Zoulfa Katouh’s debut As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow is a beautiful, yet harrowing novel set in war-torn Syria at the beginning and height of the Syrian Revolution. Though aimed at young adults, I believe a broad-ranging audience would find this incredibly difficult to put down.
Despite the fictional elements to the novel, its narrative is based on actual events, documentation and personal accounts from the war, paving the way for a representative depiction of the conflict. Ultimately it is a story that will sweep you up and show you the brutality of the war and the full strength and resilience of the Syrian people.
Context in Syria
Since 2011, the ongoing crisis in Syria has forced millions of Syrians to flee their homes. Many have been seeking safety as refugees in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, but many are also displaced within Syria.
According to UNHCR, as of December 2022, there were 14.6 million people needing some form of humanitarian and protection assistance in Syria, 6.7 million internally displaced persons and 6.6 million Syrian refugees worldwide (with 5.5 million of those hosted in countries near Syria).
The humanitarian situation has been further worsened by the recent three earthquakes in Türkiye on February 6 and 20. More than 50,000 people have been killed, with more than 26 million thought to be directly impacted across Türkiye and Syria. The earthquake site was close to areas with high concentrations of refugees, pushing millions already in desperate circumstances, into even further hardships.
Themes of guilt
A major focus of the novel is on the multi-layered guilt felt by the main character when she is forced to make the decision to leave her home country. Salama is an 18-year-old pharmacy student who volunteers at a hospital in Homs. Yet at the height of the revolution, she is forced into the role of doctor, surgeon, and pharmacist, all before her education is complete.
Salama witnesses the raw horrors of war as she tries to help those in need; children, babies, and the elderly. Through Salama, we are given a revealing and, at times, fiercely brutal insight into the cruelty and destruction that civilians face in a conflict that has continued since 2011.
Katouh’s novel seeks to humanise the individuals behind the headlines of war and refugee crossings into England. She also toys with themes of internal conflict, guilt, and shame - all themes that mainstream media tend to ignore when they dehumanise those fleeing conflict and persecution. Salama feels intense guilt every time she must think about leaving the familiar faces of the revolution behind, an insight that runs contra to common tropes of refugees and other vulnerable migrants seeking ‘a better life’, without acknowledging that, in almost all cases, people never wanted to leave their homes or communities.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and hallucinations are also prevalent in the leading character. Mental health is another angle that is not often discussed in consideration of refugees and is discussed here with sensitivity and understanding.
Fearing the military might attack Homs, Salama is left with no choice but to flee and risk the seas to seek safety in another country.
Hope and resistance
Whilst the devastation and fear continued throughout the novel, there was an overwhelming lasting sense of optimism. Salama finds happiness with Kenan, a protester and videographer of the conflict, and the pair develop a relationship amidst the rubble from bombings and air strikes.
Their relationship is just one of the symbols of the possibility of hope in a new Syria.
Another is lemons, symbolising an everlasting hope for peace in Syria. The novel acts as a homage to the Syrian diplomat Nizar Qabbani’s poem verse that translates to ‘every lemon shall bring forth a child, and the lemons will never die out’.
Katouh mentioned to Middle East Eye, “There’s also another 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.”
Katouh’s characters are represented as brave and resilient. Becoming a refugee and having to leave your homeland is heralded as a strength all of its own, but it is also found in those who protest and sing songs of freedom, who treat the injured, or those like Kenan who record the truth and broadcast it for the world to see.
As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow is a clever commentary on all the roles and individual stories that a revolution has. These stories of Syria’s civilians will stay with you for all the right reasons.