“It was fantastic to do my homework at Saint-Georges with an orchestra playing behind me”

Faced with a book of five hundred pages entitled L’Ombre du Cèdre, one can expect long lyrical flights over the singing valleys of northern Lebanon draped in the foliage of thousand-year-old forests. However, the story begins in cosmopolitan and bourgeois Aleppo at the end of the 1940s, where the Aramoun family led a somewhat euphoric social life. Alphonse, the father, a businessman, comes from a “big family” in Kesrouan. He married a Bulgarian dancer, much to the chagrin of those close to him who consider this aristocrat and former opera ballerina to be a prostitute. The couple have two children, an eldest son who is studying in Lebanon and the youngest, Anya, who observes her environment with curiosity, acumen and sensitivity. Very quickly, the physical and verbal violence of Alphonse on both his wife and his children is revealed. Finally, he abandons them to join his mistress, Paula, in Beirut. Olga is ready for any subterfuge to save her daughter from the pathos of the situation: the former dancer’s imagination is limitless when it comes to creating eccentric outfits from a few accessories or organizing evenings with Slavic artists she has met at the door of embassies, notably Varbinka, whose performances are built around the fact that she has neither arms nor legs. Anya is carried away by her mother’s whimsical breath, while developing a fine and nuanced analysis of the complex reality that surrounds her.

The cover of the novel.

One day, her father reappears and decides to take her to Beirut with him so that she can then go to school with the sisters of Saïda. The scene where the little girl discovers the famous Paula is particularly successful, mimicking to the millimeter the antics and pretenses of the mother-in-law, while Olga is on the balcony in her most beautiful finery, her gaze both incisive and triumphant.

Olga then decides to settle in Beirut too in order to be closer to her children, which gives rise to comical scenes, such as the contrast between the weekends of plethoric and slanderous feasts in the Aramoun family, and the stays with the mother. Settled in Basta then in Bourj Hammoud, she lives in slums where there is a certain joie de vivre and a real solidarity of multicultural downgraded people. The trips of the mother and the daughter to the American souk (which is in fact a huge thrift store) are incredible. At the same time, Anya develops her artistic talents; quickly, she knows that she wants to become a screenwriter, and it is a nun who will tell her about a school in Paris where she can develop her skills. Over the years, the teenager develops strategies to leave a country where she is at the mercy of a father who hits her and leaves her no room for freedom in any area whatsoever.

L’Ombre du Cèdre reads like watching a film, the scenes scroll by, the characters are extremely fair and present, both in their bodies and in their words, their voices, their expressions… Olga’s dazzling liberating trajectory then of his daughter Anya accompanies a temporal odyssey in the Alépin then Lebanese golden age. The Lebanon of the 1950s unfolds before our eyes, from the Arlequin pastry shop to the Ajami restaurant, from the Saint-Georges hotel to the hectic Hamra street, from summer stays in Dhour Choueir to the Korkomaz hotel in Jouret el-Termos . The beauty of the landscapes, the rowdy social life and the ambient frenzy contrast with the misery suffered by Olga, who finally manages to open a dance school and make the cover of La Revue du Liban. The scene where the Aramoun family discovers the magazine during an orgiastic meal is worth seeing. A few days later, depending on the authority of her husband, Olga will however be forced to close this establishment. The reader witnesses from one chapter to another the evolution of Anya in a Lebanon that is both magical and cruel, and the construction of a complex personality, in a discordant context where her mother continues to consider her tormentor as his great love.

