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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