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In 2004, twenty-seven-year-old Stephanie Saldana traveled to Damascus, Syria, on a Fulbright fellowship to study the role of the prophet Jesus in Islam. She was also fleeing a broken heart. It was not an ideal time to be an American in the Middle East; the United States had recently invaded Iraq, refugees were flooding into Damascus, and dark rumors swirled that Syria might be next to come under American attack. Miserable and lonely, Stephanie left Damascus to visit an ancient Christian monastery carved into the desert cliffs. In that beautiful, austere setting, she confronted her wavering faith and met Frederic, a young French novice monk. As they set out to explore the mysteries entwining Christianity and Islam, Stephanie slowly realized that she had found God again and that she was in love with Frederic. But would Frederic choose God or Stephanie?
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STEPHANIE SALDANA received her B.A. from Middlebury College and her 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.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 fills 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When I arrived in Damascus from Boston ten days ago, I had little more to my name than two black wheeled suitcases, an outdated Syrian guidebook, and a modest supply of textbook classical Arabic.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 find 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 flash 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 deflated 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 floors 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 films when heroes are presented the keys to entire cities, and unlocked two wooden doors opening into a room on the ground floor. 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 find 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 floor 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 floor 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 nonflush 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 confirm 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 the door to my new room, but then I felt his hand on my shoulder. He leaned in close to my face. “Stefanito, it really is the best room in Bab Touma,” he assured me. “It isn’t noisy like other places. Here people will leave you alone.”
The next day I was awakened at seven in the morning by church bells chiming from the direction of the Roman Catholic church down the street, faintly, but still in long and rapid succession. A few minutes later a set of louder, more insistent bells joined from the opposite direction of the Greek Catholic church across the road. Soon, bells from what must have been the Greek Orthodox church started ringing from the west, and finally what I guessed were the Armenians from the east, until I resigned myself to the cacophony that clearly would awaken me each day.
After fifteen minutes the bells quieted down, and I managed to slowly coax myself back to sleep. But, just as I was drifting off, the sound of men yelling and the violent clapping of horse hooves against stone jolted me awake.
Maharim! Maharim! Maharim! Maharim!
Gaz! Gaz! Gaz! Gaz!
Watermelons, twenty lire! Watermelons, twenty lire! I have peaches! Peaches! Peaches!
I crawled out of bed, and, mindful of my modesty even in my half-awakened state, I threw on a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt. Then I walked across the courtyard, ducking beneath the clothes hung out the night before, which were now dry and gleaming under the early morning sun. On the other side of the clotheslines I found my way through the corridor and to the front door and peered cautiously outside. Somehow, in the previous five minutes, the alley in front of my house had morphed into a one-ring circus. Just in front of me, a tissue-paper vendor was pacing back and forth, steering a cart piled high with mountains of Kleenex wrapped in plastic bags and shouting at the top of his lungs:
Maharim! Maharim! Maharim! Maharim!
Ahead of him, a gas vendor with a cap perched on his head was bouncing up and down on a wagon drawn by a black horse festooned with ostrich feathers, beating a metal wrench against the tin gas canisters like he was playing brass cymbals in a marching band.
Gaz! Gaz! Gaz! Gaz!
Cantaloupe and banana carts wove back and forth, taxis honked, and neighbors greeted one another by yelling above the traffic.
Sabah-al kheir! How’s your health? How’s your family? My God, it’s hot today, isn’t it?
I closed the door, snapped the latch back into place, and made my way through the laundry again and back to my bedroom. It was only my third morning in Damascus, I was still jet-lagged and exhausted from my marathon house search, and I was determined to get at least a few hours’ more sleep. But the street vendors had set in motion a series of events that I could not undo. Five minutes later, I heard a knocking on the window, and when I got up to pull the dusty curtains aside, the grinning, whiskered face of the Wizard was staring back at me.
“Yalla, Stefanito!” he shouted. “It’s time for coffee!” And so my first day in the house off Straight Street began, to a strong glass of muddy Arabic coffee, in the most beautiful house in Bab Touma, where everyone will leave you alone.
I had come to Damascus on a Fulbright fellowship to study the prophet Jesus in Damascus, the Muslim prophet who many locals believed would one day descend from heaven and alight upon the eastern minaret at the Umayyad Mosque, just a few minutes from my new house, to announce the coming of the end of time. It was perhaps not the most obvious research topic for a Catholic from Texas, but then little had seemed obvious in my life for a long time. I had spent much of my twenties working and studying in the Middle East, and what I had discovered about Islam had surprised me. In Egypt and in Lebanon, in Jordan and in the West Bank, I had often heard Muslims speaking of Jesus and Mary with reverence, calling Jesus by his Islamic name—The prophet `Issa, peace be upon him—and even quoting to me the stories of his life. More than once, I came upon Muslim women in their headscarves visiting Christian shrines to the Virgin Mary, or Maryam, paying homage to the woman in the Quran who is known for her piety.
My fellowship was specifically to study Islam for a year in Syria, the American government’s modest attempt to foster greater American understanding in a post–September 11 world. But I was just as eager to learn about Christians living and practicing their faith in an Islamic country, which was why I was excited about finding a house in the ancient Christian neighborhood of Bab Touma. Growing up in Catholic schools, I had always been taught that Christianity was a “Western religion” and Islam an “Eastern religion,” but my journeys in the previous years had turned all of that on its head. I had visited nearly-two-thousand-year-old Christian communities in Egypt and talked to Arabic-speaking Christians living in Palestinian cities who dated their origins back to the time of Jesus. I had stared at ancient Christian maps on church floors in Jordan and walked through villages of Arab Christians still speaking the language of Jesus. I traveled through the cities in Turkey where St. Paul had spread the gospel. In time I learned that Christianity had come of age largely in countries we now see as Eastern and Muslim. None of those ...
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