Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review: The Bread of Angels by Stephanie Saldana

Stephanie Saldana went to Damascus on a Fulbright scholarship to study the Jesus of the Qu'ran. She wanted to learn Arabic and read the Qu'ran in the original. She had lived in the Middle East before but Syria was new to her. The course of this memoir takes place over her Fulbright year, a year in which it wasn't easy to be an American in Syria as we were deeply into the war in Iran, a year in which she found herself trying to escape her broken heart and the seemingly cursed history that plagued her mother's family, a year in which she searched for God in the quiet of a monastery in the desert and the winding streets of the Christian area of Damascus, in a women's mosque, and in her own heart.

This memoir is very introspective and thoughtful. Saldana examines closely her life before moving to Damascus. She tries to look at her past failures in love objectively and to understand what she craves in her life. Retreating to a monastery for a month of silence and soul searching, she wrestles with whether or not she should commit to God and become a nun. After the month is over, she must re-immerse herself in not only Damascus city life but life at home in the US and ultimately make the decision whether or not to finish her Fulbright year as well as if she has truly been called to become a nun. But everything about her priorities changes when she returns to the monastery and falls in love with a novice monk. While she studies the Qu'ran with a respected teacher, learning the different but similar versions of scripture found within, she must also wait and see what path her own life will take, practicing a calmness, a resoluteness, and a patience that help her to come to terms with so much else in her life.

Well written and affecting, this is an openly honest and challenging story. Saldana has taken a long journey to know herself, to learn about a different culture, and to recognize and appreciate real love. She has drawn a vibrant and fascinating Damascus and has captured the multiple inhabitants, from the older man who adopts her as a granddaughter to the Iranian refugees humanly and with affection. The spiritual journey portion of the book was, to me, the weakest part of the book but I suspect that conveying the mystical in words for others is not an easy task. However, because this was a major portion of her narrative, it needed to draw me in more than it did. I found myself more interested when her journey involved other people, the Sheikha, the Abbot at the monastery, Frederick. And her reflections on her life prior to arriving in Damascus, her family's personal history, her vivid painting of Damascus itself and the people therein, and the love story all carried me along. This would make for a good book club book for those bookclubs which don't shy away from spirituality and will interest anyone with a fascination for the Middle East.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy of this book.


  1. I keep hearing great things about this book. I have a review copy too, and I'm looking forward to reading it!


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