Miriam Cooke, War’s Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War (Cambridge, 1988).
Since her second hijacking of an El Al plane in 1970, her arrest by British authorities and her subsequent release in a prisoner-hostage exchange, the Palestinian activist Leila Khaled, whose face at the time had become an international icon, has been largely invisible outside the sphere of her work in Palestinian refugee camps and in the ranks of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). That continued absence, given Khaled’s material and symbolic contributions to the early years of the Palestinian resistance struggle (described in part in her autobiography My People Shall Live), bespeaks a persistent patriarchal orientation, hardly peculiar to the Palestinian movement, toward the public waging of political combat or the fight for national liberation.
Miriam Cooke’s presentation of “women writers on the Lebanese civil war” addresses itself to the absence in the modern Arabic literary canon of acknowledged female participants. War’s Other Voices proposes a doubly significant addition to the Western feminist project of retrieving the long neglected cultural production of women and establishing that work as contributive to, if not constitutive of, the larger historical narrative that has traditionally ignored their voices.
Cooke’s literary-critical study further engages with that other current feminist inquiry into the controversial relationship between women and war, represented in the re-edition by The Feminist Press of World War I novels written by women, or the recent anthology, Women on War: Essential International Voices, edited by Daniela Gioseffi.
Arguing for an essentially gendered distinction in male and female representations of war generally, and of the Lebanese civil war in particular, Cooke identifies a group, not necessarily a coherent or coordinated collective, of women writers that she designates as the “Beirut Decentrists.” These women, including most prominently Ghada al-Samman, Hanan al-Shaykh, Emily Nasrallah, Laila Usairan, Daisy al-Amir, Claire Gebeyli and Etel Adnan, worked in various genres — fictional narrative, poetry, occasionally drama, and the billet (short lyrical prose pieces in newspapers). The weight of Cooke’s analysis is on their novels and short stories. Her readings of these select texts argue the hypothesis that whereas men, positioned at the conflict’s epicenter, wrote of the civil war in terms of “strategy, ideology and violence,” the women writers in question composed, from their situation at the margins, against that very politics, portraying instead the “dailiness of war.”
War’s Other Voices foregrounds a hitherto suppressed singularity of women’s vision of the civil war and its consequences, both immediate and eventual. Cooke examines the palpable impact of that vision on both the form — such as textual fragmentation and journalistic terseness — and the content — from snipers to steadfastness — of women’s writing of the war. Awareness of the duties needed simply to survive distinguish the writing of the Decentrists, such as Daisy al-Amir’s story collection Promises for Sale (1981). This woman’s sense of responsibility is contrasted with political promises made and not kept by the male protagonists of war.
At the same time that it seeks to displace a dominant masculinist narrative of vicious cycles of violence, Cooke’s polemical insistence on women’s antithetical singularity threatens in turn to disable the political participation of these — and other — women writers in the arena of critical struggle. “Women’s literary exclusion in Lebanon,” it is argued, “worked in their favor. They were free of the self-consciousness born of commitment to causes.” Such freedom from commitment marks Cooke’s political ambivalence between claims for the historical specificity of the Lebanese civil war out of which the Decentrists wrote and the abstract universal values sought in their literary writings.
Too exclusive an emphasis on the determinacy of gender obscures the concrete articulations of gender with the other issues of ethnicity, class and, particularly urgent in the case of Lebanon, religion. Whereas Cooke invokes, for example, the dedication of Ghada al-Samman’s Beirut Nightmares (1976):
I dedicate this book
To the printers
Who are at this moment arranging its letters
Despite the thunder of the rockets and the bombs
And they know
That the book will not contain their names…
The hard-working, faceless, silent ones
as evidence of the woman writer’s ultimate appeal to the “universal personal where all can identify,” that same dedication can, by acknowledging instead its specificity, be read as a recognition in solidarity of the contribution made by Lebanese workers to a traditionally elite cultural production. A similarly transgressive commitment on the part of a woman across inherited class, religious and ethnic divides is punished by death in Etel Adnan’s Sitt Marie Rose (1982). The novel, read by Cooke as a narrative of the “defiant woman,” is based on the actual life of Marie Rose Boulos, a Christian Lebanese woman whose husband divorced her when she became active in trade union and women’s political organizing as well as for her work in the Palestinian refugee camps. At the height of the civil war, Marie Rose is abducted, and executed, by Christian Phalange militias incensed at the woman’s ethnic and class treachery in living with a Palestinian doctor.
The unanalyzed universalization of a set of feminine literary values at the expense of their political consequences undermines at times the strength of the very materials by women writers which Cooke made available. The gendered division of labor that persists in assigning to men the political tasks and the ideological rhetoric of war while reserving for women the representation of the quotidian and the irrational is only tenuously — and indeed ominously — resolved in Cooke’s study through an implicit reconstruction of a Lebanese nationalism that ostracizes the Palestinian question: “Lebanon has been a corridor of refuge for wave after wave of refugees. All except the last wave, the Palestinians, have been accommodated. An Arab proverb says: ‘Live with a people for 40 days and you will become one of them, or you will pack your bags.’ The Palestinians did not become Lebanese, nor did they pack their bags.” This displacement of the intersections of gender and national identity covertly underwrites much of the argumentation of War’s Other Voices, from the claim that “Palestinian women’s writings in Lebanon are like those of the Lebanese men writers” (e.g. Taufiq Awwad, Elias Khoury and Andre Bercoff, who are treated by Cooke in a later chapter) to the misplaced choice of Elie Wiesel to provide the concluding words of the book. The significance of the contribution of the women’s writing presented in War’s Other Voices is endangered by too reductive an equation of men, politics and Palestine that, complicit finally in the refusal of women’s political rights, would deny to women’s writing its own crucial stake in the political struggle.