Bread of Angels is a memoir by a young American woman who goes to Damascus (on a Fulbright scholarship) to learn Arabic. Her academic purpose is to study the Qu’ran in Arabic and learn more about the Muslim portrayal of Jesus. Her personal goals are less clear: after a difficult childhood and youth, and a young adulthood spent wandering the world as a student and journalist, Saldana attempted to settle down in the US, but the result was a broken heart and another flight out of the country. Like many travellers, she’s on a journey to find out what she wants in life, and hers takes her to some unexpected places.
The Bread of Angels is many things. It’s a great piece of travel writing; Saldana vividly captures the experience of being the only American in a Middle Eastern neighbourhood, being a curiosity to her neighbours, struggling with an unfamiliar language, and knowing that she represents a country that most of those around her actively hate. But the book is also a powerful spiritual memoir. Saldana’s struggles with God and faith climax partway through her year when she spends several weeks at a remote desert monastery practicing the Ignatian spiritual exercises. At this point she transitions quite smoothly from writing about culture shock and her Damascus boarding house to writing about mystical experiences of Jesus, and brings the reader along with her on this strange journey (during which, for awhile at least, she decides the best solution to her life is to become a nun).
This book is many things — travel writing, personal confessional, spiritual memoir, and, oh, did I mention it’s also a love story? For me, though, the one thing it never ceased to be was compelling, I was with Saldana every step of the way, and intrigued by her story.