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As Long As The Lemon Trees Grow

Authored by Zoulfa Katouh
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

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As Long As The Lemon Trees Grow is a debut novel by Zoulfa Katouh, a Canadian national with Syrian parents, who split her childhood between Dubai and Switzerland.

The story is set in war-torn Syria at the height of the revolution and focuses on a young woman, Salama, an 18-year-old pharmacy worker who lives in the Syrian city of Homs and who volunteers at a hospital. Through Salama, we are given an insight into the cruelty and destruction wrought by a conflict that has continued since 2011, as she is compelled into the role of doctor, surgeon, and pharmacist before her education has barely begun. She not only witnesses the horrors and victims of war first-hand but is forced to make life-changing decisions when her loved ones are endangered. 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. The choice between staying in her home city or escaping to Germany drives the plot but when she crosses paths with a boy, Kenan, she starts to doubt her resolve to leave home at all.

By writing in English, Katouh felt she could finally get the message out to a wider world about what is happening in Syria, especially since she says many people do not really know about the atrocities taking place there. The novel seems to be shot through with the author’s own feelings of survivor’s guilt, having never lived in Syria herself. According to Katouh, many Syrians are judged for choosing safety and fleeing from their homes. The author believes, though, that going to a new country and starting from scratch takes an immense amount of strength.

While the book has an important story to tell and the representation of the Syrian conflict would be of interest to many, the proposed age group of readers would need careful thought in a school context, as the violence and bloodshed which are described may prove upsetting to a sensitive reader. The teenage romance aspect of many YA novels is also included here to the detriment of a more in-depth, nuanced description of the main characters, who are rather too frequently said to be ‘trembling’ at the others’ touch, or ‘inhaling his/her scent of lemons/daisies/dust’.

My favourite parts of the book are those brief descriptions of the beauty of the battered city and the references to lemons that are dotted throughout the book, from the scent they emit to their place in the country’s rich cultural heritage. As the author says in an interview in 2022, ‘There’s a saying that in Homs, where the book is set, that every house has a lemon tree, so these lemon trees have existed for centuries and they continue to grow throughout history, symbolising hope and resistance’.

This book is a difficult read in places and has attracted a variety of very different opinions about its qualities and weaknesses; I would recommend teachers read it and make up their own minds. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is the touch of fantasy and the twist at the end.