Céleste

babar

I was reading an article the other day about an American author named Celeste Ng. What a pretty name that is, I thought to myself. Her new book, entitled Little Fires Everywhere, looks like a good read.

And then somewhere, in the deep recesses of my mind, that name rang a bell. Celeste. Where had I heard that name before? I racked and racked my brain until it came to me.

But of course, the wife of Babar! Queen Céleste who bore him four baby elephants: Pom, Flore, Alexandre and Isabelle. They lived happily ever after in Célesteville, a fictional town in Babar’s Kingdom (supposedly in South Africa.)

Babar.405116

The next day I asked a French colleague at work if she knew the name Céleste. “But of course,” she replied, “but it’s the generation of our grandparents. C’est un prénom très démodé !” It’s a name very out-of-fashion.

Céleste. Celestial. Derived from the Latin, Caelestis, which means “comes from heaven”, or “heaven-sent.”

A big success throughout the 19th century and then falling out of vogue, the name appears to be having a comeback. In 2006 in this country there were 302 births registered with this name. And in 2015, seventy-two baby French girls were christened Céleste.

There’s another French name that I like, also unusual and starting with a ‘C’, it’s Chymène (or Chimène). I once worked with a woman who had this name. When I commented on its originality, she replied “My parents loved Corneille.” Huh? I had to do some googling.

Pierre Corneille, considered one of the three great seventeenth-century French dramatists, along with Molière and Racine, wrote a five-act tragicomedy called Le Cid. In it, the main female protagonist is called Chimène.

I like the idea of taking names from famous works of literature. Mine too, a Shakespearian name (Romeo and Juliet).

 

Philippe Jaroussky

France’s cherished sopranist and counter-tenor.

He’ll be performing for one night only at the Theatre des Champs Elysées on October 28. Ticket prices are from 5 euros to 110 euros (link below). Have a listen to his angelic voice. For more of this genre, listen to the superlative recording further below. Truly celestial.

http://www.theatrechampselysees.fr/saison/recital/recital-de-chant/philippe-jaroussky

Sex and Lies, the new “livre choc” book by Leïla Slimani

leila elle mag

Leïla Slimani, last year’s winner of the coveted French literary award for her novel Chanson douce, has just published a non-fiction livre choc titled Sex and Lies: sexual life in Morocco. (livre choc means a book that shocks people; but in this case it has scandalized an entire country.)

Born into a liberal, privileged family in Rabat, Morocco in 1981, Slimani is a Franco-Moroccan writer and journalist. She lives in Paris with her husband and two children. Leaving Rabat at the age of 17 to study political science and media studies in Paris, she began work as a journalist after graduation. In 2016, she won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for her psychological thriller, Chanson douce

Faber publishing house has signed an “electrifying” literary novel by Leila Slimani, which was awarded the French literary prize in November 2016. The novel is the tale of a “perfect” nanny who murders two children she is looking after. The book – which begins with the words “the baby is dead” – is already a bestseller in France. Slimani is only the seventh woman to have won the Prix Goncourt in its 112-year history. Translation rights have been sold in 15 countries thus far.

leila two

So what is her new non-fiction book about? Sexe et mensonges: la vie sexuelle au Maroc (Sex and lies: sexual life in Morocco) is based on the testimonials of dozens of Moroccan women –

  • it explores sexual repression in Islamic countries, 
  • it discusses the taboo subject of female sexual desires, 
  • it claims that millions of Arabs (men and women) are trapped in sexual misery in a sex-obsessed Arab world.

 

Free thought and criticism, for which Slimani is guilty, has enraged Moroccan authorities, religious clerics, and a large swathe of the Moroccan population (who believe she is washing their dirty linen in public.)

Moroccan law punishes all forms of sexual relations outside marriage, as well as homosexuality and prostitution. In this deeply traditional, misogynistic and patriarchal society, women have only one alternative: to be a virgin or a wife. 

Here’s an extract (translated) from an interview with the author in Nouvel Obs magazine: 

“To pretend to be a virgin is demeaning”

Nouvel Obs – You denounce Articles 489 and 490 of the Penal Code which call for six months to three years imprisonment for same-sex relationships, and one month to one year imprisonment for non-marital relations.

Slimani – Yes. In fact, a Moroccan woman can only be a virgin or married. Sexuality outside the conjugal relationship is forbidden. The Penal Code laws are obviously inapplicable. When they are applied, it’s completely arbitrary. In reality, this law is used to settle accounts. Either directly by the police who use it to arrest and then bribe people, or individually: to take revenge on someone and denounce him to the police.

All sexual relations can be subject to blackmail. When you get raped, you cannot file a complaint because you’re already illegally having sex outside of marriage. When you have to hide on the edge of a road or in a forest, you’re not safe. Because there is no sex education in schools, you can easily catch diseases or become pregnant … And then, in a country where abortion is prohibited, you find yourself in the situation of needing a clandestine abortion.

Nouvel Obs – You speak of “schizophrenia”: men want to both sleep with girls and marry a virgin.

