A riveting memoir about one woman's journey into Syria under the Baathist regime and an unexpected love story between two strangers searching for meaning.
When Stephanie Saldaña arrives in Damascus, she is running away from a broken heart and a haunted family history that she has crossed the world to escape. Yet as she moves into a tumbling Ottoman house in the heart of the Old City, she is unprepared for the complex world that awaits her: an ancient capital where Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians, Alawites, Kurds, and Palestinian and Iraqi refugees share a fragile co-existence.
Soon she is stumbling through the Arabic language, fielding interviews from the secret police, and struggling to make the city her own. But as the political climate darkens and the war in neighboring Iraq threatens to spill over, she flees to an ancient Christian monastery carved into the desert cliffs, where she is forced to confront the life she left behind. Soon she will meet a series of improbable teachers: an iconoclastic Italian priest, a famous female Muslim sheikh, a wounded Iraqi refugee, and Frédéric, a young French novice monk who becomes her best friend.
What follows is a tender story of a woman falling in love: with God, with her own life, with a country on the brink of chaos, and with a man she knows she can never have. Wise, funny, and heartbreaking, The Bread of Angels celebrates the hope that appears even in war, the surprising places we can call home, and the possibility of true love.
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Stephanie Saldaña grew up in Texas and received a B.A. from Middlebury College and a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School. She was a Watson and a Fulbright scholar and has won several awards for her poetry. She lives in Jerusalem and teaches at the Honors College for Liberal Arts and Sciences, a partnership of Bard College and Al-Quds University.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I’ve finally found a house in Damascus.
By house, I mean a room in a house—in this case my very own corner of a majestic, three-story Ottoman giant I stumbled upon early last week, when I was knocking on doors in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, searching for a place to live. My house was so thoroughly hidden behind high external walls that I was lucky to have noticed it at all. But from my room inside of those walls I can hear the entire world outside: church bells ringing and the call to prayer drifting through the air from distant mosques, the woman next door gossiping with her husband and the nearby vendors shouting out the prices of their wares. Every morning my neighbors scrub their laundry by hand in our single marble fountain, and in the afternoon I watch from my window as the courtyard ?lls up with their shirts hung out to dry, some of the arms pinned up in the air, others with their sleeves wide open, embracing the light.
When I arrived in Damascus from Boston ten days ago, I had little more to my name than two black wheeled suitcases, an outdated Syrian guidebook, and a modest supply of textbook classical Arabic. I didn’t have a single friend in the city, a place to live, or even a concrete plan for what I was going to do with the next twelve months of my life. I also had no idea how to navigate the local real estate market, which is how I ended up doing the only thing that I could think of under the circumstances and knocking door-to-door in the neighborhood of Bab Touma, asking total strangers if they had any interest in giving shelter to this young, lost American girl for a year.
It was the beginning of September, and the summer heat was still beating down on the cobbled streets and infusing them with a blinding, almost white quality. I walked close to the alley walls, where external balconies and opposing walls would every now and then cast a thin sliver of shade that I could ?nd respite in as I made my way from house to house. I ended up in a neighborhood just off Straight Street, the famous road where St. Paul took shelter after falling and being blinded by a ?ash of light on his way to Damascus. Two thousand years later, it looked more like Istanbul than ancient Rome, a labyrinth of tiny alleyways and sprawling old houses pressed up so closely to one another that the roofs overlapped into layers of red tiles. Only the very tops of the houses were visible behind the alley walls, and though every now and then a set of windows peeked out into the street, it was impossible to know if behind any given door was a tiny apartment or a palace.
I had been searching all day, but by late afternoon I still hadn’t found anything. Several old women had rejected me outright, which is perhaps understandable when an American goes knocking door-to-door in Syria during the height of the Iraq war, asking for favors. Two other women who offered to show me their homes led me into ancient Ottoman houses that looked as if they hadn’t been renovated in a hundred years. One small, windowless room had clearly been a broom closet in its previous incarnation and had been emptied out to make just enough space for a poor and desperate student. In the second house a single toilet was being shared by all of the house’s inhabitants, who by my count numbered at least ten.
By the time I trudged down a nondescript alley back toward the main road, I was so de?ated that I was ready to retire to my grimy hotel and give up for the rest of the afternoon. I might not have knocked on the door in front of me at all, had it not been marked mysteriously by a white license plate imprinted with the English words 10 Downing Street. The rest of the house was completely concealed except for a pair of badly painted brown double doors, an iron lantern, a cluster of doorbells with their wires exposed and labeled with illegible Arabic names, and this single, enticing sign marked with the address of the British prime minister.
