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No Land to Light On
Table of Contents
About The Book
Sama and Hadi are a young Syrian couple in love, dreaming of their future in the country that brought them together. Sama came to Boston years before on a prestigious Harvard scholarship; Hadi landed there as a sponsored refugee from a bloody civil war. Now, they are giddily awaiting the birth of their son, a boy whose native language will be freedom and belonging.
When Sama is five months pregnant, Hadi’s father dies suddenly, and Hadi decides to fly back to Jordan for the funeral. He leaves America, promising his wife he’ll be gone only for a few days. On the date of his return, Sama waits for him at the arrivals gate, but he doesn’t appear. As the minutes and then hours pass, she becomes increasingly alarmed, unaware that Hadi has been stopped by US Customs and Border Protection, detained for questioning, and deported.
Achingly intimate yet poignantly universal, No Land to Light On is “a tense, moving novel about the meaning of home, the risks of exile, the power of nations, and the power of love” (Kirkus Reviews).
It is much too hot in here. Only my hands are freezing, even as they sweat onto the railing. Come on, Hadi, call.
So loud in this airport. Someone is shouting. More join in. I wish they would stop, that they would stop pushing. Officers and dogs. Angry protesters. Discombobulated chanting. Something is going on, but I don’t have the strength, or the space, to turn around. I just want to sit down. My feet won’t hold my weight, and the baby’s, much longer. I contemplate dropping to the floor. If I do, I’ll never get up. I think of the old woman I saw trip at a demonstration once.
The stampede crushed her fingers. How she screamed. This isn’t Syria, this isn’t Syria. People don’t get crushed in Boston. People don’t get crushed by frantic mobs at Logan Airport.
A heavy woman—her shirt is soaked—pushes me from behind, digging into my back, shoving me into the railing. A cramp. Too mild a word. A punch to my abdomen. I wish I could tell her to stop. I wish you were here; you would. But she knocked the air out of me, and you are somewhere beyond Arrivals. Another shove, cramp, like hot pliers reaching in, squeezing. I shield my stomach with my arm. A cowardly, futile attempt to protect the baby.
The iron rail seeps cold through my sweater, yours, the soft white one you wore the day before you traveled. I told you the stain would come out. I had to roll the sleeves. It doesn’t smell of you since I washed it. Come on, Hadi, call. Please call.
You should be here. No, we should be home. Your plane landed too long ago. I didn’t want to call; it would have ruined the surprise. Now, I don’t want to because of the cold, heavy stone in my stomach. And another feeling, higher, like when you miss a step on the stairs, except longer.
The table is set at home. I left the hummus on the counter. A sudden force from behind hurls me into the barrier. My breath bursts out of my lungs. The phone nearly flies out of my hand, lighting up in the same moment.
My breath catches. I know that Allo, those soft, gravelly as in my name.
“Hey! Where are you!”
There is much shouting around you too, but in your chaos, unlike mine, one voice thunders over the others, barking words I cannot distinguish.
“Hadi! Can you hear me?”
You cannot. I press my mouth to the phone:
“At the airport? What the hell are you doing here?!”
“Are you crazy? Go home!”
“What? No, no, I’m waiting—”
“Sama, I can’t come out!”
More shouting on both ends of the line. The shoving behind me. Crescendo. Distinct chanting, pounding: Let-them-go! Let-them-go! The ground shakes with their anger.
“What do you mean you can’t come out?”
Another blow in my gut. I double over.
“I don’t know! No one’s told us anything! They took our passports… it’s… What the hell is going on around you?”
“They took your passport?!”
“Sama, the baby!”
“Is it your travel permit? It can’t be!”
“No, they didn’t even look at it! Listen—”
But the pounding, this time on your end of the line, drowns the rest.
“… just go home! I’ll figure it out and—”
“Hadi? Are you there?”
Another spasm. My awareness crashes back into Arrivals. The crowd in furious waves. Let-them-in! A shove. I lose the phone. The next blow throws me headlong, belly, baby first, to the ground. Instinct buckles my knees; they take the impact.
The mob rages. My memory hears that woman’s fingers break, but through blurry patches in my vision, I see the phone and lunge for it. Bursts of fire in my stomach, but I nab it.
Gasps for air and light. I grab someone’s jeans.
“Help me, please!”
But my voice is too hoarse, the chorus too loud. I pull, and pull, and pull at those jeans. Then I bite. The foot kicks me in the nose. I yelp but do not let go, crying through my clenched teeth until I am yanked, finally, up, feeling something wet and sticky run down my upper lip. I taste salt.
