Etel Adnan, Sitt Marie Rose (trans. Georgina Kleege) (Sausalito, CA: Post-Apollo Press, 1982).
Sitt Marie Rose is a remarkable novel by Etel Adnan, a Lebanese poet and artist. Georgina Kleege’s translation from the 1978 French edition, which won the France-Pays Arabe award, provides a rare opportunity for English-language readers to share this shattering vision and experience of an Arab woman. The novel is based on the true story of another Lebanese woman, one who can no longer speak for herself. Marie Rose Boulous, a Lebanese Maronite Christian, divorced, mother of three children, was kidnapped, tortured and killed by the Phalangist militia at the height of the civil war in 1976. For the Phalangists, her crime was obvious: She worked in the social institutions of the Palestinian camps, and lived (unmarried) with a Palestinian doctor. Etel Adnan also portrays Marie Rose’s less obvious “crimes” — being a woman, rejecting her “tribe” (in this instance the Christian Maronite sect), opting for human love and individual choice rather than sectarianism. The book powerfully shows the basic conflict of these values with the prevailing Arab society. It is Arab society which comes under close and critical scrutiny.
Though the focus is on the Maronite Christian mentality, the author repeatedly makes the point that this is endemic to the clannish social base of the Middle East as a whole. The major theme is that there will be no positive social change in the region until the tribal concepts break down and individuals emerge, as only individuals are capable of loving and caring for others outside their tribe. This is the context that makes Marie Rose’s identification with the Palestinians significant. Under interrogation, she defends her solidarity:
They represent a new beginning. The Arab world is infinitely large in terms of space and infinitely small in its vision. It’s made up of sects and sub-sects, ghettos, communities, worked by envy, rotten, closed back on themselves like worms…. For once in the history of the Middle East, the wandering of the Palestinians is no longer that of a nomad carrying his tribe in himself, but that of a man, alone, uprooted, pursued. They’re attempting to break down your values, and in the process are breaking their own necks.
The first section is set in early 1975, in a Christian neighborhood of Beirut. The narrator, an unnamed Lebanese woman (probably the author), describes her acquaintance with Mounir, Tony, Fouad and Pierre. The preoccupation of these young Maronite men is hunting. This is their favorite activity — for its purity, exclusion of women, violence and evidence of superiority over other Arabs. On April 13, 1975, the civil war explodes when the Phalangists massacre a busload of Palestinians. Adnan’s artistic control shines in the few pages where she describes the devastating effects of the war and the virtual explosion of violence:
This city is like a great suffering being, too mad, too overcharged, broken now, gutted, and raped like those girls raped by 30 or 40 militia men, and are now mad or in asylums because their families, Mediterranean to the end, would rather hide than cure…but how does one cure the memory?
The second section, “Time II, Marie Rose,” is a year later, and the civil war has not abated. The narrator of the preceding section is gone. Mounir and his friends are now hunters of men and women, having joined the Phalangist militia. They, with a Maronite priest, kidnap Marie Rose when she crosses from west Beirut to visit a school of deaf mutes where she teaches. Each chapter now becomes the perspective of a different protagonist, opening with the hidden thoughts of the deaf mute children who are silent witnesses to the unfolding horror.
The major dynamic is between Marie Rose and her interrogator, Mounir. They had been childhood friends, and had even experienced a brief but powerful affection for one another. Through their mutual recollections, the crippling ideology that transformed these young men into killers emerges. First there is the intersection of religion and the clan or tribe. Marie Rose remembers when Mounir and his friends were young:
The Crusades excited all of them. Every year, those French priests led a procession in which all the students of the Christian schools dressed in white tunics with square red crosses sewn front and back…. They carried palm branches through the streets of Beirut singing “I am a Christian. This is my glory, my hope, my support.” The next day at school they were proud of having defeated the Infidel. They dreamed of a Christianity with helmets and boots, riding its horses into the clash of arms, spearing Moslem foot-soldiers like so many St. Georges with so many dragons.
From this dream, the civil war erupted, as Marie Rose understands:
The Crusade which I always thought was impossible has, in fact, taken place. But it’s not really religious. It’s part of a larger Crusade directed against the poor. They bomb the underprivileged quarters because they consider the poor to be vermin they think will eat them. They fight to block the tide of those who have lost everything, or those who never had anything, and have nothing to lose. They have turned those among them that were poor against the poor “of others.” They have perverted Charity at the heart of its roots.
As the author observes after Marie Rose has been drawn and quartered in the name of religion, Christ has been transformed into a “tribal prince.”
On another equally impressive level, Etel Adnan grasps and articulates the essence of the hatred these men feel towards women. She criticizes Arab women for their exclusive love of their sons, which fosters this concept of the threatening “other.” Marie Rose has rejected not only her clan but also her role as an appendage to men. This terrifies them and thus she is doomed. Adnan describes the confrontation:
She breaks on the territory of their imagination like a tidal wave. She rouses in their memories the oldest litanies of curses. To them, love is a kind of cannibalism. Feminine symbols tear at them with their claws. For seven thousand years the goddess Isis has given birth without there being a father. Isis in Egypt, Ishtar in Baghdad. Anat in Marrakesh, the Virgin in Beirut. Nothing survives the passing of these divinities: they only love Power, the Brother or their Son. And you expect Marie Rose to hold her head up to this procession of terrible women and find grace in the eyes of the males of this country?
Adnan portrays how, as women have slowly made advances in the Middle East, they have also lost an immunity that was essentially a form of invisibility. Marie Rose was a woman, and thus a possession, but one who had rebelled. The men of her clan — the four hunters and the priest — had simply recaptured and punished her.
Those four men set upon that passing bird. They bend over her case with the posture of rug merchants, and the age-long heavy gestures of connoisseurs of merchandise. She was, they admit, a worthy prey, though they don’t consider her a museum piece, real booty, an exemplary catch. She was a woman, an imprudent woman, gone over to the enemy and mixing in politics….
Marie Rose is only one of thousands who have died in Lebanon. Kidnappings, murders, massacres are still the norm. Political and social struggles still play themselves out under the distorting cloak of religious sectarianism. But both the heroine and the author of this book assert the possibility of change, through the possibility of choice. Sitt Marie Rose is a true story of love and horror that conveys, like no work of political analysis can, some of the complex and very deep dimensions of Lebanon’s agony.