
Author: Zoulfa Katouh
Publish date: September 13, 2022
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Number of pages: 432
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Salama Kassab was a pharmacy student when the cries for freedom broke out in Syria. She still had her parents and her big brother; she still had her home. She had a normal teenager’s life.
Now Salama volunteers at a hospital in Homs, helping the wounded who flood through the doors daily. Secretly, though, she is desperate to find a way out of her beloved country before her sister-in-law, Layla, gives birth. So desperate, that she has manifested a physical embodiment of her fear in the form of her imagined companion, Khawf, who haunts her every move in an effort to keep her safe.
But even with Khawf pressing her to leave, Salama is torn between her loyalty to her country and her conviction to survive. Salama must contend with bullets and bombs, military assaults, and her shifting sense of morality before she might finally breathe free. And when she crosses paths with the boy she was supposed to meet one fateful day, she starts to doubt her resolve in leaving home at all.
Soon, Salama must learn to see the events around her for what they truly are—not a war, but a revolution—and decide how she, too, will cry for Syria’s freedom.
This novel tells the story of 17-year old Salama Kassab, who was a pharmacy student when the civil war in Syria broe out. When her hometown, Homs, falls vicitim to the bombs, Salama looses everything at once. Her family was killed and many others fleed the city and perhaps even the country. Salama decides to stay and to help wherever she can. This turns out to be as a volunteer at the hospital. Due to a shortage of medical staff, Salama learns way too quickly for her own liking how to perform surgery and other medical actions that a pharmacist should never learn. With the little resources she has, Salama tries to save as many lives as possible, without taking care of her own traumas. She oppresses her PTSD, but whenever she is done with her shifts in the hospital, everything comes back to her at once. Salama wonders whether there is still hope for her somehow, untill she meets Kenan. They get to know each other and a bond between the two grows. Is this enough to give Salama a glimpse of hope or will the war take this away from her too?
As a reader, you get introduced to Salama and her traumas within the first chapter. As an outsider, it’s hard to imagine what she has gone through and how it feels when you loose everyone and everything at once. Due to her traumas, Salama developed a servere PTSD. Inspite of this, she still does everything to follow her passion, healing people and saving as many lives as possible. However, that’s easier said than done. During her shifts, her PTSD keeps visiting Salama. She tries to push it back, but it keeps lingering in the background. As a reader, we get just a glimpse of how PTSD can be for someone, there are many forms of it and everyone’s experience with it is different.
Zulfa Katouh has fled Syria herself. Now, she lives in the US, after living in Switzerland for a while. This makes As long as the lemon trees gorw an Own Voices story, which is visible. Salama struggles with the choice of staying or fleeing. When she stays, she risks her life and risks losing more than she already has. However, when she decides to flee, she risks her life as well as the boats they use to cross the sea to Europe, are not safe at all. Many people experience these dilemmas. Because it’s an own voices story, I trust the representation, as I’m not able to judge it myself (and honestly I should be thankful for this).
As you can tell, the plot and the themes of this book are very heavy. However, the writing is easy to follow and invites you to continue reading. You want to know how Salama’s story and her bond with Kenan unfolds. Furthermore, you want to know what she decides to do. As a reader, you only can feel sympathy for what she has gone through and you can only praise her resistance and her will to save as many lives as possible.
As long as the lemon trees grow by Zoulfa Katouh is the first book about the civil war in Syria I’ve ever read. In my opinion, this book is such an important one. Salama’s story is unfortunately not unique, many people have similar experiences. This book gives them a face and a voice and I honestly think many books about this tragedy in recent history should be published. They are so important to get a better understanding of what’s happened and is still happening there. Despite the heaviness of this book, I couldn’t put it down easily. If you want to learn more about the war in Syria, this YA novel is a good start. Besides the traumas, it also displays the glimpse of hope the citizens still have and are looking for to hold on to.
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