Jordan Salama, STRANGER IN THE DESERT: A Family Story

Jordan Salama, STRANGER IN THE DESERT: A Family Story

Zibby welcomes back Jordan Salama to discuss STRANGER IN THE DESERT, an incredible travel memoir of his epic quest through the Argentina Andes in search of a heritage that spans hemispheres, from the Jewish Levant to the old trade routes of South America. Salama reveals the discovery that inspired this book: a family history document hidden in his grandfather’s basement with 500 years of his Sephardic Jewish heritage and his ancestor’s journey across Argentina. He talks about his search for long-lost relatives and then discusses themes of identity, migration, and navigating multiple cultural identities.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jordan. Thanks for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” this time to discuss Stranger in the Desert: A Family Story. Congrats.

Jordan Salama: Thank you so much for having me back. This is great.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I loved this story. So personal. Your exploration set off by the family — what was it called? Historia Antiqua? What was it called? The book in the basement.

Jordan: Historia Antiqua. The Ancient History.

Zibby: You can tell I don’t speak Spanish. That you found in your grandfather’s basement. Tell listeners about the book and about the journey that you went on as a result of your discovery.

Jordan: When I was in college, one day at Thanksgiving I went down to my grandparents’ basement in Peekskill, New York, to look for some ice cream that my grandmother asked me to get out of the freezer. Next to the freezer, there’s my grandfather’s desk workspace and a lot of books and old things that he has there. I caught sight of this binder. It was about this thick and filled with yellowing papers with photos falling out the sides. It was just labeled in Spanish, Historia Antiqua: El Cuento/La Familia. The Ancient History: The Story/The Family. I was like, what is this? I opened it up. I found five hundred years of wandering history of my family’s Sephardic Jewish past from Spain to Syria to Argentina and beyond. My family’s a big mix of things. My mom was born in Baghdad. My dad’s family are Syrian Jews who ended up in Argentina. There’s always been a big mix of languages and stories thrown around in my family, but this was different. This was an oral history that for the first time my grandfather had written down over the course of his life. He never told us about it. I started reading it in secret.

Then after a few weeks, he found out that I was reading it. He started reading it with me. Our conversations drifted increasingly into Spanish, which had never happened before. Abuelo and I, like a lot of families in the US who come from other places, spoke largely in English. He would sometimes speak to me in Spanish, but I’d always respond in English. In that binder, there was a mystery. He said that his father, my great-grandfather, was a traveling salesman on a horse in the Andes Mountains. He moved from Damascus to Argentina. He went, and he sold his goods. Maybe, just maybe, he had these long-lost descendants that were still in the mountains of Argentina. I’m a journalist. I’m a storyteller. You know me now. I travel down rivers in Colombia and across America. I love a good adventure. This one had to do with my family. I had to hit the road. This book is the story of my search across Argentina looking for the long-lost family members and traces of my great-grandparents and my grandparents and myself in a country that previously, I wasn’t able to call home, but now I kind of am.

Zibby: Only kind of, though?

Jordan: I was born and raised in the United States, so I’ll always consider myself as American. My connection to Argentina before this was only really through soccer and a little bit of Spanish. We won the World Cup. All these things, my whole life, feeling very proudly Argentinian but not really knowing what that meant. Going on this trip and looking for this family, what I actually found were traces of us and why we are the way that we are because of these spaces that my family passed through in the past. That’s what I want readers to take away here. We have all of these stories that mean something to us. Even if the place names and exact details of our families can’t be found, there’s so much that can be revealed about ourselves when we take that look into our family’s past.

Zibby: It’s so true. This is the perfect instruction manual for what to do when you find a buried treasure. You have maps and emails and conversations you had with so many people. One of the things I was struck by is, you say pretty matter-of-factly early on that your great-grandfather was horribly abusive. He didn’t even like the schoolteachers to enact any sort of discipline physically on his kids because that was his role and all of that. Even though he was very protective of them, this was the way he did it. Full stop. Tell me about how you felt learning all of that, or did you know that all along? How did you handle the writing of it and the presentation and all of that?

Jordan: I didn’t know it all along. I actually didn’t even know my great-grandfather’s name before I found this book.

Zibby: Right. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked that.

Jordan: No, no, no. I definitely didn’t know it all along, but it was something I learned very quickly. I think a big part of it was just because that was the time and what people did at that time, corporeal punishment, your kids, and things like that. It wasn’t just him. What I think was more revelatory about him was that in addition to all of that, he was a big embellisher. He was a big exaggerator. He was a big storyteller. That meant that he was actually kind of a big liar in a lot of situations. There’s this anecdote that I love where he would sit on the corner in Buenos Aires and read the newspaper to all of his Arabic-speaking companions because they were from Syria. He was one of the only ones who could read well in Spanish at the time, so he would read the newspaper. He loved the attention of people hearing him read those stories out loud, so much that when he finished, he would make stories up. Everybody would believe them.

