Every other summer, a young Mennel Ibtissem watched in anticipation as her parents transformed the family’s Opel Vivaro van into a little mobile house for the four-day journey from France to Syria.
In went a portable television, a fully stocked fridge, window shields to block out the sun and a makeshift bed at the back for Mennel to lie on to help ward off motion sickness.
But for her fears that the ferry carrying them across the Adriatic Sea would “sink like the Titanic”, she and her four siblings relished the epic drive from their home in Besancon and back again.
Depending on the route, Mennel remembers the shifting landscapes and languages, climates and cuisines of Italy, Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey being as diverting as the Disney movies they watched on the way.
“Before starting each day, my mum said prayers to god for protection,” the French-Syrian singer-songwriter, 27, tells The National. “She would put on a Quran CD and my dad played religious music …
“We were not used to sleeping in hotels. That was the fun part for me and my sisters — for the summer, it was an exciting change from our own beds.”
On arrival at the villa to the east of the capital, the girls would spend time with relatives, learning to swim, eating ice cream and discovering the city’s “authentic” alleyways.
These early road trips, on which Mennel filled notebook after notebook with an outpouring of thoughts, were the precursor for the act of travel becoming a wellspring of creativity in later life.
“I disconnect and open my heart, my brain, and I feel more free,” she explains.
Never was that source of artistic expression more needed than when she washed up, “like Robinson Crusoe”, on the sub-tropical island of Madeira in 2020 after being battered by trial after tribulation.
It all began five years ago when her blind audition featuring verses from Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and the Kuwaiti poet Muhammad Al Husayn’s Ya Ilahi propelled her into the final of the French version of The Voice.
Anyone who has seen the wide-eyed ingenue’s interpretation in English and Arabic — and there have been 46.1 million views so far on YouTube alone — could hardly forget it.
“I was transported,” Mennel, who is known professionally by her first name only, says. “I felt like there was super-big energy around me. It was out of this world, honestly. I feel like it was an eternity ago but I still remember the feeling. Incredible, strong, powerful and light.”
A media frenzy ensued in which the reaction to the 22-year-old’s vocals and striking features was eclipsed only by that provoked by the brightly patterned blue turban she wore.
Some embraced Mennel, with her Syrian-Turkish and Moroccan-Algerian heritage, as the perfect ambassador for Arabs in the West; a role model visibly wearing a headscarf when it was particularly difficult for girls to be Muslim in France.
But if the four chairs of the judges in the singing competition turned quickly, so, too, did public opinion.
Some felt that a modest, plain hijab would have been more befitting. Mild criticism compared with those who deemed it an overt display of religion in a “suspicious” outfit or the epitome of the soft Islamisation of the country.
Mennel sought to defend wearing a turban as her signature style. “It is inseparable from my look. You will never see me without it,” she commented at the time.
It wasn’t long, however, before detractors unearthed several old social media posts perceived as extremist, critical of French foreign policy, and pro-Palestinian.
“Then the storm came. I had nightmares because I could not understand the injustice of it,” she says, maintaining that it was all a misunderstanding.
“Why so much hate for a girl who wants to enjoy singing, and to share peace and love? I had no answer. It was the moment in my life when I needed the most to express myself, to say that it hurts that people talk about me as an Islamist and that I am OK with terrorism. This is not me at all.
“My reaction was to ignore all my feelings, all my desires. I was pretending because the pain was so strong.”
The lyrics of the song Je Pars Mais je t’aime (I Love You but I'm Leaving), written about the decision to quit the talent show, begin with a life’s dream capsized by voices rising like “drive-hunters” — a reference to the practice of wild game being flushed out into a clearing to be shot.
Soon afterwards, she announced she was married and moving to Denver, Colorado, in what she told fans on Facebook was a “new life, new beginning”.
It wasn’t to be. The couple divorced a year later when her husband became the latest of many close to Mennel to try to dissuade her from singing.
Even though she herself had come to the brink of walking away from music several times amid the worst of the tumult — “to have a normal job, a normal life” — she doubled down. “I left him,” she says. “And it was, of course, painful. It was heartbreaking ...
“My family told me that I don’t know what my priorities are, that music shouldn't be a priority. They were not understanding the purpose, making it small like it doesn't matter. To me, music is at the service of love. They don't have that connection and can’t understand me because they don’t feel music.”
Seeking refuge in travel, Mennel went to Madeira. What was supposed to be a week’s break turned into 10 when the arrival of a less welcome visitor to its shores triggered the introduction of coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
As she settled in for a long stay, an introduction to ikigai, the Japanese concept based on the importance of finding one’s raison d’etre, reinforced why she was there.
Its four components — what you love; what you are good at; what you can get rewarded for; what the world needs — all elicited the same answer: music.
“My ikigai is definitely being a singer and sharing this with the world,” she states. “My ability to pursue this mission comes with my own spiritual growth. The more I was getting to know myself, and the more I was healing from inside, the more I was able to write songs.”
The real turning point, though, came when she picked up Conversations with God, the publishing phenomenon written by Neale Donald Walsch at what was a low point in his own life.
