Publisher, journalist, novelist, environmentalist, and hotel owner – Desirée Sadek has had as many lives as she has passions. She looks back on her 40-year career and reflects on her true calling among the Lebanese cedars
“As a child, I dreamed of being a writer. I wrote poems from the age of six. I loved the sound–the rhythm and rhyme–of words and would recite Baudelaire and Rimbaud out loud. However, at the time, girls who loved books and studying were not considered to be the marrying kind; I remember my father throwing my books at me in exasperation. Yet, I persevered and studied at the Centre de formation des journalistes de Paris. I was devoted to becoming a journalist, and worked at a printing house at night to pay for my studies.
Shortly after graduation, I had a serious car accident and was left paralyzed for a year. After relearning how to walk, I finally launched my journalism profession with a year-long internship as a proofreader at a magazine. My budding career soon took an exciting leap when I next became a reporter at and then editor-in-chief of a French health monthly. With my professional life thriving, at age 27, I became mother to my daughter. And then, another dream was realized as I became a published author in 1991. Le Cèdre du Liban is a factual story of the symbol of Lebanon, aimed to incite others to protect it. My book was well-received by critics and won the l’Académie des sciences morales et politiques prize. By pure coincidence, the honor was awarded to me on November 22, Lebanon Independence Day.
Next came my first work of fiction, Le parfum du bonheur. Then, in 1999, the Figaro Group approached me to launch the woman’s magazine Version Femina as its editor-in-chief. It was an enriching experience – we had a distribution of four million. After a while, however, I made the decision to start my own magazine. I created the bimonthly Byzance, first published in France and then in Lebanon, focusing on the worlds of interior decor and art de vivre between the Middle East and the Occident.
All this served as the foundation for launching Elle in the Middle East as publisher in 2006 and editor-in-chief of the French edition alongside Arabic and English editions. These were hard times; we were at war in Lebanon and our teams took refuge in the mountains where they would work and hide. Meanwhile, the women who went abroad during the war returned with a wind of change. They brought with them the concept of the emancipated working woman. In press and marketing in particular, more and more women slowly but firmly occupied positions.
If I accomplished anything in my life, at my own level, it is my role in empowering Arab women, by restoring their pride in their own culture and their own fashion and decor. Bringing opulence to the Occident and simplicity to the Middle East was the message I’ve always sought to convey throughout my career, which has spanned 40 years. We must remove all borders and create bridges between our cultures – and fashion can help do that. In the past, the main challenge with Arab fashion and femininity has been finding an identity that embraces all Arab women – finding the face of that woman. In fact, she is a woman that the Middle East is still looking for today, given her many facets. This was the subject of my first ever editorial: an Arab woman with a complex identity, not a pale imitation of the Western woman. She may choose not to hide her face, nor will she expose herself. She wears her femininity as her identity. No, she is not submissive, and no, she is not freed from any constraints either – this sort of labeling does not suit her. She is neither black nor white, neither in the dark nor in the light; she is a kaleidoscope of nuances where the possible exceeds the impossible, and she’s very much worth the trouble.
Regardless of my love of journalism and the printed word, I believe that the importance that the new generation is giving to writing and reading is diminishing, especially when it comes to accurate reporting and investigations. We are currently witnessing an uncontrolled media revolution, with challenges that we are still struggling to solve.
While I continue to work as an author and interiors editor, I’m also embarking on my forever adventure – preserving my country’s emblematic cedars. With my books Le Cèdre du Liban and L’Enfant des Cèdres, my aim is to sensitize readers to reforestation and to invest profits from the sales in planting cedars in the Lebanese mountains. I have also opened a hotel, La Maison des Cèdres, in my village of Bsharri, northern Lebanon, where guests can plant their own cedar tree and revisit it at any time. I founded the NGO the International Committee for the Safeguarding of the Lebanese Cedar to support this initiative.
I remember the day when the reforestation of the cedar forests in Lebanon became my true calling. I was crying on my balcony in Paris, as I had just learned that a terrible storm had decimated thousand-year-old cedars in the forest near my village. It was there, on my balcony, that I realized that the cedar seeds that I had planted had begun to grow. This gave me hope and inspired me to write L’Enfant des Cèdres.
The main character is a shepherd named Nabil – Liban backwards – a shepherd who reforested the mountain by planting small cedars. In 2006, Dr Youssef Tawk, with whom I had been planting cedars for a decade, introduced me to Nabil Semmaan, who represented a Mexican patron of Lebanese origin, Alfredo Harb Helo. The number of living cedars around the ancient forest of Bsharri has since increased from 40,000 to 100,000, as in L’Enfant des Cèdres. To this day, this prophetic tale that started in a book and eventually became true in real life is my most beautiful story. Today, while I remain entrenched in the fashion world, I am also dedicating my life to help my village, my region, and the cedars – those precious symbols of Lebanon that will always be in my heart.”
Originally published in the February 2020 of Vogue Arabia