Canadian-Syrian Zoulfa Katouh has become the first ever Syrian author to be published in the Young Adult category at Bloomsbury publishers with her debut ‘As Long As The Lemon Trees Grow’.
Set against the backdrop of the Syrian revolution, As Long As The Lemon Tree Grows is not only a tale of powerful fiction but also a call to raise awareness and understanding about the situation in Syria. The book follows Salama Kassab, a teenager who is studying to be a Pharmacist just as the Syrian Revolution kicks off, but tragically loses her family, home and her freedom within a blink of an eye. After volunteering at a hospital in Homs she becomes a surgeon and treats the martyrs. In a bid to escape the unrest she heads out with her pregnant sister-in-law only to find that the road she has taken is not an easy one.
Katouh tells MEMO that she was inspired after reading books that stem from real life events. “I wanted to show what is happening in Syria through a fictional story so a few years ago I read Ruta Sepetys ‘Salt to the Sea’ and ‘Between Shades of Grey’. Reta had written about events that happened in WW2 that not a lot of people know about. She brought something real to a fictional story and this is what I wanted to do with ‘As Long As The Lemon Trees Grow’.”
“I wanted to do this for Syria and wanted to make it into a fictional story inspired by true events, these are real life events that are happening, but the characters are fictional and this will bring it closer to people’s minds.”
Katouh began writing whilst she was at university in Switzerland. She juggled studying, family life and her writing. “I began my Masters in Drug Sciences and I was writing between courses. Both took a lot out of me but I am glad it paid off.”
She says it is “surreal” and “amazing” to become the first author of Syrian heritage to be published by Bloomsbury in the UK and the US.
“I am so thankful, thanks be to God, this is all from God and if it wasn’t for Him I wouldn’t be here,” she says.
‘As Long As The Lemon Tree Grows’ features the relationship between the characters Salama and Kenan whom Salama meets after treating Kenan’s younger sister in hospital. The characters portray hope amidst the trauma of the revolution, Katouh says. Their relationship is “this light and the darkness, it’s the quiet, precious moments.”
Katouh hopes her writing will dispel some of the negative mindsets surrounding refugees, and help increase empathy towards them and their struggle.
Nobody chooses to be a refugee; nobody takes to the sea risking drowning if what they are leaving behind isn’t something much more horrific. They are sailing towards a future that may or may not exist and that takes a tremendous amount of courage to do.
Katouh says the ‘Syrian Revolution’ and not ‘Syrian War’ provides the backdrop for her book. “I find it very interesting because … we have had revolutions before where people are revolting against a dictatorship or a group of people that had been oppressing them. They’ve been starving, they’ve been thrown into prisons unjustly and they want their freedom. Why is Syria any different? It’s the same definition, there are people, there is a group of people oppressing them and they want their freedom. The general idea of it is a revolution, a Syrian revolution and it started as a call for freedom and I think we should give it its due.”
Her use of language is important to her hope that her book will encourage people to explore what is happening in Syria in more detail. “I’ve had a couple of readers who have read the book and then donated to Syria and it was so beautiful to see that. Readers who don’t know anything about Syria who were living in Europe and the West have given the book to their families and wanted people to know what was going on.”
“Hopefully it can reach someone who can help the people who have been displaced from their homes. We can still help the ones who are suffering and I can do it with my words and I am hoping that maybe if enough of us know we can do something to help the people who have suffered.”