A lot of times, I would be thinking, here I am so far away from home looking for something based on one of these fairy-tale goose chases by this spinning liar of stories and tales who might not even be the best example to want to follow in the first place. I definitely grapple with that in the book. What does that mean? Why are we doing that? The truth is it was just a door. It was just a portal. I think a lot lately about portals and what these initial curiosities can spark. At the end of the day, this is not a book about Selim Salama, my great-grandfather. This is a book about a family that has an identity that’s so complex. It tries to, at least a little bit, better understand or analyze why some of the people in our family do the things that they do because of those complex identities. A lot of these identities are identities in conflict, especially now. We are Arabic-speaking Jews. We’re Latin Americans. We’re Americans. We are this giant mix of things that so many people say have to be separated, but we feel like we’re all of them in one. It’s a character study in all these different people, these different characters of our family and how they dealt with that over the course of centuries.

Zibby: You do a beautiful job discussing the migration and the wandering nature of Jews in history and how you call them suitcase-ready, which is an apt description. There were a couple times that you talked about how your own relationship to Judaism — can I read this passage? Is this okay to read?

Jordan: Sure. Please.

Zibby: You said, “Judaism is like this. We are a people who constantly question and adapt, and only ever are we able to move forward if we modify our traditions and laws and customs in a way that is reasonable, livable for us wherever we are. For my family and indeed for many families I know, these kinds of modifications are as old as time.” We skip down, and you say, “I do not consider myself religious. Yet I maintain certain customs that are undoubtedly rooted in faith, especially when it comes to food.” By the way, I do all of these as well. Then earlier, you talked about how, “As if being Jewish were not a complicated enough existence, being an Arab Jew feels even more complex because along with the traumatic memories associated with being expelled from the Arab world for being Jewish, there also came widespread experiences of palpable prejudice and discrimination within the larger Jewish world for being Arab too, especially as the Arab-Israeli violence has deepened divisions and made personal tensions more painful and pronounced.” Talk a little bit about all of that.

Jordan: Wow, that’s a lot to unpack in one question.

Zibby: Go ahead.

Jordan: I’ll start with the first part about being Jewish. This is a book about being Jewish. This is a book about the different evocations of Judaism in a family that has moved through different spaces every couple of generations for a very, very long time in history. What does that mean? For me, I think that being Jewish, it’s so much more than a religious identity. It’s an ethno-religious identity. It’s a cultural expression. For me, being Jewish is drinking maté, which is the traditional Argentinian tea. Being Jewish is speaking Arabic. I don’t speak fluent Arabic, but I use words in Arabic in my English and in my Spanish. That, to me, is being Jewish. Being Jewish, to me, is doing henna parties for weddings and having belly dancers at bar mitzvahs and all of the things that are age-old traditions of my Iraqi and Syrian Jewish families. To me, it’s so interwoven and not separable at all. At the same time, I’ve seen so much of those kind of ethnic expressions of Judaism go away in my twenty-six years of life. My mom’s family from Baghdad came to the US. When I was little growing up, I have these vivid memories of all these people sitting around in a living room at a party jabbering away in Judeo-Baghdadi Arabic, this now rare Jewish language. If you asked me today, I could probably count on less than five fingers the number of people who I hold close who are still alive to speak that language. With the death of a language like that obviously comes the death of tradition and the death of culture.

All this comes back to, why do we do these things? It’s because our ancestors tried so hard to maintain these things. They put their lives on the line or they escaped or whatever it was because they wanted to keep these things going. In honor of them, that’s why I think so many of us do these things. It’s kind of a way of holding onto these complexities that the world wants us to let go of. There’s another line in the book where it says, “For we are Arab Jews, and the job of Arab Jews is trying to remember all the world wants us to forget.” I think that that’s true because we’re fading away. I say we. I was born in the United States. I’m an American Jew, but I hold all of that history and that weight behind me. I want to carry it forward for my kids and my grandkids because I think it’s just such a beautiful thing to have. It opens up so many stories and so many histories.

Zibby: Talk a little bit about the role of Arab Jews — not the role — the identity of that within the context even in America and even right now. Especially in light of everything that’s going on, straddling so many different cultures, in a way, to create who you are, what does that feel like?

