In “As long as the lemon trees grow,” Salama Kassab’s life takes an abrupt turn from the ordinary to the extraordinary as Syria becomes engulfed in the flames of conflict.
Once a pharmacy student leading a typical teenager’s life with her parents and big brother, Salama now finds herself immersed in the chaos of war, volunteering at a hospital in Homs, attending to the countless wounded seeking refuge within its walls.
Amid the turmoil, Salama harbours a secret desperation to escape her homeland before her sister-in-law, Layla, gives birth. This urgency is so profound that it materialises in the form of an imaginary companion named Khawf, embodying her fears and shadowing her every move, relentlessly urging her to find a way out.
Haunted by the arrest of her father and older brother and the loss of her mother in a bombing, Salama is left to navigate the treacherous journey to safety with Layla, who is not only her pregnant sister-in-law but also her closest friend.
As Khawf persistently drives her towards the perilous sea voyage to Germany, Salama grapples with guilt over potentially endangering Layla and her unborn child. Faced with the harsh reality of treating victims in the hospital, including children who meet agonising fates, Salama finds solace in volunteering while battling the toll it takes on her fragile mental health.
In the midst of this chaos, Salama encounters Kenan, a 19-year-old committed to caring for his orphaned siblings and documenting protests on YouTube. Their budding love becomes an act of defiance in the face of adversity.
An act of defiance
All along the imminent danger of capture heightens the urgency of their escape. Zoulfa Katouh’s novel masterfully weaves harrowing moments with poignant memories of peaceful times, presenting readers with a narrative that honours the stories of countless Syrians.
In this touching piece of work, Salama remains torn between loyalty to her country and the compelling drive to survive, symbolised by Khawf. Battling bullets, bombs, military assaults, and a shifting sense of morality, she grapples with the decision to leave her homeland. When she crosses paths with a pivotal figure from her past, doubts arise, challenging her resolve to embark on the journey.
As events unfold, Salama must redefine her perception of the conflict. The narrative skilfully navigates her internal struggle, ultimately prompting her to determine how she will contribute to her country’s cry for freedom.
As long lemon trees grow is a memorable novel that artfully captures the resilience and challenges faced by those entangled in the tentacles of war.
Ahmad Nazir is a UAE based freelance writer