Stranger in the Desert by Jordan Salama

Some books remain mercifully forgotten; others linger in our memory for years. Stranger in the Desert, by brilliant new literary voice Jordan Salama, is an unforgettable family story exquisitely expressed to honor his uniquely mixed ancestors. The author is a Syrian, Iraqi, Argentinian, American, Jew. He entreats readers to remember our own heritage as he embarks on an adventure to find his authentic self, to affirm where he belongs.  


When the author discovered a binder titled "Historia Antiqua" in his grandparent’s basement his curiosity soared. Inside was a hundred-year history of his father’s family about whom he knew very little.


Salama knew more about his mother’s side of the family because she repeatedly regaled him with nostalgic tales of their 2000 years in Iraq, as Baghdadi Jews living relatively peacefully with the Arab neighbors. He also often heard stories about their difficult times characterized by discrimination and the eventual imprisonment of his grandfather, an action which forced the family to emigrate from their beloved Iraq to the United States. The author’s mother preserved the Iraqi culture in her home, cooking indigenous meals, entertaining the family with folk tales, songs and “origin stories,” keeping the nostalgia alive.


The exhaustive escapades realized by his great grandfather Selim Salama leaped off the handwritten pages in his Abuelo’s binder. The author’s great-grandfather Selim Salama, born in 1886 Damascus, within the Ottoman Empire was Musta’arabi, an “Arab Jew.” In 1911 Selim felt threatened with conscription into the Syrian army. He boarded a ship for Marseilles and sailed to Buenos Aires. Selim became a “turco,” a travelling salesman in a new country and a foreign language about which he knew nothing. What Selim knew best was how to make children--- fourteen with his wife and many more cavorting with lovers during his "turco" days traveling around Argentina, peddling textiles, joining caravans, a Don Quixote, “perpetually on the move.”


Author Salama determined to find “The Lost Salamas” to add to his family. He embarked on a voyage on an identical route taken by his flamboyant great-grandfather that began in Mendoza at the foot of the Argentinean Andes on an adventure that would take him as far north as Bolivia. 


The author’s myriad encounters – a lunch with Alberto Balgue, a peddler like his great-grandfather who “sells bombillas for mate” (straws to drink yerba tea), a hilarious experience in Catamarca Fair with guide Muna Muna, so nicknamed, after the “herbal Viagra of the Andes," a solemn evening spent outdoors with a Jewish gaucho- didn’t sprout new branches on Salama’s family tree. The journey however strengthened the author’s identity, he writes, “feeling like you don’t fully belong anywhere probably means that you belong a little bit everywhere.” A gorgeous read! Dedicated to Abuelo and Abuela.