Jordan: I’m no expert on any of these things, but I think that the path to peace runs through our shared histories and shared identities. The more we ignore the fact that there’s so much that we have common, so much so that there’s people like me and my family who literally feel like we have both identities in one being — we can start to claw back our way through all of the terrible violence and division and conflict over the last more than seventy-five years and hundred years. I think that it’s really important to say that there are Jews who listen to , and there are Arabs who light the hanukkiah. That’s why I use the term Arab Jews in the first place. It’s controversial sometimes in communities. You’ll find even people in my own family who will, while frying and listening to this old Iraqi music, they’ll say, we’re not Arabs, because it’s a way of saying, we are not like them. I think that there’s also people, maybe, in those countries who used to be around lots of Jews who might also kind of reject those notions that there is something that’s called Arab Jews. To me, it’s such an irreducible fusion. I think that the more that we try to tell our story and the more that we say this is a sign that there was this coexistence for a long time, then maybe there’s a way of starting what I think could be very meaningful conversations about how to live together again.

Zibby: Interesting. I love that. Talk a little bit about your travel journalism in general. This book is another example of how well you do it. You include small details and yet bigger contextual histories. You talk about a cup of coffee — not coffee. A meeting or a call to a woman whose husband has passed way and how sad that moment is. Then you paint a much wider context. Talk about how you create scenes and how to create a whole narrative which is both moments and history.

Jordan: You know this about me. I love journeys. I think that journeys have an amazing power to connect disparate people and cultures and identities. For me, when I’m undertaking this kind of project, the context and all of that stuff that surrounded those detailed scenes really is there to make sense of it for myself and also that makes sense for my readers. I don’t want to have a scene out of context. I also want to make sure that I’m well read and well educated about the place where I’m going before I get there so that I could have the most meaningful and respectful and sensitive encounters possible. It’s a lot easier in this case because I was writing about a place that I have an actual connection to and that my family has a lot of history in. Whereas my first book, which you’ll remember, was about a river in Colombia. I’m not Colombian. I’d never been to that river before. That’s a lot harder. There are different challenges. I talk a lot about my work in terms of travel writing for a new generation because I think that far too often you’ll get the travel part without the journalism and the history and the context part, or you’ll get the hard news/history and context part without those vignettes of everyday life and the experiences of normal people. I’m all about talking to ordinary people and hearing about their experiences because I think that that’s the best way to understand each other.

Zibby: I love it. For people who maybe didn’t listen to our first podcast — shame on them. They can go back and listen to it. Can you give a quick summary — you’re so young. You started writing at Princeton. Give a little background on you, please.

Jordan: I started writing in this way when I was in college. I graduated from college in 2019. I’m twenty-six. I tell stories about the world. I think that that’s the best way to describe what I do, mostly focusing on the Americas because I speak English and I speak Spanish. I work a lot in both languages. I write about culture and history and identity and the environment and the intersection between those subjects. My work appears in National Geographic and The New York Times; most recently, on the cover of New York Magazine, a story about migration and children and families selling candy in the New York City subway system. All of my stories connect the cultures and continents that make me who I am. I think that it’s especially evident, those origins, in this book, Stranger in the Desert. I’m a nonfiction writer. I’m still going. I’m going to try to keep going at this for as long as I can, as long as keep reading.

Zibby: What is your next project?

Jordan: I don’t have a next book yet that I know that I want to write. I think that it’s going to take some time to do more stories and essays and focus on that for a while. I’m super interested in migration and the intersection between migration and climate. Those are definitely topics that I want to explore. Right now, the big project on the docket is that Stranger in the Desert comes out February 20th. I’m going to be spending weeks and weeks and weeks taking it to as many communities and libraries and bookstores and schools as possible. I’m open to any invitation to come.

Zibby: What are you most excited about on your tour? Which part of the country?

Jordan: I’m excited to have these kinds of conversations. The thing about Every Day the River Changes that was so special — I guess this was after we spoke. Then I took it to all these different places. It’s a book about a corner of Latin America that is so revelatory. I think Latin America as a continent, people in the United States — or as a region. I’m sorry. People in the United States have these preconceived notions about that region. They maybe have one-dimensional ideas of what it is. All of my work tries to push back on those stereotypes and those preconceived notions. Bringing Every Day the River Changes to places in Pennsylvania and Idaho and Zoom calls all around the United States and having these super meaningful conversations with people for whom Latin America is not as ever-present in their minds as for somebody like me was really cool. I want to do the same thing with Stranger in the Desert. I especially think there’s a world in which I can bring it to my generation and even younger, kids in high school, kids in college, to say, you’re lucky enough to have your grandparents still around. Here’s the kind of adventures and the ways that these stories, these living histories can change your life. Don’t wait until your thirties and in your forties and all you have left are documents. Now you have the chance to interview people, and here’s how. I hope that this book can be a guidebook of sorts for how young people, and especially Jewish young people in this case — I think a lot of Jewish families have similar libraries to the library in the book that my grandfather had, special as I think it might be in my case. I want people to be able to kind of grab that and hold onto it and let it change their lives the way it changed mine

Zibby: That’s beautiful. I don’t know if everybody else’s grandfather would detail any sort of romantic escapades.