So I knocked.
A few seconds later, an old man peeked his head out of the door and, seeing me, smiled broadly as though he had been waiting all afternoon for my arrival. I liked the look of him. A thin layer of white hair had been carefully combed across his head, and he had a bristly mustache without a beard, rosy cheeks, and an oversized belly held up by polyester brown pants and a belt cinched too tightly across the waist. In fact he looked remarkably like the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz.
“Ahlan wa sahlan!” he announced. “Welcome! Welcome!”
“Do you have any rooms to rent?” I asked him in my fumbling Arabic.
I waited for him to shake his head and close the door in my face, but instead he beamed, swinging the front doors open with great theatricality and gesturing inside.
“ Ahlan wa sahlan! Welcome! Welcome!” he announced again.
I could only hope that this meant yes.
I followed the Wizard through a narrow corridor and into the central courtyard, where a sprawling house unfolded before my eyes. It was a miracle of a house, completely enclosed and concealed from the outside world, the entire rectangular complex facing toward itself, with all of the rooms looking in on a marble fountain at the center of the tiled open-air courtyard. Behind wooden shutters, glass windows at all angles peered down from at least a dozen rooms. A series of outdoor staircases began in the courtyard and wound their way up to the second and third ?oors and the roof, making each level of the house wholly independent and yet part of the single, unwieldy whole—less a house than a miniature village. It was roughly the size of four normal houses, and my guess was that at one time an entire family of aunts, cousins, brothers, sisters, and in-laws had shared this single complex, the architecture granting them privacy from the outside world.
The Wizard removed a heavy, ancient key hanging from a nail on the wall, the kind I had seen only in ?lms when heroes are presented the keys to entire cities, and unlocked two wooden doors opening into a room on the ground ?oor. It was a generous room, containing little except for two beds, old spearmint-painted wooden beams crossing the high ceiling, and spare furniture painted with gold baroque outlines inspired by Louis XIV and left over from the French Mandate. In the front of the room, two large arched windows looked out into the courtyard to face the fountain, and I could imagine myself sitting there and writing in the mornings with the sun coming in. I knew from the instant that I saw it that this room would be mine. That it was already mine.
The man pointed to the crumbling walls. “What could you possibly want more than this?” he asked me in Arabic so heavy with dialect that I could barely understand him. “You won’t ?nd a better room anywhere in Damascus. This is the most beautiful room in all of Bab Touma!”
The room was beautiful, but in that particular way that ruins are beautiful, or certain old women whose faces take on a peculiar serenity just before they die. Dust-stained curtains sagged over the windows, and large patches of white plaster were disintegrating from the walls. The courtyard doors had eroded at the bottom, and the rose and gray marble ?oor tiles were faded in color. Yet the room also wore a thin, almost translucent dress of light, and from the front windows I could see the branches of a citrus tree growing from the courtyard ?oor and extending to the highest level of the three-story house.
The most beautiful room in Bab Touma—along with a separate kitchen with pipes held together by electrical tape, a non?ush toilet in a tiny closet near the refrigerator, and a room connected to the opposite side of the kitchen with a metal basin to wash—would cost me one hundred and forty dollars a month, including utilities. I had no idea if I was paying too much, but it was one-fourth of what I had paid for a much smaller room in a house in Boston. I shook the man’s hand to con?rm our arrangement.
“My name is Juanez,” he told me. “You know, the name from Brazil, Juanez? I lived many years in Brazil.”
“My name is Stephanie.”
"Stephanie? Stefanito!” He mimicked an Italian accent, raising his eyebrows suggestively and talking in the air with his hands. “ Ciao Stefanito! Stephanissimo!” He abruptly changed accents and began speaking in a deep, suave voice. “Bonjour, Stefanito. Tu parles Francese?”
He shrugged. “Too bad. Ju parle Francese. Do you speak Portuguese? Italiano? Turki? Armenian?” He chuckled. “I speak all of these languages très bien. Do you understand me? Très bien. If you need anything here you come to me, do you hear me? You don’t go to anyone else. I can take care of everything.
“Ahhh, Stefanito,” he continued. “Are you studying Arabic here? What is this Arabic you speak? Where did you learn that? Don’t you know that no one speaks like that? You must learn to speak Arabic the way we speak it. I’m Armenian and I can speak Arabic just like the Arabs. Where are you from?”
Just trying to understand his sentences was exhausting me. “America,” I told him.
He snorted. “America? Do you know George Bush? Ha, ha.”
I turned to shut t...
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