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Author found home with life as outsider in Middle East

Jody Seaborn

Stephanie Saldaña grew up in San Antonio but has spent most of the past decade traveling or living in the Middle East. She was in Austin this month to discuss and sign copies of her heartfelt memoir, "The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith," at BookPeople.

In her book, Saldaña explores the personally pivotal year she spent in Damascus, Syria, on a Fulbright fellowship following her theological studies at Harvard Divinity School. "The Bread of Angels" is part family history ("strange and cruel"), part travelogue, part cultural and linguistic study, part religious meditation and part love story. It is tragic, hopeful, bittersweet, tender and insightful - and occasionally comedic and absurd.

Saldaña is as she appears in her book: sincere, engaging, serious, but also quick to laugh. Over coffee at Austin Java on Second Street a few hours before her BookPeople visit, Saldaña says she arrived in Syria in September 2004 thinking she might write a book, but the book she thought she'd write was a scholarly work about Jesus in Islam, not a memoir. During her stay, she eventually would study the Quran with a female scholar, a sheikha, and "The Bread of Angels" contains some fascinating passages about the Quran's portrayal of Jesus and Mary. The Muslim and Christian traditions that Saldaña writes about in "The Bread of Angels" are incredibly rich and will surprise many American readers.

Initially dissatisfied with her stay in Damascus, and personally unhappy (a dying relationship back home didn't help), Saldaña sought to recalibrate her year by retreating to a Catholic monastery in the Syrian desert. She decided to become a nun. She changed her mind. She fell in love with a novice monk.

"After I went to the monastery, and then started taking lessons with the sheikha, and then eventually fell in love with a novice monk in a monastery, I realized that what was going on in my life was probably more interesting" than an academic book about Jesus in Islam, Saldaña says.

Damascus is an incredibly diverse city, Saldaña says, though its residents segregate themselves into separate neighborhoods: Christian, Kurdish and Muslim. But because Saldaña "was an outsider," she was able to move easily from district to another, and she says she "just found myself encountering this incredible cast of characters that reflected the real diversity of the city."

One of her book's more memorable characters is the Baron, Saldaña's 73-year-old neighbor who takes a protective interest in the young and, at first, lost American. The Baron is an Armenian Orthodox Christian who owned an upscale shoe store in Lebanon before he was forced to flee that country's violence and religious tensions.

Saldaña says she thought the Baron a person "unique to my experience" and has "been so surprised by how many people have talked about the Barons in their own lives."

She says she thinks readers have connected with the Baron because we all know someone like him - an eccentric uncle or neighbor who still tries to dress fashionably, though the fashions he wears are years out of date, and who likes to tell stories about his past because the present has left him behind and the past is where he lives. The Baron brings some comic relief to "The Bread of Angels," but readers also sense the loneliness behind his swagger.

"It took me a long, long time to understand that he was actually totally lost," Saldaña says of the Baron, "that he was an exile who was far away from his entire life story and all the people that he loved."

I ask Saldaña whether she sees herself as an exile. She has spent much of her adult life outside the United States and currently lives with her French husband and toddler son in Jerusalem, where she teaches English literature to Palestinian students at Al-Quds University as part of a liberal arts program run by New York's Bard College. She repeats my question and thinks for a few seconds. "I don't think I see myself as an exile," she says. "I see myself as somebody who now doesn't really belong anywhere."

To explain, Saldaña tells me something she says she recently wrote a friend living in Turkey: "I told him it's so strange when you wake up and you realize your home isn't in a place anymore; it's in other people, and that's where I am now."

jseaborn@statesman.com; 445-1702