Jordan: You never know. You’d be surprised. The very little that I’ve spoken about this book so far, it seems like almost everybody has a similar kind of project when they get older.

Zibby: Really? I don’t know. I’m going to have to ask — my grandparents have passed away, sadly. Maybe I need to know more about my parents.

Jordan: Yeah, your parents too. It doesn’t have to be your grandparents. It’s definitely surprising to me.

Zibby: What books have inspired you lately, travel or any kinds of stories, things that are keeping you up at night or things like that?

Jordan: I’m reading a book now called Kantika by Elizabeth Graver. I’m just starting it now. It’s a Sephardic journey, a novel, actually. It’s very similar to my family, but it’s in fiction form. I’m really enjoying it. There’s these one-liners and these details in there that are just so evocative and so special. I actually am lucky enough to be doing an event with her on March 28th at The Jewish Museum. We’re going to be in conversation together. That’s super, super exciting. I’m loving her book.

Zibby: Do you think it’s more important than ever to have Jewish stories out there, Jewish characters, all of that? This is a crazy time for books to be coming out.

Jordan: It’s a crazy time. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous to see what it would be like to market a Jewish book in the coming months. I think that where I’m going to hold tight and hold firm is that I have this really unique story and this unique background that is not just a Jewish — it is a fully Jewish background, but it involves so much else. Again, it involves being Middle Eastern, being an Arabic-speaking family, which I think is rare to have that so tightly interwoven with being Jewish. Also, it involves being a Latin American family which talk about migration between the US and Latin America. There’s two hot-button issues that this book tackles head-on. I do think that it’s important to tell these stories, though, because if we stop telling them, these stories will be forgotten. They will be lost. The real threat is that kind of loss and assimilation and that forgetting. That fear of forgetting is what drives so much of my family’s storytelling. My biggest fear is that it’s going to be me who forgets, so I want to make sure that that’s not the case.

Zibby: You said in the book that you even went through a time in college where you were writing down everything you read and every song that you were playing and everything. Do you look back on those lists often? I feel like all of us are trying so hard, whether it’s through photography or writing or whatever, just to try to capture and pin to the bulletin board of life some of these fleeting moments. How do we do it best? Is it what we’re consuming that reminds us of what we were feeling? Is it journaling? How do we capture it?

Jordan: I don’t have the right answer. I wonder what it is for you, actually. Do you have a way of doing that?

Zibby: Honestly, sometimes I feel like Instagram is my diary. Actually, I was like, I should just download all of this. Even times like COVID, I’m like, what happened? I remember, but what was I thinking in the day-to-day? I was writing about it every single day. I don’t know.

Jordan: For some people, maybe it’s Instagram. For other people, maybe it’s writing down songs. One of my grandmother’s older brothers painted his memories of his childhood. He got better and better as he went along. He became really talented when he was older. There’s people who keep these old collections. There’s people who collect stones. There’s people who collect records. It could take so many different forms. That’s one of the questions I have for so many people. How does your family preserve these? How do you preserve these memories? For my family, it might be the books behind me or my notebooks. For somebody else, it could be something totally different. I look back on my lists, of course. My notebooks and my lists are the most important thing that I have. I hold them so close.

Zibby: Before my grandmother passed away, I started doing video interviews with her. Then on the anniversary of her death some years, I’ll play them back for my cousins. To have the footage, it doesn’t take that long during the day just to take a minute out and do a quick video with somebody you love. Yet it doesn’t always occur to us to do that until it’s too late. I feel like if this conversation sparks some takeaways, it’s the search for family history and the need to get down the details while you can.

Jordan: It’s so great that you did that. Like you said, it does take very little time. You’d be amazed at how much you can get out of an hour of sitting down and recording somebody and asking them questions. One of the things that I’m going to start to do in these talks — I’m actually leading a class about this starting tomorrow, a four-week class about how to rediscover and reimagine your family history like a journalist. What are the ways to ask questions that are open-ended and not closed? How do you prevent the yes-or-no answers? There’s a lot of people who might just be like, yes, or I lived in Spain, and that’s it. No more information. Do you like The Little Prince? I love The Little Prince.

