The Gulf way may ultimately transform Arab politics even more radically than the political-military defeats of 1948 and 1967. Those experiences were the midwives of self-critical reassessments that, while severe, accepted the fundamental legitimacy of Arab nationalism and its political project. In the 1980s a current of feminist thinking emerged, expressed most consistently in Lebanese women’s fiction about the civil war, that poses questions challenging the coherence and viability of this project and its ordering of political and social priorities.
Evelyne Accad wrote Sexuality and War: Literary Masks of the Middle East (New York University Press, 1990) well before the Gulf crisis, based on the experience of war and politics in Lebanon. Her appeal for tolerance and pluralism and her critique of the politics of anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism may also be read as a rejection of Baathist totalitarianism and the logic that led many Arabs, no matter how reluctantly, to concede Saddam Hussein’s claim to represent the nationalist pole in Arab political discourse and to support him in his confrontation with the United States.
Asserting that sexuality and sexual relations are central to the motivations for war and the political and national struggles in the Middle East, Accad examines three women’s novels set in the Lebanese civil war (Hanan al-Shaykh’s The Story of Zahra; Etel Adnan’s Sitt Marie-Rose; and Andre Chedid’s House Without Roots) and three novels by men (Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad’s Death in Beirut; Halim Barakat’s Days of Dust; and Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain).
Adopting the view of Virginia Woolf, Accad argues that war is “a man’s affair” in which women are victimized, have no control and are offered only poor choices. By contrast, because war and sexuality are inextricably linked, men experience a sexual thrill from violence and “show a certain exaltation of war.” While the male authors Accad discusses do represent the ugliness and destruction of war, they also believe that “it can bring about necessary changes — historical, social, economical and sexual.”
Rejecting this “male” view of the nature of political struggle and historical change, Accad proposes to replace it with a program of simultaneous sexual revolution — “a transformation of the traditional relations of domination and subordination that permeate interpersonal relationships, particularly those of sexual and familial intimacy” — and political revolution — unification of the various Lebanese political factions in a vision of “their country as an entity not to be possessed and used but to be loved and respected without domination.” These objectives are to be achieved by non-violent activism best exemplified by the women in House Without Roots.
Because Arab politics has become so oppressive and immobilized, no challenge to the existing configuration of power should be dismissed out of hand. Accad’s boldness is a welcome departure from stereotypical nationalist conceptions from which no solution to the current impasse can possibly emerge. But it is not unproblematic. As she herself admits, her vision of Lebanon “may sound simplistic, overly optimistic, and naive” — not a very compelling case for its programmatic viability. Accad is aware of the historic structure of power and privilege in Lebanon, but her focus on the destructive brutality of the civil war leads her to gloss over these inequities. Did not they have something to do with the transformation of the civil war into random sectarian violence? Is it only accidental that the men whose novels are criticized are identified with what can loosely be called the Arab cultural left? Accad’s limited account of prewar Lebanon makes the Palestinians, whose “intervention in and irruption into Lebanese society was one of the key factors that led to the present Lebanese crisis,” into the main villains of the affair. Did the Palestinians intervene in Lebanon of their own accord? Was the Lebanese civil war ever simply a battle of “Palestinian and pro-Palestinian forces against the Christians”? Why is it that the most heinous crime of the male authors seems to be their sympathy for the Palestinian cause? Where is the discussion of the Phalange collaboration with Israel or the collaboration of Maronite leaders with the CIA in the 1950s? Despite her generally positive evaluation of Sitt Marie-Rose, Accad also criticizes Etel Adnan for her pro-Palestinian sympathies. Is this an issue which can be defined solely in terms of differing male and female sensibilities, or is there something more which should be considered?
Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain (Minnesota, 1989), the only one of the three men’s books whose setting is actually the civil war, bears the brunt of Accad’s critique. It is a difficult, post-modern novel, as Edward Said notes in his foreword, akin to the works of Asturias, Fuentes and Marquez, whose translation into Arabic Khoury encouraged during his tenure as a publishing house editor. Its scenes and perspectives alternate rapidly and chaotically, each highlighting a different aspect of the conflict. Like the war itself, their meaning is uncertain and constantly shifting. Khoury is aware of gender issues and has even criticized Days of Dust, arguing that Barakat undermines the validity of the liberated woman he portrays because she serves as a symbol of Western corruption. Little Mountain does explore the micro-social aspects of gender oppression and family relations and attempts to relate them to other issues in the civil war.
Emphasizing the links between images of sexuality and violence in Little Mountain, Accad argues that Khoury’s treatment of these issues reflects a vision uniting masculinity, war and political liberation. Elements of this critique are justified, but the novel’s extravagantly experimental narrative style demands a reading that is more ambiguous than the unifocal one Accad proposes. It is too limited and unfair simply to identify Khoury with the narrator and attribute to him a desire to destroy Beirut, as Accad does on her opening page. Little Mountain deserves to be taken seriously as a critical intervention seeking to challenge prevailing certainties, though it may be too self-indulgent to accomplish this purpose effectively. Accad does not seem interested in the aspect of Khoury’s project which seeks to undermine the stability of almost everything that appears to be asserted in the book. This permits her to insist on a reading which, like her conception of Lebanon, contains valid and important insights but is too circumscribed and falls short of providing a comprehensive political alternative.