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  Guns & Roses — 5  

Sex & Violence
  Vol II : issue 1

  Amrita Pritam
  Mrinal Pande
  Evelyne Accad
  Gagan Gill
  Selina Hossain
  Only in Print

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Evelyne Accad

If nationalism — in the way I have previously defined it — could unite all the various factions fighting each other under a common aim and belief in the existence and survival of their country, it could move towards a real solution. But if nationalism remains at a sexist stage and does not move beyond ownership and possession as final goals, the cycle of hell will repeat itself and the violence will start all over again. In Lebanon, both nationalism and feminism are necessary: nationalism in order to unite Lebanon, and feminism in order to change the values upon which social relationships — and thus unity — are created and formed. The work must begin at the most personal levels: with changes in attitudes and behaviour toward one’s mates, one’s family, one’s sexuality, and ultimately one’s community and society. From such a personal beginning, at least some of the internal conflicts might work towards resolution. With a stronger nationhood based on mutual love, rather than possession and domination, the strength of Lebanon might be able to push out the external influences.

The analysis I have given is clearly not restricted to Lebanon, but involves most geographical areas afflicted with or with a potential for war — meaning most countries in the world. The ideas about sexuality, its centrality to social relations among and between women and men, and its relationship to war and national interests, probably make sense in different degrees everywhere. What makes the situation in Lebanon unique is that these questions take on huge proportions and are more obvious than elsewhere. Lebanon is a Mediterranean country, highly dominated by Islamo-Arab influences. As such, it carries the codes of honour and women’s oppression, as well as masculine-macho values to their farthest limits. The tragedy of this situation holds its own answer.

I have chosen a few of the novels about the war in Lebanon to illustrate the connections between sexuality, war, nationalism, feminism, violence, love and power as they relate to the body, the partner, the family, Marxism, religion, pacifism, etc. The works, originally written in Arabic or French, are by Lebanese women and men authors who have lived or are still living in Lebanon. All of the novels chosen are set in Beirut in the context of the war. Even though the subject is treated differently, all of the writers show how war and violence have roots in sexuality, and in the treatment of women in that part of the world. Most of the characters meet a tragic fate due to the war, the women being the ultimate victims of both political and social violence.

For example, the heroine of Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Awwad, is seduced, raped, beaten, her face slashed, her ambitions smashed, as she tries to gain autonomy and education in the midst of her country’s social and political unrest. Zahra, in The Story of Zahra by Hanan El-Cheikh, who tries to free herself from the civil war that has just erupted by having a sexual relationship with a sniper, becomes the target not only of his sexual weapon, but of his Kalashnikov as well. In the end, he kills her. Marie Rose, in Etel Adnan’s Sitt Marie Rose, who is struggling for social justice and Arab women’s liberation, and directs a school for the handicapped, is put to death by Phalangist executioners who torture her to exorcise their bad conscience.

Sybil, in House without Roots by Andrée Chedid, dies from a sniper’s bullet at the point of possible reconciliation, the place where Kalya advanced trying to save Ammal and Myriam, one of them having been hit by the sniper’s death machine as they were starting a peace march. Pamela, in Days of Dust by Halim Barakat, trying to find herself by helping the refugees and protesting against American imperialism, loses herself in a no-exit relationship with the male protagonist. And the female characters in The Small Mountain by Elias Khoury are destroyed, disappear, or are trapped in disgustingly hateful marriage routines.

In the destructive context of war, violence and sexual oppression, are there positive actions and resolutions the male and female characters were able to take? What are the differences and similarities between male and female protagonists, between male and female authors, and between those writing in Arabic and in French? What are some of the necessary changes that Lebanon must undergo to solve its tragedy and play, once again, the democratic role — of melting pot of tolerance and freedom — it had in the region, and which is so much needed in that part of the world? These are some of the questions I looked at and tried to answer.

I discovered that there is indeed a difference between the way men and women write about war. Women authors unmask the ugliness of war, while men exalt it and even find pleasure in it. Women seek peaceful solutions through active non-violent means, while men ask for more violence and more destruction. In the novels written by women, we find that war is very much a man’s affair, that women have not had much to do with it, that it is ugly, beastly, and therefore it is best not to join this man’s world and become contaminated by it.

Yet how can one change it and prevent war? Are women always trapped and caught in unbearable situations over which they have no control? Is death, in one form or another, the only solution?

In all three novels I found that war is a male activity, with women as the ultimate victims of its horror. All three end with the death of the female protagonist: one is executed for her ideas and two are killed by snipers’ bullets. However, one of these novels appears a little more hopeful, and offers another alternative. It is Andrée Chedid’s House Without Roots. At the core of it, a peace march is formed by two women from enemy communities who have understood the significance of such an act. A peace march is an act of non-violent resistance. It is not only refusing to engage in the escalation of violence by not taking revenge, but also avoiding subjection to violence. It is a strategy of resistance.

In Etel Adnan’s Sitt Marie Rose, there is also an element of such resistance. Marie Rose stands alone and courageously in front of her executioners, ready to die for her beliefs, but not without having first confronted them with their corrupted values.

What are the choices women have in their lives and in the face of war? Can they have an impact on their society and change the course of repetitious violence which the world seems to be hopelessly entangled in? Or are they forever trapped, victims of situations over which they have no control?

Zahra, in The Story of Zahra, enters the world of men by having a relationship with a sniper — one of the worst perpetrators of the violence ripping her country apart. She cannot change such a world, the rules of which are beyond anyone’s control, except the leaders of the tribes and of the big powers. It has reached a state of chaos and disintegration. What can Zahra do against such odds, she who already suffers from madness, the result of the oppression imposed on her by a society which does not allow its women to choose their lives and be themselves? She does not have the strength of a Marie Rose, the courage of a Kalya, or the vision of a Myriam or an Ammal. She has suffered from too many incurable wounds in her past to be like them. It would take an incredible amount of healing for her to face the war without being destroyed by it, to find some non-violent form of resistance instead of becoming a victim once again.

Zahra’s reaction to the war and to violence is masochistic. She submits herself to violent sex, thereby trying to forget the outside violence she cannot cope with. It’s like a homeopathic cure she is desperately seeking. By having violence acted out on her own body, she is trying to understand a world of violence which makes no sense to her, thereby hoping to find out who she is, and heal some of her wounds. She does manage, for a short period of time, to enjoy sex by discovering orgasm. It temporarily makes her forget the war, her past and present life, and cauterises some of her wounds. The fact that she becomes pregnant — even though she has been taking the Pill — without realising it, shows how very little she is in control of her own body, and of her sexuality. It is almost as much a mystery as the shells falling around her house every night.

Zahra’s desperate need to understand what is going on throws her into the arms of the sniper, the result of which will be death. It is the inevitable ending of a life of victimisation, a kind of suicide. Whether it’s Zahra’s vertical walk (walking upstairs), every afternoon to meet the sniper, and Kalya’s, Ammal’s and Myriam’s horizontal walk — crossing the demarcation line — the march eventually leads to death. But whereas Zahra’s sacrifice results in oblivion, and probably more violence and destruction, Kalya’s, Ammal’s and Myriam’s offer the possibility of future hope and reconciliation, the assurance that somewhere peace will win.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3  p. 4 p. 5 p. 6  p. 7  

Evelyne Accad is a novelist, folk song writer and Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois. She divides her time between Paris and Urbana-Champaign