The Adventures of Laila and Ahmed in Syria

My gift to you both is a love for this Earth,
and thankfulness for all that it’s worth.
Your travels have served to open your minds
to people in places of all different kinds.

The Adventures of Laila and Ahmed in Syria is an exciting and lyrical adventure story that showcases beautiful sights in Syria using full-color illustrations. Shaped like a picture book but divided into sixteen chapters, it has pages of illustrations and pages of text in columns. It is published by the Beauty Beneath the Rubble initiative, which aims to “change the narrative of countries associated with war and conflict.”

One morning while their parents are out, Laila and Ahmed find their grandfather’s special book about his travels all over the world. Their grandfather was Ibn Battuta (yes! that one), and his book was, of course, Rihla. When they open it to look at the drawings, stories, and maps, they find a note addressed to themselves. In it, their grandfather urges them to see the world and offers them a clue to get them started on their journey. Before they can decipher the first clue, a strange light envelopes the book and it grows and grows until it is the size of a door in the wall. The door opens onto a whole new world. They walk through it and find themselves in Syria.

Throughout the rest of the book, the two children journey from city to city, seeing famous landmarks, buildings, and curiosities, all while looking for their grandfather’s next clue. I loved the celebration of all of these places. They go to a castle, the Great Mosque of Aleppo, and Souq al-Madinah. They see the waterwheels at Hama, the oasis of Palmyra, and the Church of St. Sergius. Their journey ends in Damascus.

These days, when most people think of Syria, the picture that comes to mind is the most recent shot of rubble that they’ve seen on the news. This book challenges that perception and reminds readers of the beauty of this country, which has a rich culture and history.

I do wish that the castle that was their first stop had been named: I’m sure Syria has many castles, and I’m not sure which one I read about.

I really appreciate the fact that a map appears before the story. Being able to trace Laila and Ahmed’s journey on the map was invaluable. It helped me show my seven-year-old that all of the places Laila and Ahmed visited were in Syria. He read the book on his own as soon as it arrived, and he promptly declared that it was “the best book [he] ever read.” When I prompted him for more information, he gave me a detailed synopsis of how Laila and Ahmed’s journey began. He said that they went “all over,” and he somehow missed the fact that their journey took place exclusively in Syria and not all over the world. Being able to trace Laila and Ahmed’s journey on the map helped him center their journey in Syria. As for his comment that it was the best book he ever read, he really liked reading a chapter book in picture book format.

Something that I found odd about this story is that while Laila and Ahmed recognize some of the places they visit from their grandfather’s book and from his stories, they don’t recognize much, if any, of the context from their own heritage Arab and Muslim identity. For example, Laila has to explain what the adhan is to Ahmed. How has he never heard the adhan before? It also would have been nice to see them reconnecting with familiar foods in a new context in Syria instead of approaching everything as if they were tourists.

I highly recommend this book to all parents, librarians, and teachers. This book is not only a cute story but can also be a great resource for students of geography, social studies, and current events. It is a beautiful reminder of some of what is at stake in the conflict, and I highly recommend it.

Find it here: Goodreads | Beneaththerubble.org | Amazon.com | Book Depository

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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