A pious, studious Fulbright scholar’s year in Syria, learning about Christianity from the Muslim point of view.
In 2004, Saldaña arrived in Damascus, where she learned Arabic, studied the Quran, mingled with the micro-societies inhabiting the old city and frequented the Mar Musa monastery, where she rekindled her Christian faith. Raised in San Antonio, Texas, to a half-Mexican Catholic family with a history of manic depression and violence, Saldaña fled to the Middle East after college, where she felt strangely safer. She reinvented herself as a journalist in Lebanon, before moving back stateside to attend Harvard Divinity School. The author arrived in Damascus during the second Iraq war, as U.S. bombs were dropping on Baghdad, yet she received no hostility from the denizens of the Christian quarter Bab Touma, where she found a room off Straight Street. She happily ensconced herself in this “neighborhood of exiles,” full of Assyrians, Palestinians and Iraqis fleeing violence, and befriended the shopkeepers, recognizing soon that her medieval Arabic was unusable and laughable. Yet taking a practical language class at Damascus University only yielded tedious sentences full of current terminology like “guns,” “bombs,” “politics” and “explosion.” A month’s stint undergoing rigorous spiritual exercises at the Mar Musa monastery plunged her into meditation on what her calling was—to become a nun, or a writer? Ultimately, she resolved to engage in the “messiness” of life, and fell in love with a young French monk, Frédéric. In the second half of her memoir, the author chronicles her apprenticeship under a famous teacher of the Quran. This “lesson in personal humility” is the most affecting part of the book, and the American author’s reading of the Quran in Arabic proves gracious and moving.
A beautifully woven exploration of language and spirituality.