Slimani – Men are also victims of this system, because they simply want to live. But this mentality endures because it is the last thing left to them, the last mark of virility in a society where the Western model is gaining ground. That is what I explain on the historical level. The colonization, then the hegemony of Western culture, creates a feeling of dispossession. So we cling to a traditional model for fear of the unknown.

Juliet in Paris interjects – Oh, please … stop with the blame game. How is it the fault of the West for the primitive, tribal customs of Muslim societies? Patriarchal power in the Muslim world is nothing more than the hijacking of religion by political and religious elites for their own interests, one of those interests being the subjugation of women. Religion is used as a tool of social control.

Slimani – The man may not have a job, no money, no car, no visa to travel – all these very humiliating things that one cannot imagine seen from the West – but he can still marry a virgin, keep a home (however humble) and have a virtuous wife. It’s a way to restore the honor of our societies. Honor is a heavy thing to bear, and unjust, for the women.

Nouvel Obs – What kind of story seems particularly symptomatic of the problem you are exposing?

Slimani – What saddened me were middle-class women who chose freedom at 20-25 years. They decided, when it was not in their upbringing to do so, to have a sexuality, lovers, to study, to work. Then around the age of 30-35 they regretted it, saying, “I won’t be able to marry or live in my neighborhood because people know that I have had relationships.” Female emancipation, when not supported by the State or the surrounding culture, has no real foundation. It must be supported by others. You cannot live it alone.

What really struck me is the immense solitude of these women who back off after choosing freedom, to have their hymen re-sewn, to veil themselves, or to lie. I find it very sad, 35-year-old women who pretend to be virgins, who mimic virginity with men in the hope they will marry them. To push people to this attitude is sad and dangerous for our societies. The State has everything to gain by having citizens capable of emancipation.

Juliet in Paris asks – What is the advantage or benefit of having subjugated women in a so-called modern society? In what way is this productive or of any value to children, families in general and society at large? Boys and girls need to see positive role models.

Niqabs and Wahhabism

Slimani – Moroccan culture integrates Sufi culture, an extremely spiritual culture of our own with a way of practicing Islam for centuries. Many Moroccans today fear precisely that this culture is lost to the influence of Wahhabism, people from the Middle East who came during the 1980s-1990s, notably to teach in our schools. They have created another type of Islam.

Most Moroccans are shocked to see women in niqabs in our streets. Thankfully, the niqab is now banned in Morocco, it does not correspond to our culture at all.

slimani 3

photo by Audoin Desforges pour L’OBS

Nouvel Obs – You quote Foucault to explain that “sexual rights are part of human rights”, that is to say, of women, and you explain that it’s all part of a coercive system allowing autocratic states to exercise their powers. From the moment those powers are exercised on bodies and the way people have sex (or not), it also conditions the mind to make them accept laws on other issues.

Slimani – We see citizens too much like children who are not capable of having an ethic, a private life, an intimacy. This way of touching their dignity is also a way of controlling them. Of course, the citizen has rights, but when his/her body cannot live totally in the public space, there is something constrained from the start. Freeing the bodies of citizens is also a way of freeing their minds. The two are related.

***

Juliet in Paris again to introduce award-winning novelist, journalist and independent-minded Kamel Daoud. Daoud writes for Le Monde, The New York Times and other publications. Born in Algeria in 1970, his debut novel, The Meursault Investigation, also won the French literary award, the Prix Goncourt in 2015. For his criticism and outspokenness, he was issued a fatwa by a Salafist imam. A heavyweight intellectual, here’s what Daoud says about Slimani’s book –

Islamist control, controversy over the burkini and nudity at the beach, sexist laws, or the latest August drama of a girl raped on a public Casablanca bus in Morocco, episodically sex is revealed as a “disease” in our country. Leila Slimani, in the long tradition of tenacious literature in the “Arab” world, says it powerfully.

Its novelty, however, is not to repeat that woman is despoiled of her rights, crushed or violated, but to go further in the unbelievable affirmation that sex and enjoyment are not only legitimate, but necessary. Orgasm must be and proclaim primacy over sacred texts. This is the first cry.

Sex as a right. Sex as an attack on puritanism, conservatism and political dictatorships. Sex as a reparation for this craving for life, which gives birth to our exiles, our kamikazes, our fatwas, our monstrous burkas and our national sadness of living badly. No “Arab” country is happy to live, none of us fight for happiness.

Machismo is not a disease of the past

The second revelation of this book is the dismantling of an old positivist belief: patriarchy, machismo, woman as a minor being. These are not the relics of a culture that does not fit into the universal mechanics of modernity, but rather a construction of the present. Not a disease of the past that persists, but a disease of the future that is taking hold. What’s at stake here is not the weight of rigid traditions that one can hardly disentangle, but a neoconservatism doctrine which is gaining strength, space and levers of power.