“I read the first lines, and I started to cry,” she confesses. “Like, ‘wow, this is a revelation. This is it. OK, I think I’m not taking the right path. There’s something I haven’t quite understood’, and it was how I considered God in my life.
“I was about to start a long journey of discovering myself. One of the answers I found was that I don’t think I’m a religious person, I’m a spiritual one. I don’t really fit with the religious approach of God from a perspective of punishment and guilt. And the second answer I found is that I am stronger than I thought I was.”
Which was fortuitous given what happened when she took off her hijab, began writing a new album, Heal, and a companion autobiography, and eventually returned to France.
The first single, Poison in the Air, a song not about the coronavirus that had marooned her on Madeira but the break-up of her marriage, made it clear that, despite being home, safe harbour still eluded her.
The release of the music video featuring a bare-headed Mennel wearing an oversized, loosely buttoned white shirt dress triggered the loss of 13,000 Twitter followers overnight and a fresh wave of online hate.
“I was scared,” she says. “People knew me with the hijab on stage. I had been wearing it for five years and I was afraid people would say I’m not a good girl any more. Then I realised that if I removed it I would not become a lesser version of me.
“On The Voice, people said: ‘Oh, you wear a hijab, you are Muslim and very serious about religion.’ I removed it and had the opposite — ‘You gave up on yourself, it was the pressure from the media, you’re not brave, you’re not strong.’
“Removing it was the bravest thing I ever did in my life. I knew I would be criticised and judged, and I did it anyway.”
It had nothing to do with craving more fame or fortune, she says, but was part of seeking to connect with her true self.
As it turns out, 6-year-old Mennel, for whom God was pure love and music an inherent part of being alive, held the key all along.
Mennel was born in Besancon, the middle of five girls. Her father, Youssef, moved to the small city in the north-east quarter of France to study medicine but ended up becoming a jewellery merchant.
She recalls a humble man with a soft, gentle presence and a devotion to the Egyptian singer and actor Abdel Halim Hafez. Their relationship seems easier than the one with her devout mother, Nouria, a seamstress and strong woman prone, says Mennel, to critically regarding all that the girls did through the prism of religion.
For the young Mennel, who never felt as though she fitted in, increasingly alienated at home and at Victor Hugo High School where she was bullied for being skinny, music was a therapeutic bubble.
“Any time I felt bad,” she recalls, “I would go to music. I found comfort in music. What transports me is the variation. I let my soul travel with music and follow the frequency.”
When not composing, she burnt off “hyperactive” energy by day playing outside with her sisters or communing with nature in the verdant sub-alpine countryside.
But nightfall was her favourite time, when she would lie on the balcony of the family home gazing into the sky for hours on end.
“I would stay outside and look up and feel this connection with God, with this beauty. I’d wake in the middle of the night and be so happy that it was very dark, and I could see the stars and Moon even better. Those moments were very important to me.
“When I was 6, I was innocent, solid, shining. With time, I feel I lost some of that light. I was doing my best to be perfect for religion, perfect for my mum but that has a cost. I was so stressed and anxious all the time. It was as if every morning I woke up and my heart would jump because I wasn’t myself anymore.
“All these years, I’ve been struggling to find who I am. Now what I’m doing is reconnecting with that light and simply being the girl that I’ve always been but that became hidden.”
Song by song, chapter by chapter, Mennel’s identity is revealing itself to her as she writes. It’s as if the book, in particular, waits at each juncture for her to catch up before unfurling a little more.
She thinks its publication will coincide with the moment she is truly at peace, hopefully at the same time as the album early next year.
“It’s a journey of mourning, of love and, most importantly, of forgiveness,” she says. “Because when you heal, you need to forgive yourself and others, and then you can move on.”
Mennel, who over the years has sung for the President of Egypt and the King of Jordan, talks of her deep gratitude to all those who supported her music and helped her through. She namechecks a psychoanalyst she has been consulting for many months, the legion of fans who dub themselves Mennies, and others who would appear from nowhere "as a blessing".
“Honestly,” she says, “the three or four years that followed the storm, I don’t know how I survived. But I did. And that’s what I want to talk about now. No matter what, you can find a way out of hard times. If you are brave enough to acknowledge the dark and face it, then you can face anything in the world.”
At 27, having been to the depths of despair and back, Mennel says she now understands the true meaning of needing darkness to see the light.
She carries around less guilt, and practises self-care by beginning most mornings with a hike in the forest with her beloved German Shepherd, Bella, and meditation to keep her inner peace topped up.
She has joined a contemporary dance school and moves in public once more with the same carefree abandon of childhood, has picked up the cello again, and regularly challenges herself to try new things.
While we talk, she gives a rueful rub to the knee injured the day before in a fall from a Suzuki 125cc motorcycle at the driving centre while attempting to pass the test for a licence.
“It was so stupid. I was accelerating instead of braking,” Mennel says, smiling and unconsciously giving an apt summary of her approach to life in general these days.
As she stands up to show off the bruise, the image on her white T-shirt hoves into view. It is an artistic representation of a keyboard designed to look like buildings with birds flying by. Underneath, in very small writing, it says: “Music is life.”