Surface. White spots of light and cool, cool air.
I sputter, begging the faceless arms that lifted me.
“Please, I’m pregnant!”
The grip tightens. A voice shouts:
“The lady’s pregnant! Get out of the way! Get her out of here!”
In lurches, he pulls me, using his back to part the crowd. Every hit is a stab in my gut. I hold on like I am drowning.
“Move out of the way!”
More voices join. More arms drag me out of the raging sea, to the exit. The spots in front of my eyes clear: signs, people waving flags, some wearing them like cloaks and capes. Not all are American. I recognize the Syrian flag: red, white, black, the two green stars. Some have painted it on their cheeks.
Another voice. A uniform.
“Do you need an ambulance?”
I try to speak but another contraction hits. Too early. I gasp and nod violently.
“Do you have your ID?”
“Who are you with?”
Gurney. Steely hands, blue gloves. A rotting smell of sweat on rubber. We burst out into the icy air. Ink-black sky, and ahead, blue, white, red lights, wailing like a diabolical arcade game.
Spasm through the ER doors. The blood drains from my face.
Another bang. My fingers grip your sweater, soaked with my sweat, and clench. Every muscle follows, hardened lead. I bite my scream.
“Ma’am, is there someone you can call?”
“Is he on his way?”
“He doesn’t know I’m here!”
Blindly, I wave my phone.
“Hadi. His name is Hadi!”
My voice is chalky. I try again:
She takes the phone, dials, eyes on me.
“No answer. Is there someone else?”
Whirring, chafing rubber wheels on linoleum. Shouts, but unlike at the airport, these are cold, disjointed.
“Still no answer, ma’am.”
The contractions come, too fast. The pain shoots up, down. My feet jerk, teeth crash against one another. My lungs suck shut, cling to my ribs, like I’ve been plunged into ice water.
“How far along?”
I cannot see the faces. Twenty-eight weeks, but there is no air underwater.
“We need to stop the contractions.”
“How dilated is she?”
“Too late. Get an OR ready.”
Fire as I force air in.
“My husband is coming!”
Though that cannot be true. You cannot even know I’m here, but maybe if I scream louder.
Someone said my name. Someone said my name.
“Your placenta has ruptured. We need to get this baby out, now, or it will die. Do you understand? Sama?”
Sama Zayat, wife of Hadi Deeb who won’t answer his phone, who promised he’d assemble the crib, who promised he’d be back, who promised all would be well, and duty-free Baci chocolates. I nod and shut my eyes against this entire scene.
Now, it isn’t happening. I am not in labor and the baby isn’t dying. No one took your passport. I misheard, Hadi. You said you forgot to buy the chocolates, or you bought dark, not milk, or left your passport at the register.
Someone found it, found you, and now you will find me. I don’t want the chocolates, Hadi. Just come, find me. Let’s go home. The hummus will have soured. We’ll throw it out. You’ll be angry because of the starving people in Syria. I’ll feel guilty, but I’ll still be pregnant, and it will be all right and we’ll just order a pizza. I’ll give you my olives, you’ll give me your crust. Contraction. I howl.
“The OR is ready!”
Your sweater is ripped away from me, my last proof of You-and-I. Cold hands strip me naked and slip me into a robe: blue, anonymous.
“Ma’am, give me your arm!”
No one and nothing waits. An IV in my right arm, a name bracelet on my left. The stretcher bangs through more doors. Boom! Boom! like bombs. Why were there Syrian flags at Logan Airport? Hadi, why aren’t you here?
How careful we had been; no coffee, wine, air travel. How futile now, slamming into the OR, sweating and freezing. I look around for you, frantically, stupidly, knowing you are not there. I look anyway, heart convulsing. Green scrubs. Blue walls. Three round white lights.
Voices and surgical tools dart about. Something cold, a blade. I scream.
My arms flail. Hands hold them down. My legs are strapped in, spread.
“Ma’am, calm down!”
But my screams are all I have left.
“The baby is crowning! You need to push! Hard!”
I push and cry, like that night of raining glass. My ears scream. My eyes are squeezed so tight that around them I feel blood vessels popping.
“Good! Keep pushing, ma’am!”
“Come on, Sama!”
I push. For you, Hadi. For our son. Pain bursts out of me, but this explosion is fireworks shooting and burning pink and green sulfur, and I keep pushing and crying, and my entire life is this moment. Nothing ever existed outside it.
