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Justine Colombet’s Road to DIS: Two Influential Writers and One Desert Monastery

Roughly 75 kilometers northwest of Cairo, on the road to Alexandria, you’ll find the Anafora Retreat Center - a postcard-perfect Egyptian desert oasis staffed by Coptic priests whose mission is to provide a center for meditation, enlightenment and silent introspection. The name “Anafora” itself means “elevation.” At this bucolic retreat in the heat, you’ll find archaic dwellings, filled with pottery and artwork from times gone past. You’ll find aromatic soil in which to grow herbs and vegetables. You’ll find a library and plenty of reading rooms for quiet contemplation.

And, for one full summer a few years ago, you would have found Waterview’s French literature teacher, Justine Colombet.

While working as a reporter for the radio station at Université catholique de Lyon - a picturesque institution nestled quietly in the Rhône River valley midway between Paris and Marseilles - she had traveled to the monastery to explore its mysteries and unearth its secrets. She spent a full summer there, learning everything she could about the people and the place - and a bit about herself, too.

“It was a wonderful experience for me,” she says. “I was at a place in my life where I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I knew all the things that I didn't like, but I hadn't really decided on what I did like. All I knew was that I really liked literature - French literature, to be exact."

“During my third year in college I discovered a French writer named Sylvie Germain and her work really impacted me. It isn’t easy to classify - a mixture of poetry, philosophical reflections on humankind and on our relationship with the world, mythology and realism all gathered together,” she says. “My favorite book is Le Livre des nuits, the story of a character who lives from generation to generation to show all the struggles families face in life - tragedies, wars, births and deaths, all of the human experiences. It’s quite unique.”

After graduating with a degree in Education, Justine went on to finish her master’s studies in Literature and Teaching. “My mother is a French language teacher and I’d always been drawn to education, and now I knew exactly what I wanted to do.” After two years teaching French Literature in her native Lyon, followed by another five years in schools in and around Paris, she felt the itch to work abroad. Now married, she and her husband had asked themselves, “If not now, when?”

“I wanted to go back to Egypt, but my husband really wanted to come to America, and all I could think about was how really big this country is. I was a little bit afraid, but then decided to just go for it.”

Now that she’s here - and comfortably situated teaching French literature to 6th and 8th graders at the Waterview campus, Justine feels right at home. “The biggest surprise was the weather - from really hot during the summer to hailstones in the winter. And sometimes I don’t know how to dress because it’s both hot and cold all in the same day.”

And what’s been the biggest surprise about teaching at DIS? “The connections,” she says. “Connections between teachers, students, parents, really the entire community.” (Fun fact: Justine describes a conversation with fellow teacher Azadeh Shamloo, during which Azadeh shared a photo of a friend in Paris that happened to be taken at Justine’s wedding - “It’s such a small world,” Justine says.)

Justine also shares that her students make DIS a rewarding place to be, describing the sense of fun she feels most keenly with her 6th graders. “Everything is so new and wonderful to them. Over the winter we had a few ladybugs in our class room and students wanted to put them in a jar and play with them. It was very sweet.”

There is plenty of learning involved, as well. “In addition to Sylvie Germain, I also want my students to explore other French-language writers.” She mentions Atiq Rahimi, the French-Afghan writer and filmmaker who explores the plight of women in his home country from exile in France. “During Francophonie Week, he was at the center of a big discussion we had about international rights for women.” 

One of Rahimi’s books, Syngué Sabour, tells the story of a woman caring for her husband during the Afghan Revolution, who explores her own life and ambitions through one-way conversations with a husband who cannot speak. “The novel reveals the importance of speech and the freedom and dangers that come with it - it's very powerful,” says Justine.

The common thread between Rahimi and Germain? To Justine, it’s simple: “I really like how they let us feel the emotion that plays between the lines - they leave room for the reader, allowing them to reflect and imagine.” That is something Justine sees in her students, as well. Sometimes they don't say a lot in class, but deep down they're capable of dissecting very complex themes in literature.

Justine’s goal in the classroom is to imbue her students with not just a sense of the words of great French literature, but its elegance and underlying philosophy, as well. “These authors and others have appealed to me in different ways. They allow us to reflect on what it means to be a human - our origins, our connections, our feelings, our words. My favorite books are those in which the characters are put to the test, learning about their fragility and weaknesses, and then growing as a result.”

And how does Justine plan to grow in the future? Having done her master’s thesis on Germain, she would some day like to write a doctoral dissertation on Rahimi. “A Ph.D. is a goal of mine,” she says.

“That, and maybe spending another summer at a place like Anafora.”