Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Love Letter To Syria (Interview by Forbes)

Stephanie Saldana is interviewed by on her journey and life in Syria and her reflections on a life-changing experience. Text is taken from Forbes' website.

A Love Letter To Syria

Stephanie Saldana on her spiritual memoir and how she found love in a desert monastery.

It was 2004, America's war with Iraq was raging and displaced Iraqis were pouring into neighboring Syria. Tensions between America and Syria were high. Yet Stephanie Saldaña, 27, chose to leave behind her life in America and move there. She had just graduated from Harvard Divinity School and set off to Damascus as a Fulbright Scholar to study the role of Jesus in Islam.

Saldaña embraced her new community. She settled in Damascus's Old City, living among Christian, Jews and Muslims. Despite her nationality, her new Syrian neighbors welcomed her. She studied the Quran with a female Muslim scholar, befriended an Iraqi refugee and rented a room in a beautiful but decaying house.

Saldaña experienced a whirlwind of emotions after spending a month at a monastery in the middle of the desert and, not incidentally, falling in love with a resident novice monk, Frédéric, whom she eventually married. Saldaña writes about her year in Syria in her moving memoir The Bread Of Angels: A Journey of Life and Faith.

Now living in Jerusalem, Saldaña spoke to ForbesWoman during a vacation in the French Alps about her transformative year abroad and why her memoir is a love letter to Syria.

How did you decide to study in Syria?

I traveled to the
Middle East for the first time just after I graduated from college, and I fell in love with the region as a whole: with the Arabic language, the hospitality of the local people, the ancient churches and mosques. Yet Syria always stood apart as a country with an incredible history and culture that was relatively unknown to most Americans.

When I began to study the relationship between Christianity and Islam in the Middle East, I was drawn to Syria as a place where Muslims and Christians had lived side by side for centuries, sharing not only their daily lives but also sacred spaces. I originally traveled to Damascus to research the role of the Prophet Jesus in the lives of local Muslims. Little did I know that my entire life, faith and future would be transformed in the process.

What happened to you there that was so transformative?

I was running away from a broken heart and from the trauma of many years spent in and out of the Middle East as it descended into chaos. In that sense the journey began on an extremely difficult note. I was also one of very few Americans in Syria at the height of the war in Iraq.

At the beginning of my journey I moved into a traditional Arab house in the Old City, where I was quickly adopted by my neighbors, in particular a 73-year-old man who took me on as his granddaughter. I spent a month in an ancient monastery in the desert confronting the demons of my past and struggling to change my life. I was accepted as a pupil of a famous female sheikh, who not only taught me the Quran but also a great deal about friendship.

I met so many people--Muslims and Christians, Syrians, Iraqis and Palestinians, monks and nuns and ordinary shopkeepers--who taught me lessons that I desperately needed. And I fell in love. It was the year that changed everything for me.

Who is this book written for?

The Bread of Angels has sometimes been called a "love letter to the Middle East," and there is some truth to that. I wanted to thank the extraordinary people I met, in the most unlikely place, who taught me how to find hope in the midst of chaos.

I also wanted to introduce Americans to a different and more complex Syria than the one we read about in the news. In the end, the book is about my journey in search of life and love, and of the people who guided me along the way. I hope that readers who have little interest in the Middle East will be moved by the story.

What are common misconceptions that Americans have about the region and Syria in particular?

Syrians are the nicest, most welcoming people you will ever meet. I was constantly invited to meals, offered rides and given gifts. Sometimes taxi drivers wouldn't even let me pay the fare because I was a guest.

There is this notion in America that Arabs, and Syrians in particular, are violent and anti-American. In my experience, Syrians almost always separate the policies of the American government from the people. I was often asked questions about the American government, but as an individual I was welcomed and treated with respect and kindness.

Syria is also not nearly as serious as one would expect. Locals love to make jokes about everything from waiting in line to political situations. They greet one another with terms of affection such as: My love! My heart! Almost all of the songs on the radio are love songs. It couldn't be more different from what we expect from watching the news.

Let's turn it around: What are some common misconceptions that Syrians have about Americans?

The misconceptions are so varied. I heard many young women complain that Americans fall in love, get married, get divorced, and get married again too easily, which they felt was unfair to families. From American television I suppose this would seem to be the case. A taxi driver, when he heard that I was from Texas, was immediately concerned about my safety, due to the cowboys and Indians. One widespread comment was that America is a dangerous place, due to the amount of guns and crime. I always responded that Americans feel that Syria is dangerous!

What are you doing now?

I've been living in Jerusalem for the past several years, writing and teaching literature at Bard/Al Quds, a liberal arts college for Palestinians. At the moment I am taking a break in France, reading, writing and spending time with family before I return to the Middle East in the fall. I won't say more, for risk of giving away the end of the book.