Reading Group Guide
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Exit West meets An American Marriage in this breathtaking and evocative novel about a young Syrian couple in the throes of new love, on the cusp of their bright future . . . when a travel ban rips them apart on the eve of their son’s premature birth—from the author of the “absorbing page-turner” (People) The Girls at 17 Swann Street.
Hadi and Sama are a young Syrian couple flying high on a whirlwind love, dreaming up a life in the country that brought them together. She came to Boston years before chasing dreams of a bigger life; he’d landed there as a sponsored refugee from a bloody civil war. Now, they are giddily awaiting the birth of their son, a boy whose native language will be freedom and belonging.
When Sama is five months pregnant, Hadi’s father dies suddenly in Jordan, the night before his visa appointment at the embassy. Hadi flies back for the funeral, promising his wife that he’ll be gone for only a few days. On the day his flight is due to arrive in Boston, Sama waits for him at the airport, eager to bring him back home. But as the minutes and then hours pass, she continues to wait, unaware that Hadi has been stopped at the border and detained for questioning, trapped in a nightmarish limbo.
Worlds apart, suspended between hope and disillusion as hours become days become weeks, Sama and Hadi yearn for a way back to each other, and to the life they’d dreamed up together. But does that life exist anymore, or was it only an illusion?
Achingly intimate yet poignantly universal, No Land to Light On is the story of a family caught up in forces beyond their control, fighting for the freedom and home they found in one another.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel opens with a description of the migratory patterns of red knots (sandpipers), and the executive order of the 2017 Muslim travel ban. How do each of these set the tone for the novel?
2. Sama comes to the United States by choice as a student, but Hadi comes as a refugee. Discuss how their experiences differ prior to leaving Syria, and once they arrive in the US.
3. On page 38–39, Hadi and Sama discuss the migratory patterns of red knots. How is the journey of this endangered bird and “how far they will go to find home” similar to Hadi, Sama, or any immigrant or refugee’s journey?
4. Sama chooses Naseem’s name because it is their “heritage . . . a name that recalled the country you and I had come from.” Discuss the importance of names and how they can link people across generations or geography.
5. Both Sama’s and Hadi’s mothers supported them leaving Syria—albeit very differently. What were their reasonings for wanting their children to leave? Discuss how they were similar and different.
6. When Sama is being discharged from the hospital, the theme of home—where it might be and what home looks like—comes up. Discuss the idea of what home is and what home means for Sama, Hadi, and Naseem.
7. We see a glimpse of Hadi’s younger years juxtaposed with the story his lawyer, Paul, tells him about a young man getting pizza with his friends. Why is it important to see the differences between this young Syrian man and the memories of an American man?
8. Paul advises Hadi to “trust the system” while waiting to get his US state ID. How did trusting the system help and hurt Hadi throughout the story?
9. Professor Mendelssohn becomes a father figure to Sama—first as a professor by encouraging her in class, then by visiting her in the hospital with food and books, and later by advising her to leave the US. After hearing how he came to the US, do you believe he sees himself in Sama and her family? Why do you think he suggested she reunite with Hadi outside of the US?
10. The differences in Sama’s and Hadi’s experiences come to a head when Hadi asks, “What the hell do you know about being trapped?! What do you know about suffering, Sama?” How has their suffering differed? Do you think it was fair of him to pose this question? Why or why not?
11. Sama continually says her reasoning for not wanting to leave the United States is that she has earned her ability to live there through scholarship and yet she begins to have doubts when she says, “I know this street and don’t belong on this street. I don’t belong in Syria either.” This is one of the first times we see Sama waver after Hadi goes missing. What finally convinces Sama she needs to leave with Naseem?
12. In the end, Hadi and Sama find freedom and home with each other rather than in a specific city or country. Much like for the red knots, there is uncertainty for Sama, Hadi, and Naseem. Why do you think Sama and Hadi finally make the choice to find a different country from which to get visas?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. According to the CDC, in 2019, preterm birth affected one out of every ten infants born in the United States. No Land to Light Ondoes not shy away from the realities and traumas of families with children in NICUs. The topic of preterm birth is more widely discussed now, as it appears in literature, news stories, and personal accounts of celebrities who share their experiences through social and traditional media. Discuss how the conversation about preterm births has evolved and how people are working to erase the stigmas surrounding traumatic birthing experiences.
