NO LAND TO LIGHT ON by Yara Zgheib, Atria, 304 pages, $26
Yara Zgheib’s second novel revisits the bad old days of 2017, delving beneath the headlines to tell a wrenching personal story, which traces the paths of two Syrian immigrants torn apart by the U.S. travel ban. No Land to Light On shows the shameful way the United States has denied the responsibilities attached to its status as a symbol of freedom and hope for desperate people across the globe. But this is not simply a protest novel. In elegant prose, Zgheib skillfully mingles her protagonists’ memories with a nail-biting account of their 2017 ordeal to craft a narrative rich in metaphors and complex, believable characters.
Sama Zayat leaves Damascus in 2010 to study anthropology at Harvard University and to escape the constricted life she foresees for herself in Syria. In America, she believes, she can be “light and cosmopolitan, a world-touring saunterer, untethered by land or home ... taking flight.”
(Evocative quotations from ornithologist W.H. Hudson on bird migration, Sama’s particular academic interest, elaborate Zgheib’s themes of global migration’s benefits and perils.)
Hadi Deeb arrives in Boston in 2015, three years after the eruption of Syria’s brutal civil war. Jailed as an enemy of the regime, he emerges to hear his mother tell him, “Go and don’t you dare come back. ... I will not, I will not bury my son.” From a United Nations camp in Jordan, he gets a Boston lawyer and legal refugee status.
He falls in love with Sama at their first meeting, and they marry four months later. There are tensions — Hadi is haunted by Syria’s agony, while Sama urges him to put the past behind him — but they are happy and thrilled when she becomes pregnant.
The couple’s recollections of those halcyon days, when they believed they were making a new life in America, present a bitter contrast with the grim scenes at Logan airport in Boston, where Hadi lands after burying his father overseas. It is the first day of the travel ban, and the airport is surrounded by demonstrators and police.
Sama, now 28 weeks pregnant, struggles to stay on her feet in the middle of a frantic crowd when her phone rings. It’s Hadi, who has been detained and had his passport seized. Before she can hear more, a spasm of pain throws her to the ground. She’s taken to the hospital, and a quick change of scene takes us to the room with no clock and no windows where Hadi and some 40 others are being held, their phones confiscated. When he demands to speak to his lawyer and call his wife, the response is, “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to calm down, or I will have to restrain you.” This official is unmoved to hear that his father died in Amman one day before the interview for American visas Hadi has been working to get his parents for two years. “ISIS recruits quite a lot of Syrians in Jordan,” he remarks.
Deceived into signing a form that says he is leaving voluntarily, Hadi is deported to Amman. He gets his passport and phone back upon arrival, speaks to Sama, and learns that their son has been born. As they had agreed, Sama names him Naseem, “light breeze” in Arabic: “We had wanted a name as clear and vast as this country, his by birth, ours by choice, by wish, by need, by hope.” But their hope falters as Hadi’s prospects for a legal return to the United States dim, and their dangerously premature son struggles for survival. The differences between husband and wife, normal and manageable when they lived together, threaten to widen into an abyss created by absence and uncertainty.
The airport officials are not the only callous government representatives in No Land to Light On, but their just-following-the-rules attitude is balanced by accounts of welcoming and supportive Americans: the lawyer and his wife who take Hadi into their home; the doctor who sustains Sama and Naseem as the baby slowly improves under her care; Sama’s professor, himself an immigrant, who understands the sacrifices made to come to a new country and encourages her to persevere.
A fascinatingly open-ended conclusion is fueled by decisions Hadi and Sama make that will stir lively debate among readers. It’s a fitting close to a novel alive to the ambiguities of the American and the immigrant experience. Hadi is not wrong to conclude that he was a fool to trust in the promise of America: “Something I believed unbreakable, believed in all my life, staked my life on.” But Zgheib gives Sama’s professor an eloquent alternate view: “This is a very young country. I have hope for it. I think it is greater than people think.”