Zoulfa Katouh's 'As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow': Agonising over a new, free Syria

Zoulfa Katouh's 'As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow': Agonising over a new, free Syria
Book Club: When lives are shattered by war and loss, it is a matter of fight or flight to survive. Zoulfa Katouh's latest novel is a pained, if hopeful, account of how the Syrian Civil War split up families and loved ones when faced with uncertainty.
6 min read
05 October, 2022
Burning with the fires of hope and possibility, As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow will sweep you up and never let you go [Bloomsbury]

“I don’t want to dwell on the past. I don’t want to cry about how I’m going to end my teen years with nothing more than lost hope and nightmare-filled sleep. I want to survive."

Salama Kassab was a pharmacy student with a relatively normal teenager’s life, but this all became a thing of the past when the Syrian conflict began and she lost her parents and brother. Salama's life became one of mere survival rather than living.

Now Salama volunteers at a hospital in Homs, helping the wounded and injured in secret, though, she is desperate to find a way out of her beloved country before her sister-in-law Layla gives birth, but her love for Syria of her childhood makes her decision painful. 

In her fear and confusion, she 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.

"As Long As The Lemon Trees Grow is a love letter to Syria, portraying a country full of colours, natural beauty and rich history"

“It doesn’t hurt for you to think about your future. We don’t have to stop living because we might die. Anyone might die at any given moment, anywhere in the world. We’re not an exception. We just see death more regularly than they do.”

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 Kenan, whom she was supposed to meet one fateful day, she starts to doubt her resolve in leaving home at all. 

When Katouh moved to Switzerland, she said a lot of people asked her about Syria.

She realised then that people in Europe and the West don’t really know what’s going on.

“All they see are the consequences of the raging war and refugees coming into their countries. I wanted to send the message that no one wants to be a refugee. No one takes to the sea, risking drowning if what they’re leaving behind is not much more frightening. While this is a fictional novel, the incidents and stories told are certainly based on real-life experiences. The novel is meant to sow together bits and pieces of authentic tragic events into one literary work, with an additional speculative element”.

From the beginning of the book, the reader is drawn into Salama’s life and turmoil as she battles internally in deciding whether she should stay or leave.

The fear of leaving is great but the fear of staying is greater, and as Salama fights to stay true to herself and her conscience, the desperation to protect her sister-in-law and the unborn baby as she had promised her brother becomes great. She becomes a different person, doing the opposite of what she has always done; helping others and putting their needs before hers.

We also live out her blossoming romance with Kenan and witness how their pure and innocent love grows and develops despite being surrounded by bombing, fighting and death.  

The love between Salama and Kenan is the author’s way of demonstrating that even amongst corruption there is purity and where there is the destruction of war there is also hope, born and nurtured by love.

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The reader is also part of Salama’s internal struggle in giving a name to what is happening in Syria, at the start of the novel she describes it as ‘war’ yet later in the novel when she is more clear about many aspects of her life, she recognises the events in Syria as a ‘revolution’. And it is then that the reader feels Salama has reached clarity.

Politics has a habit of dividing people and one can’t help but admire the bravery of the author as this book will definitely split readers in how events in Syria are portrayed as some will feel there is a tendency by the author to present the events and people, such as the Syrian Army as good versus evil, black and white, regrettably dismissing the fact that in every conflict there is also a ‘grey’ area.

Katouh succeeds in making the reader live the fear and anticipation of Salama and others in Syria. With every page, there is a real fear of who the bombs may strike next and whether Salama and Kenan will make it out of Syria safely.

The book keeps you on edge and the reader is kept on tenterhooks.

As Long As The Lemon Trees Grow is a love letter to Syria, portraying a country full of colours, natural beauty and rich history.

When asked about her wish for the book once it's released, Katouh says that she hopes her book will make readers want to know more about Syria.

Damascus is the oldest city in the world. We have the last place on earth, Maalula, that speaks Aramaic, the language of the Prophet Jesus. There is so much history and so much love we have for our country that the world doesn’t know. I want them to know what is happening because the least we can do for people who are risking their lives is know their names and stories.”

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“Your love for Syria will drive you. The guilt is just a side effect.” I smile sadly. “Without that love, your stories would lose their meaning.” And for Katouh to include the love story of Salama and Kenan, the love they both have for Syria and their families, she is giving a deep meaning to As Long As The Lemon Trees Grow.

Katouh wanted the story to convey the realities happening in Syria but with a strong message of hope. And that’s where the title comes from. “As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow is a homage to a Nizar Qabbani poem verse that translates to “every lemon shall bring forth a child, and the lemons will never die out.” It is also said that in Homs you won’t find a house that doesn’t have a lemon tree. They’re a symbol of resilience and hope."

As Long As The Lemon Trees Grow began as a draft started in 2017, finished in 2018 and then formally completed in late 2020. Katouh is currently writing her next book, the other side of the coin to Lemon Trees. “It deals with what happens after you reach safety. It also has themes of identity, racism, and healing from trauma. And of course, as always, hope.”

Raya al-Jadir is a journalist and researcher, who also runs a blog campaigning on disability and access issues.

Follow her on Twitter: @Carelessrayoon