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CNN's interview with Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Domino Effect: Football Superpowers Falling

First week of the World Cup has been a trouble for many BIG teams. First France with a weak performance, then England with a surprising draw with the Americans. The Japanese astonishingly beat the Cameroon; Italy ended up with a tie with Paraguay; Brazil was embarrassed for some time till it was able to beat the North Koreans; and Spain, the foremost qualified team to win the title, was defeated by the Swiss. The map of football that we have been used to for quite a long time is now changing, and new powers are emerging. The Africans and the Asians are rapidly developing and producing some of the best players in the world. Apparently, the change of powers in our modern age is not exclusive to politics and economics. The world of football is also witnessing a new phenomenon that will set new rules for the years to come. (photo taken from The Hindu).

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Google Adsense: Money in the Making

Boy how much have times changed! I have just realized how powerful online marketing could be. Not only does the communication age let individuals express themselves freely across the virtual world, it also helps them make tons of money. Anyone who is keenly interested in the digital age now and has some very basic ideas - if not also advanced - can make money using the online platforms such as Google Adsense. A high-traffic website can absolutely benefit from this service that Google creatively offers and makes easy and available to everyone.

But the question for Muslims who consider themselves a bit committed and care about making money that's halal: Could this service be purely halal? Even though one can filter unwanted sites from appearing on the ads that Google publishes on your site, is it still possible to block ALL unwanted ads (such as porn, dating, alcohol, gambling, ... etc)? The service itself is so huge and complicated that according to one website i read, the ads could change from one country to another, and the site's owner can never control the ads a 100%. I tried the service for one day and i made $0.03 (lucky me). But still, the idea itself is extremely intriguing and attractive; nevertheless, i need much more training and knowledge about this thing to fully comprehend the power of the new digital age.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sami Yusuf - He is There

Yes indeed, He is there...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

French Team, NOT YOUR DAY!!

What was up with the French team yesterday? The players looked lost, they were not able to make real time chances, and obviously they desperately needed somebody to lead as the golden player Zidane did... I wonder if they ever would be able to go some great distance in qualifying for the the next stages with such weak performance... The French must be frustrated and embarrassed of their team! (Photo courtesy of Christian Science Monitor)

South Africa World Cup 2010 Opening Ceremony

Friday, June 11, 2010

Military Expenditure by Country

This is a list of the military expenditure in millions of dollars by country. Not surprisingly, the United States is on top of the list with more than 663 billion dollars. Just wondering if only a fraction of this money was spent on human development instead of spending it on machines and purposes that only contribute in the escalation of human enmity. According to analysts, the United States is under so much debt that some even predict that humanity will witness the fall of America sooner or later, just like what happened in the former Soviet Union. Having lived in America for two years myself, i believe that America could very much invest the power of good in its people which i had lived and witnessed myself. Unfortunately, the current and former policies only worsened the situation and had sunk the US in deep economic and social troubles of its own. Anyways, here is the link to the list from Wikipedia:

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

On the state of translation in Syria

For me, translation is not only a bridge between two or more cultures (a statement we often hear or read about translation). It is absolutely much more than that. Though the work of translation can be mentally exhausting, the end result, if nearly complete and closely narrative of the source text, could be completely satisfying and relieving to both the heart and mind of the caring translator. Through translation, i was able to learn creative writing. Translation combines art, science, knowledge, culture, linguistic competence and elements, and so many other disciplines. A successful translator is the one who is able to transfer all of these elements in his background, in a comprehensible way, from a source text which might be 100% contradictory to what he or she has been raised on.

Has translation reached the stage of professionalism in Syria? Do many Syrian translators use or even know about translation-related programs and techniques which are often used worldwide? I for one do not claim to know all of that. For instance, i have just come recently to know about things like "translation memories" programs and websites. Unfortunately, the Masters program at the University of Aleppo does not in any way refer to such recent techniques. The mentalities of our beloved professors are still buried in old time theories which are not used anymore. And the students themselves do not see any practical benefit of being in such an academic degree unless for obtaining the degree itself. That's a shame!

So, who is to blame for the status quo? How do we convey the passion about translation to the would-be translators? Are the students exerting enough time and effort to familiarize themselves with the modern techniques? Or do they only care for obtaining the degree? These are all valid questions to be asked. The state of translation in Syria is not totally gloomy; nevertheless, there are so many stages on the way of development that need to be implemented to drastically improve the study and application of this vital field.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Safest Countries in the World!!

The 2010 list of safest or most peaceful (and the most dangerous as well) countries in the world is here with an interactive map. Syria is 115 among 149 countries listed. Interesting to know, especially that we have always come to realize our country to be among the safest in the world. The UAE is ranked 44th. Even more interesting is to see Israel occupying the bottom of the list with countries like Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan ... etc. Such a so-called "democratic" state has proved itself to be a hideous and dangerous place to live in because of its hazardous policies, blockading an entire people and attacking aid ships. Here is the link to the list: