An American in Syria

Books for Troubled Times in the Arab World

UPDATE June 8,2011: This interesting news article compares three versions of what is happening in northern Syria, as refugees pour over the border into Turkey. And in June, 2013, the news is eve worse. Here’s a New York TImes report from the Christian Quarter of Damascus.

Damascus Christian Quarter
Damascus Christian Quarter. Photo by Sebstian and Tyson

Destination: Damascus Syria Book: The Bread of Angels, A Journey of Love and Faith (2010) by Stephanie Saldaña For adventurous travelers who are curious about the country of Syria, Stephanie Saldaña’s book, The Bread of Angels, introduces the Syria of today (well actually 2004 and 2005).  Earlier, we read a magnificent depiction of a slightly earlier Damascus in The Calligrapher’s Secret, but this book brings us closer to the present. Unfortunately, the threat of violence hangs over both books and continue in  news articles out of Syria today. Both books are set in the Christian section of Damascus, but through the people she meets, Saldaña explores some of the many other cultures that co-exist in Syria. The book’s title and the section titles within prepare us for a memoir of a spiritual quest.  The four sections, however, reveal different and sometimes puzzling stories of this complex twenty-seven-year-old American’s life.  She vacillates between a secular life and an obsessive desire for a man who has rejected her and the attempt to rekindle her spiritual life.  The two stories weave together, and through the whole, threads of a travelogue show us every day life in Damascus. (Just think, she could have called it Eat, Pray, Love!) At first, the memoir appears to be the usual story of a young American trying to adapt to a very foreign culture. Since Saldaña is a poet in addition to being a theological student, the writing sings and she chooses her words with care. Her skill as a writer helps bring to life the corner of Damascus she lives in and many interesting characters who befriend her. This travel thread enchanted me for the first section of the book.

path to the Monastery
path to the Mar Musa Monastery

But disheartened by the difficulty of learning conversational Arabic and the larger issue of the Iraq war, she leaves Damascus for a month-long, rigorous spiritual retreat in a mountain monastery, Mar Musa.  There she struggles with her fall away from her Catholic faith, the troubled life of her family, and the violence of war. I must admit that Saldaña lost me in this section as she described visions in the desert, calling upon Mary and Jesus and God to show themselves and speak to her. That caused me a problem as a reader, because this is the centerpiece of the book. Since she had described her family’s problems with madness and her own prior decidedly odd and sometimes self-destructive behavior, it was easy for me to dismiss her religious experiences as manifestations of a highly suggestible, if not mildly schizophrenic personality. And when she decides she has been called to become a nun, I have serious doubts. After a return to see her family in the United States and settling back in Damascus, she says with St. Augustine, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” In this final third of the book, the memoir becomes a love story filled with almost too much suspense. Will she or won’t she? Will he or won’t he? Given what we know of her previous obsession with Mark from Boston, not to mention a string of men she has deserted during her frantic travels, the reader can never be sure if she is doing the right thing throwing herself at a would-be monk. I will not give you any spoilers, because you may want to add The Bread of Angels to the Middle Eastern section of your traveler’s library. The book is complex and interesting, and the writing is beautiful, but best of all for us as world wanderers, it paints a place in enticing detail. I think if I ever do get to Damascus, I will find the Christian Quarter immediately recognizable, and I’ll go looking for the rug seller, the Palestinian seller of sweets, and perhaps even rent  “the most beautiful room in Bab Touma.” But that will all have to wait until the current unrest calms down. This book was recommended to me and generously presented to me by Longitude Books. This exciting web bookstore, whose tag line is “Recommended Reading for Travelers,” specializes in providing travel book lists for major tour companies like Smithsonian Expeditions, but their site can help individual travelers, also. I also recommend their blog for quick updates on the latest in travel literature. The Arab Spring has now stretched into summer, with no signs of calming soon. A few of my readers are ready to move away form the Middle East and concentrate on other countries–perhaps more accessible in the foreseeable future.  So, what do you think? And because I did not get enough answers to draw conclusions, tell me in the comment section where we should go next in books and movies. Don’t forget to click on our Amazon links whenever you are going to buy ANYTHING at Amazon. If you access Amazon through our link, anything you buy is credited to us. THANKS!

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

9 thoughts on “An American in Syria

  1. Admittedly, I know very little of the Middle East, but this sounds like a great starting point. I suppose I should know about every region of the planet, but I’ve spent far more time learning about India than anything else. I suspect some of that information will be generalizable to the Middle East. I can’t wait to pick up this book! Thanks, glad to have found this post!

  2. I was smiling because you mentioned “The Calligrapher’s secret” and I see it sitting here on my shelf (thank you!) The book gave me a feel for the streets and alley ways etc of former Damascus- it sounds like this book will give a clearer picture of modern Damascus…having said that, I’m not sure I could wade through the intricacies of her inward journey. Who knows- if I have nothing to read, I might just go looking for this book- however, w/ me still forging ahead with all your past recommendations, I’m not sure I will ever be at that point. (I just completed The Paris Wife…was that you who recommended it??? or was it someone else)

    As far as future destinations I would like to read about…the Eastern board states…Anything on the East Coast of the US…I’m fascinated by those states- Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, etc etc etc….I will travel to those States ONE day!!

    1. I hope you’ve looked up the posts on the New England and Eastern Seaboard states that I posted last year during the Road Trip across America. I’ve been concentrating on foreign destinations since then, but a few U.S. locations are in my TBR pile.
      As for Bread for Angels, I thought I could count on you to understand her spiritual journey. :-)

  3. I loved this book! It opened my eyes to a region, a city, and a culture I didn’t know much about and I enjoyed all the story lines,even those about mysticism. There is a lot in the book that is quotable.

  4. My favorite quoted line ““Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” I want to read this book on the basis of that! -r

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