Stuck between YouPorn and YouPray

Daoud goes on to say – Authoritarian regimes cultivate the lie that sexuality is a threat, an invasion, destabilization, betrayal. Pleasure is a crime and women public property. Behind the cunning of some and the cowardice of others, there is a clear sign that we are unhappy. Leila Slimani investigates a culturalist pretext which clears a permanent inquisition against the body of the woman. We are stuck between YouPorn and YouPray, dreaming of death as an orgasm, of the hereafter as the only compensation. Erecting cultural specificity where we are afraid to go to the other, to touch it, to love it, to desire it.

daoud

Kamel Daoud

 

 

 

socca

socca

photo courtesy of The Kitchn

La socca, as it’s known in the southern French city of Nice, is nothing more than chickpea flatbread. Cheap and popular street food, it can be enjoyed as an appetizer with a glass of wine or on its own as a snack or even for breakfast. It’s great to serve to guests. Super-easy to make (I’m about to make some right now), it only calls for three ingredients: water, olive oil and chickpea flour (available in health and organic food stores).

I don’t own a cast-iron skillet, so I pour the batter into an ordinary round cake tin (greased with olive oil.) As for the optional ingredient to sprinkle on top – za’tar – this is a Middle Eastern spice mixture (not easy to find). You could replace it with thyme or rosemary. Thanks to two Lebanese colleagues of mine at work, they bring me some fresh from Beirut (it really is delicious on pizza, rubbed into chicken, on feta cheese, etc.) You could make your own; here are the ingredients of za’tar  –

4 tsp sesame seeds 
4 tbsp finely chopped fresh oregano 
4 tsp dried marjoram 
4 tsp ground sumac 
1 tsp sea salt 
4 tsp ground cumin

As for the socca, here’s what The Kitchn says – (link and recipe below)

How to Serve Socca

Out of the oven you can slice the socca into bite-sized snacking pieces or into more substantial wedges for lunch or dinner. Socca is pretty delicious all on its own, but you can serve it warm from the oven with cheese and olives. 

Socca could easily stand in as a gluten-free pizza crust or as a replacement for the toast on your morning breakfast plate. I’ve easily passed plain, honey-drenched socca off as dessert for my children. We recently ate it topped with fried eggs and a dusting of Parmesan cheese for a late lunch; the runny egg yolk soaking into the creamy, crispy bits was just the thing to make me stop and marvel at the simple pleasure of life-affirming recipes like this one.

bon appétit !

http://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-socca-a-naturally-gluten-free-chickpea-flatbread-cooking-lessons-from-the-kitchn-169513

 

Gabrielle Deydier: what it’s like to be fat in France

This article appeared in last Sunday’s Observer, sister newspaper to The Guardian (link below.)

When I went to my favorite clothing store the other day, Massimo Dutti, in search of a dress I had seen on their website, the store – all of the French stores, in fact – did not carry it in my size.

On the British website the dress is available in size 14 (my size). But not on the French website. Walking into their store on the Champs-Elysées, I found the dress. But it only came in two sizes: Small and Medium.

“Do you have Large?” I asked the salesperson.

“No,” she replied frostily, sizing my body up and down.

“Why not?” I said.

“Because we just don’t.”

This attitude is in sharp contrast to the response I used to get in the 1990s. Back then, I was a svelte size 8. Saleswomen fell over themselves wanting to sell me clothes.

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/sep/10/gabrielle-deydier-fat-in-france-abuse-grossophobia-book-women

upcoming literary events at Shakespeare and Co. bookshop

When I looked at the website and saw that Alan Hollinghurst is coming to town, I gave a little shriek of delight. I love Hollinghurst’s work. On October 17 I’ll be able to sit in the same room with him and listen to him read from his new book, The Sparsholt Affair. And then I’ll buy the book and have him sign it. Yes, I’m an author groupie … et alors?

Then there’s Gérard Depardieu who’ll be reading from his memoir, Innocent. That seems like an odd title. I would’ve thought Rulebreaker, Ballbreaker or Renegade would be more appropriate. Ah, Gérard … toujours le provocateur. Anyway, that’s on October 5th and I might go to that event too. (It’ll be jam-packed.)

All events are free with limited seating. Starting time is 7 pm.

Swedish Sigrid Rausing, owner of Granta publishing house and one of Britain’s richest women, will be reading from her new book Mayhem: A Memoir. “A searingly powerful memoir about the impact of addiction on a family. In the summer of 2012 a woman named Eva was found dead in the London townhouse she shared with her husband, Hans K. Rausing. The couple had struggled with drug addiction for years, often under the glare of tabloid headlines. Now, writing with singular clarity and restraint the editor and publisher Sigrid Rausing, tries to make sense of what happened to her brother and his wife.” That’s on September 21st.

On October 12, award-winning Guardian journalist Gary Younge will be discussing his new book, Another Day in the Death of America. A powerful, moving and important book on the effect of gun crime on children in the US.

On Saturday 23 November 2013 ten children were shot dead. The youngest was nine; the oldest was nineteen. They fell in suburbs, hamlets and ghettos. None made the national news. It was just another day in the death of America, where on average seven children and teens are killed by guns daily.

Younge picked this day at random, searched for their families and tells their stories. What emerges is a sobering, searing, portrait of youth and guns in contemporary America. This is a book which will lead the news agenda on publication and leave the reader knocked sideways by its emotional power.

So many books! So many human stories!

And so much more. Take a look at the website.

https://shakespeareandcompany.com/20/events/category/21/upcoming-events