2. Much of Sama’s and Hadi’s goals are rooted in the idea of the American Dream, which has been used as a device in many works of literature. Oftentimes, characters striving for this dream are met with insurmountable circumstances that prevent them from achieving their goal as is the case in No Land to Light On. Examine other novels that tackle this idea over the course of the twentient and twenty-first centuries, including those considered classics and others published within the last few years. How has the idea of the American Dream changed in both literature and in everyday life? Is it more optimistic now or in earlier works?
A Conversation with Yara Zgheib
The migration patterns of red knots is a thread that runs throughout No Land to Light On. What drew you to these birds and why did you want to tie them into the narrative?
I still remember the first time I saw these birds. I had just immigrated to the United States, it was my first autumn in Massachusetts, and I was feeling quite uprooted, adrift. One evening, just at sunset, the sky was suddenly full of red knots. I knew nothing about them, not even their names. I just saw little birds, beautifully fragile, impossibly tiny, and then someone told me they were migrating to Tierra del Fuego, nearly seven thousand miles away . . . I fell in love with them. They gave me courage, these brave, intrepid little birds. I found a nobility in their journey, like that of all immigrants.
There is an emphasis on food, on both their taste and smell, such as when you describe Sama’s and Hadi’s parents cooking or the first time Hadi and Sama have an American donut. Why did you focus on these specific senses?
Our most vivid experiences are colored, shaped by taste and smell; these sensations give texture and realness to a moment. Later, the same smell or taste acts like a trigger for the memory. Think of Proust’s madeleine. Or of favorite childhood meals. Culture is also intricately tied to food. Every immigrant from anywhere comes with an emotional suitcase full of spices, herbs, dishes that only a certain mother or grandmother knows how to make, in some loved and missed and far-off place.
How much of No Land to Light Onis factual and how much is fiction?
I am not Syrian, and I was not affected by that specific travel ban, but I know the insides of ICUs well, and the insides of interrogation rooms. I know what it is to lose visas, jobs, friends, all my savings, my home and get on a plane with my entire life packed into one suitcase. But I also know how light that feels, how vast the sky and world are. It’s a beautiful feeling.
Beyond your personal experience, was there specific research that went into writing this novel?
Much research was conducted on the 2017 travel ban—the circumstances surrounding it, its execution, the fates of those impacted by it—as well as the civil war in Syria, the refugee process in the United States, the operations of the US embassies . . . Lawyers were consulted, as well as human rights experts and activists, journalists who had been on site in US airports when the travel ban was enacted, reports and testimonies, etc.
So much of this story is about finding home and what it means to the characters. What does home mean to you?
E.E. Cummings writes:
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it.
He says it better than I could.
Do you have a next project in mind? And, if so, what is it?
This next book is the one I have been writing, in my heart, in my journals, on scraps of paper and the backs of train and plane and metro tickets, for more than ten years now. I am madly in love with it and hope you will be too. I can tell you it is set in Paris . . .
- Publisher: Atria Books (September 6, 2022)
- Length: 320 pages
- ISBN13: 9781982187439
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Raves and Reviews
“Zgheib writes so lyrically about rootlessness, separation and a fierce longing for home that it makes the tragedy of war that much easier to bear. Sama and Hadi will always hold a special place in my heart.”
– Alka Joshi, New York Times bestselling author of The Henna Artist and The Secret Keeper of Jaipur
“A masterful story of tragedy and redemption, an entire history told through the prism of a single Syrian couple, beginning and ending with love.”
– Hala Alyan, award-winning author of Salt Houses and The Arsonists' City
“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.”
– The Washington Post
“Written in soul-searing prose, No Land to Light On is an essential, compassionate story.”
– BookPage (starred)
“Zgheib’s prose is sensory, piquant with the scent of spices even as it captures the sorrow of living in exile while war destroys your homeland. But the novel’s real power is in humanizing the cruelties and injustices visited on migrants caught up in the travel ban.”
– Library Journal (starred)
“Zgheib has created a tense, moving novel about the meaning of home, the risks of exile, the power of nations, and the power of love.”
– Kirkus Reviews
“Readers will enjoy Zgheib’s story of hope and perseverance.”
– Publishers Weekly
“With raw emotion and aching clarity, Zgheib depicts a family trying to make its way back to each other as powers beyond their control shift their lives like gale force winds.”
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High Resolution Images
- Book Cover Image (jpg): No Land to Light On Trade Paperback 9781982187439
- Author Photo (jpg): Yara Zgheib Photograph by Katerina Ivannikova(0.1 MB)
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