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  Guns & Roses — 7  

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

On the other hand, the female characters in the men’s novels find themselves trapped in dead-end situations caused by both tradition and the war, the two being closely linked. Awwad is the one who makes the most obvious connection between the two: violence is the product of the male protagonists and the women are the direct victims of it. They are raped, beaten, used, abused and killed by the customs which delineate their lives. His having the major woman character join male violence in the end — in the form of guerrilla resistance — hoping to no longer be its victim, could be explained, if not justified, through Fanon’s understanding of violence.

Khoury also shows women as what the protagonist wants to destroy through war and violence, because he feels they are destroying him, like the City is destroying him. On the other hand, one of the female characters, the young Black woman, is portrayed as free and alive. But the major male character is unable to join her because he has chosen war/masculinity instead of life/freedom. And Barakat’s female protagonist, the only one not subjected to Arab customs — thanks to her Western identity — is also trapped by the war and her relationships to the men in her life, from both the East and the West.
Interestingly, here it is the female side of the male narrator — when he identifies his body as being raped by the Israeli army — which is most grievously hurt by the war and violence.

The male protagonists are portrayed as quite advanced and open when it comes to voicing ideas about man-woman relationships, or women’s liberation and their freedom to choose and live their lives as they see fit, but when it comes to actualising their revolutionary vision on a daily basis, it is a completely different story. Their beautiful notions seem to suddenly disappear in front of reality. Both the major male characters in Death in Beirut cannot accept Tamima’s desire to be herself and live her life, even though they claimed it was one of the avenues for Lebanon’s survival through reform. And Ramzy in Days of Dust, who also sees women’s liberation as central to revolutionising the Arab world, is unable to accept it totally in his personal life, feeling more secure with tradition.

In his fascinating book Symbolic Exchange and Death, Jean Baudrillard explains how the fascination with death is closely connected with violence and sexuality through symbolic rites of sacrifice, the most obvious ones today being the car accidents and the taking of hostages. It is a good illustration of what the male authors have been saying in their novels. They all seem to concur in finding war a necessary event in the present state of things, and even better than the daily boredom of routine and uneventful existence.

To better illustrate my thesis, I will expand with examples from two of the novels: The Story of Zahra and The Small Mountain. The first one is by Hanan Al-Shaykh, a Shiite Muslim woman from the south of Lebanon who wrote her first novel, Suicide of a Dead Man, at the age of twenty-two. When The Story of Zahra came out in 1980, it was banned in several Arab countries. Its explicit sexual descriptions, its exploration of taboo subjects such as family cruelty, women’s sexuality and its relation to the war caused a scandal. Despite the censorship, the book has had a wide circulation in the Middle East. Lebanese and Egyptian critics hailed the work for its strength, its depth, and its lyrical realism, and Hanan Al-Shaykh is recognized as a frontrunner among young writers expanding the scope of the contemporary Arabic novel.

The novel is divided into two parts. The first, ‘The Scars of Peace,’ is in five sections with ‘Zahra Remembers’, ‘Zahra in Africa’, ‘Uncle’, ‘Husband’, ‘Zahra in Wedlock’ all dealing with Zahra’s mental illness, the result of her oppression as a woman in a society which does not allow women to fulfil themselves as human beings. The second part, ‘The Torrents of War’, shows Zahra overcoming her illness and oppression through the war, but it is an illusory, temporary freedom which masks the deep problems of a society unable to solve its conflicts except through violence and death.

I will only deal here with the second part and more specifically with Zahra’s relationship with the sniper. The reasons she starts this relationship with the sniper are not altogether clear to her. The war brings such contradictions within her that she wishes to somehow find an answer — even in death! The afternoon she first goes to him, she really believes she is walking to her death. Her first sexual encounters with him are like rapes. He pounces on her and releases himself within her with no consideration for her feelings, pleasure, sensations, or the fact that the bare floor hurts her back and side. But as time goes by and she goes back to him every afternoon, they grow accustomed to each other, she relaxes, and he starts responding to her needs. She experiences orgasm for the first time in her life and cries out. The sniper’s caresses unwind all the suffering from her past. The orgasm brings to the surface all the feelings she had buried deep inside her, it intensifies them while allowing her to forget them. It is a kind of catharsis. She compares it to electro-convulsive treatment, and the image it conjures up is not positive, forewarning of events to come, colouring Zahra’s pleasure with the spectre of madness and death.

It seems as though in Zahra’s mind, the only way to have any kind of control over the elements of death ravaging her country is to become part of this violence through sexuality. She tried to help at the hospital but was unable to bear the stench and suffering. She tried to stop the militias from shooting prisoners but was held back by her parents, told she was mad, risking death herself. She tried to convince her brother to stop fighting, taking drugs and looting, only to see him scorn her and masturbate in front of her! What choices does she really have? In the light of all these walls, her act of going to the sniper becomes more understandable, if not condonable.

Like others in the war, Zahra is a victim. Deeply wounded in her past by a family and a society which does not allow its individuals, let alone its women, to fulfil themselves, develop into harmonious human beings, Zahra’s ‘solution’ is to sink even deeper into sickness and destruction. The sniper’s reaction to Zahra is first rape, as a way of proving his masculinity through control and domination. Along with his killings, it breaks his society’s mores and emphasises the state of chaos he has become part of. Fear is one of the primary motivations to such acts: fear of life, fear of women, fascination with death and destruction. As he grows accustomed to Zahra’s daily visits, fear dims away, he starts responding to her sexual needs by caressing her, and attends to her physical comfort by bringing some sheets. He even becomes tender and shows some emotion. But at the announcement of her pregnancy and her question about his occupation, fear takes hold of him again. He could not fulfil his promise to marry her and reintegrate a ‘normal’ life which he daily destroys. He kills her to re-establish the chaos, his addiction and the only meaning of his existence. He kills her because he cannot assume the life in her womb. At one point, we fear he may want to have this life come out, become a fighter and perpetuate the cycle of violence. The death of the child in Zahra’s womb gives us a faint hope in the midst of the tragedy: at least the fruit of this violence is also killed by the violence it originated from. The implications of such a‘solution’ are frightening: Is total annihilation the only answer to violence?

The answer to violence is not violence but non-violence. Jean-Marie Muller has explained it well in ‘The significance of non-violence’. For him, “we must find means of action which will not lead us into the mesh of violence, which could quickly take us on a path where we could not master our own violence, and we could become perverted by a logic of destruction, the opposite of what we wish to realise for society and for our children.”

The process is not an easy one, because as Andrea Dworkin expressed it: men develop a strong loyalty to violence. Men must come to terms with violence because it is the prime component of male identity.

Institutionalised in sports, the military, accultured sexuality, the history and mythology of heroism, it is taught to boys until they become its advocates — men, not women. Men become advocates of that which they most fear. In advocacy they experience mastery of fear. In mastery of fear they experience freedom. Men transform their fear of male violence into metaphysical commitment to male violence. Violence itself becomes the central definition of any experience that is profound and significant.

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