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No Land to Light On


No Land to Light On

Yara Zgheib, author of THE GIRLS AT 17 SWANN STREET, returns with NO LAND TO LIGHT ON, a poignant, evocative novel written in the vein of EXIT WEST and THE BEEKEEPER OF ALEPPO.

Hadi and Sama are a young Syrian couple who met in Boston in November 2015. Sama, a Harvard student, first entered the United States five years ago on a scholarship, her love of knowledge pushing her past the bounds of her homeland where she would only ever read about the world. Hadi, however, is a true refugee. He recently arrived in America thanks to the work of a generous lawyer and his wife who are dedicated to helping refugees begin new lives. Having lived in their homeland much more recently than Sama, Hadi knows firsthand the devastation that has leveled their country, the bloodshed, the corruption and the daily traumas. But in Sama, he rediscovers a magic he thought long lost to him: the power to put down roots and hope for something more.

Hadi and Sama’s relationship is a whirlwind, the joining of two souls who are truly enamored of one another. When, early in their marriage, Sama discovers that she is pregnant, the two are scared but overjoyed to know that their child will never wonder if he is safe in his homeland or whether or not he belongs. But as they are preparing for parenthood, Hadi receives a devastating call: his father has died in Jordan, the night before he and Hadi’s mother were to interview at the US Embassy for a chance to join Hadi as part of a family reunification program. Having lived in the US for two years, married and with a child on the way, Hadi feels secure enough in his refugee status to travel home and help his mother with the funeral arrangements…until a shocking turn of events changes his life.

"The refugee crisis has been described in numerous works of fiction and journalism, but never before has it been written with such humanity and intimacy as in NO LAND TO LIGHT ON."

The date is January 27, 2017, and the US president has just enacted a travel ban barring citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the country for 90 days, and suspended admission of Syrian refugees indefinitely. Suddenly, Hadi’s refugee travel document, I-131 application, marriage certificate, driver’s license, lease, work contract and Syrian passport are no good in America. Following a harrowing “interview” with an officer who accuses him of terrorism and another who manhandles him, Hadi is coerced into signing a document that voluntarily suspends his refugee status and lands him on the next flight “home” to Syria, where he has one month of a Jordanian visa to undo a thoughtless, cruel and racially motivated policy that, according to most officials, should not even affect him.

In the meantime, the shock of Hadi’s deportation has sent Sama into premature labor. While Hadi fights to come home, Sama watches as their newborn son fights for his life. Alternating timelines, perspectives and storylines, Yara Zgheib brings to life the very real refugee crisis and the effects of the travel ban, laying these searingly timely topics against a love story as layered and emotionally taut as the politics that threaten to dismantle it. Writing in brief but lyrical and incredibly beautiful snapshots, she introduces us to young Sama, a dreamer desperate to fly free in the world; young Hadi, living in war-torn Damascus; Sama the mother, a woman who has lost her husband but gained a new reason to fight for freedom; and deported Hadi, betrayed by the country that claimed to love him and forced to reckon with the truth about the life he thought was his.

The refugee crisis has been described in numerous works of fiction and journalism, but never before has it been written with such humanity and intimacy as in NO LAND TO LIGHT ON. Zgheib has maintained her now signature style of poetic and fragmented, but surprisingly complex and layered prose. But where she used it to describe guilt and reclamation in THE GIRLS AT 17 SWANN STREET, here she pushes her writing to new bounds in describing the aching pain and beauty of love and the finding of one’s home in another’s soul.

In a clever convention, Zgheib lays her narrative against Sama’s dissertation studies of the migratory patterns of birds, using the metaphor of migration to highlight the stark realities --- and beautiful universal truths --- of the plight of the refugee. As she writes, “It has been observed that birds feel a sort of pain before taking off, almost like fear, and that nothing alleviates that feeling except the rapid motion of wings.” This sentiment is embodied perfectly in both Hadi and Sama’s backstories, but most powerfully in the actions of these characters when they are split apart by powers out of their control. Precariously balancing between hope and disillusionment, Hadi and Sama begin to unravel as they learn that the life they have built for themselves might not be as secure as they once dreamed, and that their only path forward may lie in their motherland, a place they swore their child would never see.

Most readers remember all too well the travel bans set in place by the US in recent years. But NO LAND TO LIGHT ON proves how few of us truly understand the ramifications of these policies, or how one’s paperwork can be in perfect order one day and utterly useless the next. Through the powerful, all-consuming love story of Hadi and Sama, Zgheib reminds us how much is at stake when we enact short-sighted, unclear policies and allow others to enforce them. Paired with her achingly beautiful writing and ability to distill huge, universal themes in small, intimate moments, Hadi and Sama’s fight for freedom and a place to call home is breathtaking and unforgettable.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 7, 2022

No Land to Light On
by Yara Zgheib

  • Publication Date: September 6, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • ISBN-10: 1982187433
  • ISBN-13: 9781982187439