Wednesday, March 23, 2005
22 March 2005
New Angle to Popular Lebanese History
by Susannah Tarbush
The backdrop to “Red Anemone”, the latest novel by the Lebanese lawyer turned fiction writer Nabil Saleh, is the poignant legend of Venus and Adonis.
The prologue of the novel is set in Byblos in summer of 95 BC following the death of Adonis. It depicts the funeral ritual of Aphrodite’s priestesses who have been mourning Adonis for six days and on the seventh process up to the cascading source at Afka in the mountains.
The novel takes its title from the red anemones that are supposed to have sprung from the drops of blood that fell when Adonis, who died in the arms of Aphrodite, was gored by a wild boar while hunting in the gorges of Afka.
The action of the novel takes place in 1935 and is centred around Byblos and the village of Afka. At a convent school in Byblos best friends Zahra and Leila have been cast in a play French nun Amelie is writing, based on the Venus (Aphrodite) and Adonis story.
The Mother Superior is dubious about the play, giving Sister Amelie the go-ahead to stage it only on condition that she excises the word “love” from it.
Zahra, an impulsive blonde, is cast as Venus and steady brunette Leila is to play Adonis. The two schoolgirls are preoccupied with romantic fantasy and speculation over their marriage prospects.
Meanwhile, up in Afka, a young man, Badr, is assailed by disturbing visions of mourners in the valley. The impossibly handsome Badr is an outsider both in the village and within his family, disliked by his father and his two brothers.
His old uncle Tanios is the gardener at the convent, and when he retires Badr comes to take his place. Mother Superior worries that his good looks will cause mayhem among the convent girls. Her presentiment proves well founded when mischievous Zahra embarks on a reckless liaison with the village youth, despite her arranged betrothal to the rich and rotund Michel.
“Red Anemone”, published in Lebanon by Tamyras, gives an unusual angle on Lebanese history. It is the latest of a series in which Saleh explores different phases of Lebanon’s past. He is also the author of a number of law tomes, including “The General Principles of Saudi Arabian and Omani Company Laws.”
Saleh’s first foray into fiction was “The Qadi and the Fortune Teller”, the diary of a judge in Ottoman Beirut in 1843. This was followed by “Outremer”, which is set in the 13th century and tells of conflicts among local communities and between Oriental and Western Christians.
For “Open House”, Saleh moved to the Second World war period when Lebanon was full of intrigue and espionage. A theme common to “Open House” and “Red Anemone” is the interaction in the first half of the 20th century between the French and the Lebanese.
In “Red Anemone” the French-Lebanese relationship is highlighted through the convent, with its French nuns and local pupils, and through the friendship between Leila’s father Dr Fouad Chahine, a sceptic and scientist, and the French doctor Lebrun who believes in the occult. Badr consults Chahine about his visions, and when Chahine can find no medical explanation for them he asks Lebrun for his views.
“Red Anemone” is told with Saleh’s characteristic combination of historical knowledge and story-telling talent. As well as being an enjoyable tale, the novel brings to light some fascinating aspects of Lebanese history.