I found the Shalimar’s cherry lady
On July 6, as part of our "La carte du tendre" section we published a picture of a lady sitting on the terrace of the Shalimar Hotel in Baabdat. It turned out that the woman in question lives in the United States. As luck would have it, I found out that she was visiting Lebanon for a short stay.
This exchange took place two days after the publication of my article “Au temps des cerises” (At the time of the cherries) on July 6. The article was for my column “La carte du tendre”, which uses pictures to rediscover some iconic places that were part of the “Lebanon of yesterday” and that have either disappeared or been radically transformed.
This is the first time–following sixty published articles–that one of the characters in my pictures has made any contact. It felt like someone who has finally received the answer to a message that was slipped into a bottle and thrown into the sea. For the improbable appointment, I took the pack of negatives and prints that I had bought two years ago from a supplier of old paper, hundreds of photos that had belonged to Carmen's husband and a book containing the most beautiful pictures, nicely laid out and produced in record time by Scope Ateliers.
Carmen's apartment is located in an alleyway in Zokak el-Blat, a neighborhood that has been affected by the destruction of Beirut’s architectural heritage. Before the war, the area was predominantly inhabited by Armenians, but most of them have left.
Carmen has hardly changed since the photo of her was taken at the Shalimar in the summer of 1963. It was during her honeymoon, and she was spending it at the brand new hotel, which had opened the previous summer. She had just married Vartkes Der Garabedian (nine years older than her), whom she had admired as a child when she watched him play basketball. "He did not even see me," she says with a smile. But little Carmen would become a luminous blonde with blue-green eyes that her husband was crazy about. She has retained the intensity of her look, which reminds me of the golden age of Lebanon. Years and dramas seem to have had no bearing on her, and unless she was pretending (after all she had been an actress in an Armenian theater troupe for twenty years), her spirits were still at their highest.
Carmen’s husband was an amateur photographer from an early age, and it was thanks to him that I came into her life. It felt like finding an old acquaintance. Vartkes had spent his time immortalizing all the moments of his own life, starting with black and white photos from his youth and continuing on the brightness of color in middle age.
Vartkes made albums that Carmen carried with her to California. Each photo in them was carefully captioned. "Vartkes even sent annotated prints to L’Orient-Le Jour (L’OLJ) on a regular basis.", she says. She first saw a photo of her husband, mother-in-law and niece (the one of ‘Au bonheur de l’aube’) in the story that I published on July 21, 2018. She thought it was sent to L’OLJ in 1973. But when she saw the photo of the Shalimar she started to wonder how a journalist she didn’t know had found a picture of her during her honeymoon.
Carmen left Lebanon at the end of the war after having lived all those dramatic years in Zokak el-Blat. Her street looks nothing like what it used to with "red-tiled two and three-story houses and a breathtaking view all the way to Dbayeh with green mountains and villages scattered a little bit everywhere,” she said.
Then came the burning question: how did this pack of negatives and prints–a huge part of family memories–end up in the hands of strangers? "Our old house in Zokak el-Blat was robbed at the beginning of the war. I did not even realize that these negatives were gone. On the other hand, I used to sometimes stumble on objects that had belonged to us or to our neighbors in makeshifts shops. I never dared to ask anything,” Carmen explained
But for Carmen, the looting and the war were only a foretaste of the tragedy that would follow. At only 50 years old, she became a widow. Her husband, head of the Tachnag, chairman of the international committee of the Homenetmen and employed at the Litani Office, was murdered along with three companions on January 31, 1986, only a few steps from their house by Armenian terrorists.
Thirty-three years later and against all odds, her husband's pictures found their way home. Her apartment is now practically empty, with only some furniture laying around. It may be one of the last times Carmen comes to Lebanon, and it was a unique opportunity to meet her.
She flipped through my album, pausing to comment on everything, showing amazement and emotion. Clearly my gift was bittersweet as most of the people in the pictures were dead. Having never had a child, Carmen now lives alone in California. Despite everything life threw her way, she is still smiling.
I had to insist that she kept the negatives, and I said: "Maybe your husband sent them to you". But these reminders of her pre-war life and the memories they brought back were extremely hard to relive and take in. "These belong to you, and I cannot keep them," I insisted.
Carmen finally and reluctantly agreed to do so. She ended up hugging me, saying: "You're like a son to me." To meet with me, she had dressed up and put makeup with discreet elegance and, despite the austerity of her empty apartment, she had insisted on receiving me in a suitable way, as if all was perfectly well.
My Carmen, allow me to address you informally. After all, I have known you since you were in your twenties. I saw how you suffered by the way you commented on each photos in the album, but you hid your pain perfectly. You often verbalized your thoughts. At other times, you hid your words in an unequivocal gesture. But despite the ghosts that came back, despite the suffering that I selfishly inflicted on you, your wonderful smile was always present. Your eyes hardly betrayed your thoughts–maybe with a tear lurking in sight–at the painful thoughts of the memories of your long gone youth, at the time when solitude has taken over.
Carmen, where do you get the strength that I envy so much? I might have figured it out after thinking about it in the middle of the following night: for 67 years you kept on teaching children in kindergarten. You never had a child of your own, but you had hundreds of others who adored you and who continue to write to you until this day. And when you finally say it, I still see in your eyes the glow that you had when you were 27 years old, when you were heading towards your life as a married woman under the song of the cicadas when the cherries blossomed.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 7th of August)