Stephanie Saldaña, author of A Country Between: Making a Home Where Both Sides of Jerusalem Collide
in an interview with Mark Ulyseas. www.amazon.com
I wrote this book when I became pregnant with my first son, Joseph. My husband and I were living in Jerusalem during a very tense time, and I somehow felt guilty about our decision to stay in the Middle East. And yet at the same time I knew that it was the right decision, and that there was love and beauty bound up in all of the difficulty of the region. I wrote the book to my son in order to show him all of the beauty of where we live. It became a meditation on the power of beauty during difficult times.
Is this book a sequel to Bread of Angels?
The book is a sequel to the Bread of Angels in that it begins exactly where The Bread of Angels stopped. But the writing is very different—it is much more meditative and also somehow more universal. It takes place in the Middle East but is really about the challenges all young families face.
What, in your opinion, brings people of different faiths together, to live in peace?
It sounds very silly, but it is simply love. I have loved so many Muslims and Jews and members of other faiths in my lifetime—not because of their religion but because of who they are as people. We need to be able to see the essential humanity in each and every person. And this can only come through meeting—in school, in the streets, in the market. Peace can only come if we meet one another—and those who want war will always find ways to keep people who are different from having a genuine encounter with one another. I have found that it is very important, for example, to share meals with people of other faiths. It is so basic, but it is profound when people come together and break bread.
And what, in your opinion, divides people of different faiths, to want to hurt each other?
Sectarianism is a great cancer on society. This comes when it is more important to us what group someone belongs to than who he or she is as a human being. Those who want to create hatred will always divide people into categories and demonize them. This can be very effective particularly during times of war, when people are afraid and so retreat into their own groups. Hatred has at its origins a great fear of the other—it can only be defeated by love and the courage to meet those who might be strangers to us.
Is there a difference between religion and faith?
There is an immense difference—I have met countless people in my life who have no strict religion but have profound faith, just as I have met those with a strong religious identity but with little faith. Unfortunately in the Middle East, religious identity has become in many places more important than faith. For me, faith is the deep belief that God is with us at every moment, even our darkest moments, and that our lives lived in him have meaning. Somehow, I believe that people from different religious traditions can share a common faith.
The Holy Land is holy because Christ walked here, because Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Sarah walked here, because Mary gave birth to Jesus here, because angels and prophets have been here. It is a profoundly holy place for Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike. And yet for me what matters is the millions of people who have journeyed here over centuries, saying prayers, touching stones. They have blessed the land with their fidelity and humility. When I visit a holy place here, I always try to keep in mind that I am following in the footsteps of these pilgrims, who have blessed the stones with their prayers.
What is your message to the readers of Live Encounters Magazine?
My message is simply to have hope. In this moment, when so many are suffering due to war and displacement, when so many people feel hopeless, every amount of hope that is put into the world helps to tip the balance back towards good.
Stephanie Saldaña grew up in Texas and received a B. A. from Middlebury College and a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School. She was a Watson and Fulbright scholar and has won several awards for her poetry. She is the author of The Bread of Angels, about her time living in Syria, and the recently published A Country Between. She is also the founder of Mosaic Stories, a project to tell the stories of endangered cultural heritage in the Middle East (www.mosaicstories.org). She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and three children.