When Zoulfa Katouh moved to Switzerland for postgraduate studies in 2017, Europeans who found out she was from Syria would ask: “Are you a refugee?” It made her realise that although the majority of people living in the Arab states knew what was going on in her motherland, those in the West did not. They only saw refugees coming into their country.
Zoulfa felt it necessary to tell Westerners why Syrians were fleeing because if they just saw the aftermath without knowing the cause, they would start having these ideas: People flock to the sea, climb into boats and risk their lives as if something they were leaving behind was much more horrific. Europeans saw people who don’t look like them and assumed what the media showed them.
To convey what she knew about the whys, Zoulfa — currently pursuing her master’s in drug sciences — assembled thoughts that had been bubbling in her mind and put them into a young adult (YA) book. As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow will hit the shelves on Sept 13, making Zoulfa, 28, the first Syrian YA author to be published in US and UK.
The book opens a year after the start of the Syrian Revolution and centres on pharmacy student Salama Kassab, 18, who has lost her parents and brother, and is left with her pregnant best friend and sister-in-law. They want to get out of the country before the baby arrives.
Salama, who volunteers at a hospital, starts having hallucinations telling her to flee, but feels guilty about leaving her home. She then meets Kenan, who records what is going on with the protests and protestors, a dangerous job. Through him, she starts to see Syria in a new light.
As a Syrian born in Canada, but who spent her childhood between Switzerland and Dubai before moving to Zurich five years ago, what does Zoulfa bring to her story about oppression, conflict, hope and freedom?
“I want to show readers there are many reasons people leave. My family members have always been immigrants. We left Syria in the 1980s because there were more opportunities outside the country.
“There is no single Syrian family that hasn’t been affected by the dictatorship. The horrors we see now have been going on for more than 50 years. I know about stories that happened within my own and friends’ families. Lots of refugees who escaped have told their stories, as such I was able to know more.
“Protestors talked about what was happening on Facebook. But this was [almost] always in Arabic, so the stories never made it to the media because there is this disconnect. The media only takes the headlines, and people don’t know the stories that affect the individuals. But we have read them; we are always up to date because we’re so scared.”
Unlike news, which gives the hard facts on attacks and fatalities, fiction can leap from the imaginary to reality because “emotions are what connect humans. When you write something as a story, it becomes personal to the reader who can identify with a character. If she likes to bake cookies, for example, and you like it too, there’s a connection and you feel for her. Fiction is very close to reality when it’s written with emotions: These are real people, not numbers that are dying”.
Zoulfa enjoys baking as it helps her relieve stress, taking walks in the forest beside her house and listening to songs by K-pop phenomenon BTS. Of course, she has always liked reading, an interest her mother sparked by buying her books from young. But Zoulfa never thought of writing until her permanent move to Switzerland.
“Syria has so much history and culture. Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world. We have ruins from Roman times, but so much of all of this is being destroyed by the dictatorship, slowly becoming nothing. I wanted to write about the love we have for the country.
“Nobody wants to leave home and be a refugee. I hope to convey this message: Don’t forget about these people. The least we can do is know their names, their stories. Knowing is the first step towards change. If you know and you tell someone and he tells someone, eventually it reaches somebody who can do something. If enough people know, then change happens.”
Writing is a change for this pharmacist and As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow took a long time to sprout. Zoulfa is grateful to mentors who helped shape the book and writers who are inspirations, among them Suzanne Collins of The Hunger Games fame and S K Ali, whose book Love from A to Z has a Muslim girl in a hijab. “For the first time I saw a character who represented me. It was great.”
Zoulfa started writing her book in 2017, completed it a year later and joined a writers’ group in 2019. “My first draft was so bad it’s embarrassing, but I’m thankful for it. We worked on the draft for two years and I rewrote it three times. This is a totally different book from when I began.”
Rights to her novel have been sold to more than 10 foreign publishers in the last year, and she is writing a second one. “It’s been a real wild journey. I got 50 rejections from agents! I’m happy that so many readers have opened their hearts to it. When you get rejection after rejection after rejection, you feel so shy and thankful that your words are actually impacting so many people.”
Zoulfa, who considers herself “a woman with many layers”, does not wish to be pigeonholed as a writer of identity stories.
She hopes to write other genres, from adult fiction to fantasy novels, books for children and even rom-coms.
Reading has given her the foundation to build books on, Zoulfa says, and authors can lead readers to what they have no inkling about. She remembers reading Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea, a fictionalised narrative based on the sinking of a German cruise liner carrying mostly wartime personnel and refugees in 1945. More than 9,000 passengers, including 5,000 children, died.
“For me, WWII was Germany, the US and the UK. I didn’t know about the Nazis and Sepetys’ book made me do research on that big thing that happened. I want the same for my book — to be that door people open to learn more about what’s going on in a part of the world they don’t know about.”
This article first appeared on Aug 15, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.