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.
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.
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!