By Tara Bahrampour
Sunday, March 7, 2010; B07
THE BREAD OF ANGELS
A Journey to Love and Faith
By Stephanie Saldaña
Doubleday. 306 pp. $24.95
In 2004, when Stephanie Saldaña was 27, her boyfriend broke up with her. Saldaña, a Texan and recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School who had spent much of her 20s traveling the world and avoiding emotional commitment, fell into depression and headed off to spend a year in Syria. As a Fulbright scholar in Damascus, she lived among Syrian street vendors, Armenian neighbors and Iraqi refugees, then headed to a mountain monastery where she communed with Jesus and seriously considered becoming a nun. A Christmas visit home changed her mind, and she returned to finish her year in Syria, where she emerged from depression, taught English to Muslim women, and entered into a tentative relationship with a French monk-in-training who had to decide whether to forsake his monastic vocation to be with her.
It was a transformative year for Saldaña, chronicled in her memoir, "The Bread of Angels," which describes her struggle to understand love, community and God, and overcome her own demons. Set in a time when the U.S.-led war in Iraq has cast the region into instability, the book has the ingredients to be a Middle Eastern "Eat, Pray, Love."
Like Elizabeth Gilbert's blockbuster memoir of post-breakup, international self-discovery, Saldaña's story is divided into secular and spiritual sections, with headings such as "The Fallen World," "Crucifixion" and "Resurrection." In the early sections, she is mired in thoughts about the untimely deaths and mental illness in her family, and the stunted relationships in her past, all of which has left her so depressed and fearful that the monastery seems an attractive alternative to the messiness of the world. Her male companion there is Jesus, who appears in visions: "He sometimes calls to me. As though he needs to be seen. As though he needs me to witness the leper's hand unwithering, the paralytic rising from his bed. . . . I watch his hands. He is so quietly beautiful. I try to keep from thinking while I watch him: Please, don't die."
In a book based so heavily on the author's spiritual and emotional transformation, she would have done well to step back sometimes and get some air -- and some perspective on herself. But Saldaña's sense of her own importance is a far cry from Gilbert's light-handed self-deprecation. Saldaña compares herself at various times, and seemingly without irony, to Clark Kent, the angels cast into hell and the Virgin Mary, whose "story I have lived." She obsesses over instances in which she has let people down -- ranging from her mother to a girl she was mean to at age 7 to former lovers to an Iraqi poet she befriended for a while and then stopped visiting. Her responsibility also extends to people she has never met: "Sometimes . . . I see them all at once, lined up in the desert in front of me: Iraqis, American soldiers, Palestinian refugees, Israeli soldiers. I look at their faces, one after another, and then I ask myself, Stephanie, suppose you could, even for a day, make some of their sufferings disappear. Would you say no? Would you even dare?"
Thankfully this kind of talk begins to fade, along with her monastic tendencies, after she attends a family gathering and realizes that she is more unhappy than the relatives she feels guilty about not saving. That leaves her free to return to Syria and fall in love, with the culture and the monk, and the book picks up speed. She is swept up by the beauty of the Arabic language and her increasing ability to banter with shopkeepers. She studies the Quran with a female sheikh, delighting in details about Biblical characters doing things not covered in the Bible -- for example that John the Baptist was kind to his parents or that Mary went off into the desert, scared and alone, after the annunciation. She vividly sketches acquaintances such as Ahmed, the Palestinian pastry seller who swings headfirst from a ceiling trapdoor to serve his customers and dreams of selling knafeh, a cheese pastry, in front of the White House. And she duly remarks on the lessons of living abroad: "I had forgotten long ago that a Palestinian refugee could also be a man hanging upside down from his shop, serving desserts so sweet that they make my teeth hurt."
But when it comes to describing her love interest, Frederic, she is so enamored that it's hard to see the man behind the magic. "He comes off as a cross between a hermit, Lawrence of Arabia, and, well, basically every woman's fantasy of an incredibly handsome French-speaking poet, which he also happens to be." As the book progresses, we get a little more backstage access -- Frederic singing Beatles songs, Frederic quietly struggling with his choice -- but Saldaña's reverence prevents her from truly fleshing him out. She relies instead on descriptions such as "that terrible, innocent look of his, of such goodness that it could end civil wars."
The two connect over their shared loneliness, and they fall in love through reading Quranic verses. As they compare passport stamps and wander down romantic alleyways, one gets the sense of watching two Western college students on their year abroad. There's nothing wrong with that, but the observer is never fully in on the romance. Saldaña doesn't disclose until the last page what Frederic's decision is, but it will not ruin the suspense to say that her time in Syria proves healing on several fronts and leaves her ready to embrace the world she once sought to flee.
Tara Bahrampour is a staff writer for The Washington Post and author of "To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America."