PARIS — Lounging on a plush velvet divan in her Left Bank apartment, a strappy black Manolo Blahnik dangling from her manicured toe, French writer Christine Orban is the picture of blithe luxury. She’s married to a powerful publisher, a regular at fashion shows from Chanel to Ungaro and the successful author of 14 breezy bestsellers on topics from obsessive shopping to complicated love.
But as she discusses “One Day My Sister Disappeared,” her memoir Random House recently published in the U.S., her shoulders tense and she takes a deep breath. The book charts the sudden loss of her sister, Maco, who died from a brain aneurysm minutes after the two talked on the phone.
It begins with the sisters growing up carefree in Morocco. “I was studious and melancholy,” says Orban. “Maco was lighthearted. She wanted to have fun. She couldn’t see the point of reading.” Eventually, Orban moved to Paris to study, while her sister stayed in Casablanca. Maco met a man, fell in love and wed. Under most circumstances, this would be a simple story with a tragic ending. But the memoir also examines the deep cultural misunderstanding resulting from Maco, born a Catholic, marrying a Muslim and living in a Muslim country.
“He was cultivated and he was fun,” says Orban of her sister’s husband. “He had apartments in New York and Paris. She could never imagine he was going to change completely the moment they married.”
“I couldn’t be alone with my sister without a chaperone,” Orban relates. “I was a liberated woman. To her husband’s family, I represented danger. My sister was very much in love and happy to be closed in. But she soon found out that she couldn’t wear blue jeans. That she couldn’t dance.”
Though Maco remained relatively happy early on and gave birth to two children, one day she discovered her husband was having an affair. When she confronted him, he threatened to assemble a harem.
Maco filed for a divorce. “But a woman has no power in a Muslim country,” says Orban. “He decided that she couldn’t see the children more than once or twice a week for one or two hours at a time — and always with a chaperone. It was murder for her.”
One day she begged her husband to let her take her children with her for a week’s holiday in Spain.
“He kept her waiting two months before he answered,” tells Orban. “And he said no. She was heartbroken. I talked to her for the last time on the phone just after she found out. Right after we hung up she died.”
To this day, Orban maintains her sister’s death came from that psychological shock. “She knew, after years of trying to see her children alone, that she would never be able to do so. His refusal dashed her hopes.”
Orban says she wrote the book for two reasons.
“I wanted to keep my sister alive, to give her life once again,” she explains. “Second, I wanted to show the problems a Western woman has marrying a Muslim. It’s not even a critique. That wasn’t my intent. But if you want to marry a Muslim you have to be ready. My sister wasn’t. And love isn’t strong enough to erase centuries of beliefs and traditions.”
— Robert Murphy