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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Bull

Love Consists in This: Translating La recette de baklawas

MY HALF-SISTER, the franco-Lebanese writer Pascale Rafie, is seventeen years older than I am. I was just a kid when she studied playwriting at the National Theatre School in Montreal.

When I was five or six years old she’d scoot me around town on her violet Peugeot. I’d sit up on her seat, holding my legs out from the back wheel, clutching her hips as she pedaled standing up. She’d take to me every theatre in town, to plays suited to my age, to grown up plays, and backstage at her own productions, where our brother (her full, my half), Bruno Rafie, often did lights. She read me drafts of her children’s play, Charlotte Sicotte, on the morning of our mother’s third marriage. She gave me my first typewriter. It was a mangled monstrosity from the Industrial Age. A Royal. The letter e was always off.

Pascale is my half-sister, officially, but she’s also 100 per cent my real, genuine, totally-my-sister sister. Some chronology, for context. Pascale’s father, Marcel, moved from Lebanon to Quebec City in the late 1950s to study sociology at Laval University, where he met our mother. (Marcel would go on to become a sociology professor.) Our mother, an artist and art educator, met my father, Rob, an Irish Protestant from Toronto, at Sir Winston Churchill pub on Crescent in the early 1970s. (My father was a journalist.)

Pascale, and my other three half-siblings, her full siblings, are darker skinned than me, and have brown-to-black hair. I inherited our mother’s blonde hair and my father’s vampire-white Irish complexion. We don’t look like sisters. And growing up in Quebec, a generation apart, on either end of the political divide, the differences between my siblings and I only grew more stark. There were times when my being the English half-sister could be alienating and painful.

But that’s the interesting thing about a family like ours. Your identity is never fixed. It’s a useful way to learn about the transience of nationality, nationalism, language, culture. It’s a good way to build empathy. It’s a way of making what is different familiar.

I didn’t fully understand the richness of our shared and varied, of our intermingled and disparate talents and cultures for a long time—it was just normal for me to eat kebbé nayé and poudding chômeur for the holidays, as it was for Pascale. Perhaps we both took our talented, multicultural, multigenerational family for granted.

But we don’t now. Now my sister Pascale and I talk all the time. About being women writers. We talk about the stories we need to tell, the characters we live with. We talk about how to make a living as writers. We know how lucky we are to share this strong bond and yet never to compete. I write in English, she writes in French.

Pascale’s latest project, La recette de baklawas, is a very personal project. It is what would be called in French an auto-fiction of sorts, a kind of family tree, or a fictional family portrait. It bears all the frank truths of the lives of women of another time who had few opportunities for personal fulfilment; it’s about generational conflict, about assimilation, about inheritance, about food.

Although Pascale’s father never spoke Arabic to her, Pascale has always wanted to learn more about the Lebanese side of her family. She studied Arabic while pursuing her Master’s Degree at UQÀM and wrote a play entirely in Arabic. She, who grew up with so few stories about her father and his family’s early life, went back and traced the details of the Rafie family’s immigration through anecdotes and research. She has travelled to Lebanon, to Tunisia and to Algeria to find these stories, these characters. Her love of family, her love of food (she is almost as good a chef as she is a writer), her first-hand understanding of the way culture filters down through generations after immigration, and perhaps most importantly, Pascale’s most beautiful quality of writing shines through all the harrowing truths in this work: her great and boundless joy for life.

La recette de baklawas is about stories handed down from generations like recipes, like rituals. It is about grit, and about bearing up against unimaginable odds. And it is full of the sweetness of the dessert for which it is named. It is an important play to produce in our current political climate in Quebec. And it’s essential in its own right, for its own sake, for its complex female characters, for its rich and stirring beauty, for its nuanced and tender humour.

In Quebec we throw around the term “two solitudes” far too readily, referring to Hugh MacLenan’s eponymous novel, and the classic franco-anglo friction we live with here.

But it was Rilke who coined the phrase first. And he was speaking of something quite different than an enduring rift. Quite the opposite. Rilke wrote, “Love consists in this: that two solitudes protect, and touch, and greet each other.”

My sister and I both acknowledge how particular and special it is to be able to share the experience of working on her play together. It’s an experience we couldn’t share were it not for our cultural differences. And it is, of course, thanks to our shared cultural affinities that we can. 

Originally published for Imago Theatre's Her Side of the Story

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