Zibby: It’s been a minute, but yes.

Jordan: It’s one of my favorite books. There’s a part of The Little Prince where he says something like, when you meet a new friend, so many people will ask, how old is he? What’s the name of the town that he’s from? What I want to know is, what’s his favorite color? What does he think about when he’s walking down the street? What flowers make him smile? Obviously, it’s a different situation, but what I want to know when I’m asking these questions of older people in my family is not necessarily, what exact day and year were you born? Sometimes that is not even known fully. You’ll never be able to get the right answer. What I want to know is, what was it like for you when you went to school? What was it like for you when you got home from school? What did your family cook for you when you came home? What did you eat? What were those sounds and smells and sights? The same scenes that drive my travel writing for a new generation. It’s a different kind of journey. It’s just a journey back into your own past. That, to me, is so exciting. To hear Abuelo, my grandfather, and Abuela too — she then also came forward with her secret book collection, which is in the book too, which was amazing. You get all these amazing anecdotes.

Zibby: Fabulous. What advice do you have for aspiring authors or even people trying to capture their family story that you’re going to teach in this fabulous class?

Jordan: People trying to capture your family stories is definitely to write everything down and to record everything because you don’t know when the time will come where you’re not going to be able to get that kind of information again when you’re doing the family history. The family history thing, also, I’m going to talk a lot about social media and the power of Facebook groups. Facebook groups are an amazing, underutilized tool for people looking into these history projects. Maybe they might not be able to tell you about your own ancestors, but there are these groups that will be able to give you rich descriptions of places and neighborhoods like you’ve never heard before. That, to me, is really cool. For aspiring writers and aspiring authors, I don’t know, I feel like I’m still in the same boat as when we talked last time, Zibby.

Zibby: You’re not, though. You have another book already.

Jordan: I know. I still feel like I’m trying to figure all this out. Now I talk with a lot of students. What I always say is just to show your writing to everybody. I think people are so guarded with, this is not ready yet. It’s not perfect. I can’t show it. I think you should just show it to as many people as possible and talk about what you’re working on and be excited about it because one person will come along who will be able to help you bring it into the world. That’s what happened to me. That’s what I hope could happen to others too.

Zibby: One thing that I think you do well that — I love when I see authors doing this. It doesn’t happen that often, is thinking of themselves and what they write about as a brand and what that brand stands for. When you’re like, I write about this, this, and this, it’s like, okay, so the next book that comes out, I basically know what I’m going to get. It could be fiction. Doesn’t matter. It’s going to be around these general topics. I feel like that’s good. It reinforces what they get. That’s what people want the most. They have allegiance to brands when they have consistency in them. I think that that’s a really great thing to have honed early.

Jordan: Thank you. I’m still trying to hone it and to figure it out. I think that in the past when a lot of writers who I really admire were coming up, those brands were the publications. Now it’s a lot harder because the really sad state of journalism is that a lot of these places are struggling. A lot of us writers who are independent are forced to kind of forge our own paths while still working really closely with these publications. No longer is it that you can be a staff writer in many places at all. It’s less now that you can say, I write for this, and then everybody knows what you write. Now it’s more, I do this kind of storytelling. If you want to read everything I write, you’re going to come away with a warmer, more meaningful sense of how the world works and why we are the way that we are and why we should respect the place where we live and the people who live in it. I think that that’s what I do.

Zibby: I love that. What kind of storytelling do you do? It’s a good thing for every author to ask themselves because there’s usually something. I think of Dani Shapiro, who’s like, actually, I’ve always been writing about the search for my identity. Now that she realized her dad wasn’t her dad, it all made sense. She’s like, but every single thing was an inquiry into that in one way or another. You don’t always know why. She got a very clear-cut answer. This is a clear-cut answer too. You’re a citizen of the world.

Jordan: It’s a start.

Zibby: It’s a start.

Jordan: Actually, the beginning of the book starts with a letter to my grandfather. It says, Abuelo, here’s the book, but it’s not finished, and I don’t think it ever will be. These projects never are. These identity projects and even the storytelling brand project, that’s a lifetime’s work. I’m just at the beginning of it. I just feel like I’m scratching the surface. I’m excited to see what’s coming next.

Zibby: Me too. Good luck with launch. Very excited for you.

Jordan: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Jordan Salama, STRANGER IN THE DESERT: A Family Story

STRANGER IN THE DESERT: A Family Story by Jordan Salama

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