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1 Burnside Christianity- Personal Stories

The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith


The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith Cover





September 2004

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 When I arrived in Damascus from Boston ten days ago, I had little more to my name than two black wheeled suitcases, an outdated Syrian guidebook, and a modest supply of textbook classical Arabic.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 countries fascinated me more than Syria, where the famous Umayyad Mosque was once a cathedral holding the relics of St. John the Baptist and where over a million Arabic-speaking Christians still live in one of the most vibrant Islamic countries in the world.

   For the past two years I had been preparing myself for this journey, studying Arabic, Eastern Christianity, and Islam at divinity school, reading as much as I could about the history of Islam in Syria, where Muslims and Christians had been living side by side for more than a thousand years, ever since St. John of Damascus had served under the Umayyad government in the eighth century and had famously mistaken Islam for just another Christian heresy. My plan was to study enough Arabic in Damascus so that I could finally read the Quran in the original language and have a chance to speak to Muslims about the role of Jesus and Mary in their faith.

   That is, at least, what I told myself as I settled into my room in Damascus. The truth was, I was running away from a broken heart.

Product Details

A Journey to Love and Faith
Saldana, Stephanie
Islam -- Relations -- Christianity.
Christianity and other religions -- Islam.
Personal Memoirs
Biography - General
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
9.48x6.60x1.18 in. 1.23 lbs.

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Related Subjects

» Religion » Christianity » Christian Living
» Religion » Christianity » Inspirational
» Religion » Comparative Religion » Spirituality

The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$9.95 In Stock
Product details 320 pages Doubleday Books - English 9780385522007 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

I almost left this book on the shelf, thinking it was just a spinoff of Eat, Pray, Love. I'm so glad I didn't! The bones of the story are similar: woman travels to foreign country on the heels of an emotional breakup and finds true love (that last part feeling most fairy-tale-ish). But Bread of Angels is different enough that I'm wondering if perhaps Joseph Campbell overlooked the archetypal story of the woman who flees, after an experience of brokenness, to reconstruct her sense of self. Or maybe I just missed it. In any case, Saldaña's quest is more explicitly spiritual, and she's returning to the Middle East, where she's already spent a great deal of time. She writes with tenderness for the people she encounters: Iraqi war refugees, her landlord with his lost life in Lebanon, and the devout Muslim girls she teaches English to in the school run by the Sheikha (a female Sheikh) with whom Saldaña studies. Her love for Damascus, her year there as an American studying the Muslim Jesus, and her several journeys to a Christian monastery that conducts mass in Arabic — all make for a book with an outward focus that balances the inward, carrying a powerful message of hope in both directions.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "With a family history of untimely death and madness, Saldana easily took to a career of danger journalism, reporting from risky locales. In a deliberate attempt to stop courting danger, Saldana attempted a normal life at Harvard Divinity School. When the love affair that had provided her a sense of normalcy ended, she opted to take the Fulbright scholarship she had won to study the Muslim Jesus in Damascus, arriving in Syria in 2004 amid the post-9/11 war in Iraq. The tension of American foreign policy and Saldana's own vivid memories of death and destruction witnessed during her reporting life earlier in the Middle East haunted her, particularly when she embarked upon the Catholic rite of spiritual exercises at the Syrian desert monastery of Mar Musa. In lovely prose and with elements of foreshadowing, Saldana shares her struggles to become religious again and overcome feelings that God has abandoned her. Touches of melodrama weigh down an otherwise gorgeous and enlightening read, as Saldana's scholarly knowledge of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism subtly infuse her story. An Eat, Pray, Love for the intellectual set, Saldana's beautiful memoir should not be missed." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "A remarkable, wise, and lovely book from a truly gifted new writer, The Bread of Angels brims with originality and insight."
"Review" by , "Brace yourself for an intense inner and outer journey....A brilliant debut."
"Review" by , "A fragrant, elegantly observed journey that captures the dilapidated glory of Damascus and the resilient wit of its people."
"Review" by , "[A] stunning memoir that is both a contemporary spiritual quest and a sweet, surprising love story."
"Synopsis" by , The Bread of Angels sweeps readers into the violent extremes of a war-torn region and renews their belief in faith, self-discovery and the possibility of true love. Part spiritual autobiography, part travelogue, and part love story as it tells of an incredibly fascinating journey by a remarkable young woman.
"Synopsis" by , A riveting memoir about one woman's journey into Syria under the Baathist regime and an unexpected love story between two strangers searching for meaning.


When Stephanie Saldaña arrives in Damascus, she is running away from a broken heart and a haunted family history that she has crossed the world to escape. Yet as she moves into a tumbling Ottoman house in the heart of the Old City, she is unprepared for the complex world that awaits her: an ancient capital where Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians, Alawites, Kurds, and Palestinian and Iraqi refugees share a fragile co-existence.

Soon she is stumbling through the Arabic language, fielding interviews from the secret police, and struggling to make the city her own. But as the political climate darkens and the war in neighboring Iraq threatens to spill over, she flees to an ancient Christian monastery carved into the desert cliffs, where she is forced to confront the life she left behind. Soon she will meet a series of improbable teachers: an iconoclastic Italian priest, a famous female Muslim sheikh, a wounded Iraqi refugee, and Frédéric, a young French novice monk who becomes her best friend.

What follows is a tender story of a woman falling in love: with God, with her own life, with a country on the brink of chaos, and with a man she knows she can never have. Wise, funny, and heartbreaking, The Bread of Angels celebrates the hope that appears even in war, the surprising places we can call home, and the possibility of true love.

"Synopsis" by , “Above all, a love story . . . a page-turner that keeps you up nights.”

—Geraldine Brooks

In 2004, twenty-seven-year old Stephanie Saldaña arrives in Damascus with a broken heart and a haunted family history that she has crossed the world to escape. She has come on a fellowship to study the role of Jesus in Islam, but speaks very little Arabic, has no friends in the city, and has no place to live. Nor is it an ideal time to be in the region—the United States has recently invaded neighboring Iraq, and refugees are flooding into the streets of Damascus. Still, Stephanie does the only thing she can think of: she begins knocking on doors in the Christian Quarter, asking strangers if they have a room to rent. So begins The Bread of Angels, the unforgettable memoir of one woman’s search for faith, love, and the meaning of her life in the place she least expects to find it.

Before long, Stephanie is offered an airy room in a glorious, dilapidated house. She begins to stumble through Arabic and to make the Old City her home. But after a series of disheartening developments, she leaves to spend a month in an ancient Christian monastery carved into the Syrian desert cliffs. There in the austere, beautiful landscape she finally begins to face the past she has been running from and to confront her wavering faith.

She is joined in her search for God and self-knowledge by a series of improbable teachers: the Sheikha, a female Muslim scholar who guides her through the Quran; Hassan, an Iraqi refugee who shows her the poetry that exists in war; the Baron, an Armenian neighbor who fusses over her like an eccentric relative; and finally Frédéric, a young French novice monk who becomes her best friend. Soon it is clear that she is falling in love again—with God, with her own life, and, unexpectedly, with Frédéric. But will Frédéric, on the cusp of taking his final vows, choose God or Stephanie?

The Bread of Angels is the story of the unlikely year that changed Stephanie Saldaña’s life. Wise, funny, and heartbreaking by turns, it celebrates the beauty of faith, the necessity of self-discovery, and the possibility of true love.

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