Milka Assaf insists from the outset on the importance in her career of making her documentaries, several of which have won awards. “I did a lot in Lebanon, including a film on the absence of civil marriage, on different couples of different faiths who had to go into exile in Cyprus to get married. I left Lebanon at 19, but I have always remained attached to it with a lump in my stomach. I have often returned there for my work with the aim of raising awareness, ”confides the Franco-Lebanese director with a certain passion to L’Orient-Le Jour. “I’ve always written because, for a film project, you have to convince the producer, and I’ve always tried to find the words to evoke the images, the sounds. I believe that the style of my novel stems from this work as a documentary filmmaker, as does the use of the present tense. As I decided to unlock the floodgates of my memory to bring this Lebanon back to life, it once again became present in my head and I wrote down what I saw and what I heard”, continues the one who was also an actress, which helps him understand the process of getting into a character and inventing one. “I was inspired by real characters whose names I changed, even if they have disappeared today. For the surname Aramoun, I chose the name of the village of origin of my family; in short, I blurred the tracks, and I added other characters inspired by those I knew, “explains the one who received the Claude Santelli prize, awarded by the Society of Authors and Composers. drama in 2013, for his play Les Démineuses.

It was the explosions of August 4 that triggered the writing of L’Ombre du Cèdre. “When Beirut exploded, I wanted to bear witness to this vanished world and I started with the intention of reviving what was called the Switzerland of the Middle East, but very quickly, by writing, all its part darkness reappeared, and I decided to go all the way, to give myself up completely: I emptied my bag. The background being historical, I documented myself a lot, because I had memories of Israeli bombardments in Syria for example, but I didn’t know what they corresponded to. I have training as an editor and I proceeded by selecting the important moments to create continuity, “says the novelist who insists on her principle of not making comments in her documentaries, which she also applies in her novel. .

“But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a point of view in the way I organize the elements, in what I choose to film, in the way it’s filmed… It is up to the viewer, and here to the reader, to form their own opinion in this learning novel, which was born from a reflection that I carried out for several years in the face of an experience so particular that it may seem unreal. So much so that I put a few documents or newspaper clippings in the story to attest, for example, to the existence of Varbinka,” adds the author, who affirms that by spending her childhood between wealth and poverty, she very early on developed a class consciousness which fueled her participation in the 1968 demonstrations and the women’s liberation movements.

We can also read the novel as a tribute to the character, who “waddled to the sound of her inner music”, the bubbly Olga. “She draws a lot of inspiration from my mother, and she really died in a car accident with me. It took place in France; for narrative convenience, I’ve set it in the Valley of the Skulls, where I myself had an accident. My mother had the spirit of the women of her time, as in the song quoted in the novel: He gives me blows, he takes money from me, but what do you want, he’s my man, “says the director, which implicitly wonders about the roots of evil, that of male violence. “When Nawal, Paula’s maid, treats Anya who has been beaten by her father, she finds that in the end, her own father and Alphonse share the same barbarity, even if they are from different social classes. There is something rotten in Lebanese society, with this violence which is institutional: men have the right to be violent, and I wanted to underline it. The modern and Western side of bourgeois society at the time was veneer. There is something profoundly archaic and patriarchal behind it,” notes the writer bitterly, who immediately qualifies her point of view by insisting on the magic of certain memories. “I loved the landscape, and then, it was fantastic to do my homework at Saint-Georges with an orchestra playing behind me, a bit like the Great Gatsby. It was also a fascinating world, the best and the worst coexisting happily. And then, there were angels, like the one I call the Daccache mother who took care of me”, evokes the one who plans to write the sequel to L’Ombre du Cèdre in the form of a road movie twenty years later, when Anya is called back to Lebanon at her father’s bedside. “Throughout the journey, she will analyze the way in which he rotted her relationship with men, it is an opportunity to flashback to the important moments of her existence”, announces the one who is working at the moment. so that L’Ombre du Cèdre becomes a television series or the support of a theatrical text. Why not ?

Faced with a book of five hundred pages entitled L’Ombre du Cèdre, one can expect long lyrical flights over the singing valleys of northern Lebanon draped in the foliage of thousand-year-old forests. However, the story begins in cosmopolitan and bourgeois Aleppo at the end of the 1940s, where the Aramoun family led a somewhat euphoric social life….

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“It was fantastic to do my homework at Saint-Georges with an orchestra playing behind me”

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