If everyone was a cosmopolitan like Sama in Yara Zgheib’s No Land To Light On, the world would be an infinitely better place. Zgheib’s book is one of those rare books where after I finished, I thought: Not a word out of place, nothing missing, nothing needs to be added. It was pitch perfect in that way.
Zgheib’s book tells the story of Syrian couple, Sama and Hadi, who both have fled war-torn Syria, Sama as a Harvard scholar, and Hadi as a refugee, to come to the place everyone wants: America. Because America is so huge, and filled with hotdogs, and baseball games, and burgers, and massive green landscapes, and freedom. And it’s not filled with mortars and bombs and bread lines and lack of access to water. And secret arrests and prisons.
Unfortunately, America is almost always better on paper — scratch that; I was going to say, the ideal of America is better on paper than in practice, but even on paper, like with passports, immigrant visas, and former president Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13769, aka the Muslim ban in early 2017, America falls far short of its ideals. Its ideals of being that place everyone wants to come to, and can and should come to! Because of misplaced fear and hatred of the “other.” Fear and hatred of Syrians fleeing for their lives, and for a better opportunity, like our fictional Sama and Hadi. They want what we want and we don’t even realize it: To be free, to be loved and to love, and to be safe, and if you have children, for them to be safe.
Zgheib’s book is an absolute maddening read in this way. That it is so difficult for two people to just come here, especially Hadi, as a refugee. A refugee! Let. Them. Come. That’s in a normal sense, much less when things like Executive Order 13769 happen, throwing everything into disarray, including the lives of our fictional couple who also are dealing with a premature baby; then a judge reverses the order, but the federal government continues on with raids, and hey, Hadi’s papers are already “canceled.” A human being … canceled. Rootless now in Amman, Jordan. He can’t (or shouldn’t) go back to Syria. He can’t go back to America, where his wife and just-born premature baby are. Oh well, I guess? Oh well that half of America thinks that’s fine, and the other half aren’t concerned about immigration enough to ensure something like that never happens again? Again, deeply frustrating, and like Hadi’s frustration in the book, where he often lashes out, it is hard not to feel hopeless in the face of it all.
One of the harder parts that I felt Zgheib touched on with such beauty is what’s left behind when the refugee flees, or the immigrant comes to America: The country they knew, and more importantly, the family that doesn’t come with them. It is like being in a weird limbo space, especially when the place you are going to seems like they don’t want you there. It is as if they are a bird fluttering in the void, with nowhere to land, or “no land to light on.”
Speaking of birds, juxtaposed to this maddeningly, achingly frustrating story of separation and desperation and love is the metaphor Zgheib has weaved throughout of the migrant patterns of birds. Why do millions of birds decide to fly millions of miles? Sometimes with no apparent reason or justification for why, or how, they do it? Yet, the migration pattern has been disrupted by climate change (our fault), hunting (our fault) and war (our fault).
Birds are an apt metaphor to humans because deep within humans is a desire to move, to migrate, sometimes without rhyme or reason, just because we need to, deep within our bones. Sometimes, to borrow a word from Zgheib, we need to be in a state of “unarrived” in order to become who we are meant to be. And the glorious aspect for birds, minus the collateral issues they face due to our actions, is that birds need not abide by arbitrary state lines, or vast oceans. They can fly and soar above them! There is no line of desperate, pathetic humans waiting to hopefully get stamped for approval of entry into a country. There is just glorious freedom buoying their wings.
This was an “easy” read in the sense of being a short, brief book, although as I said, it is the perfect length. But it is far from an “easy” read in terms of content. I wish America could be the country immigrants and refugees see it as, and I wish we could enjoy the fruits of plentiful immigrants and refugees again. They make us far more culturally rich, interesting, and better. Most importantly, it is the moral imperative: Open the doors, let the birds in. We have plenty of trees from them to perch upon and sing their beautiful songs.
To echo a popular, and accurate, phrase from the Trump years, “Cruelty is the point,” is exemplified by Zgheib’s achingly frustrating book, but also, that even amid cruelty, we can soar.
I have a feeling Zgheib’s book will be the best book released this year that I read. It is that good, and that memorable. I will be thinking about Sama and Hadi’s struggle for a long time to come.