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Sitt Marie Rose by Etel Adnan
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Sitt Marie Rose (1977)

by Etel Adnan

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Lebanese Civil War.

This is a really hard book to review without falling into one or other camp of the war.
Personally I have heard a lot about the Israeli / Palestinian conflict, but the part played by Lebanon, who hosted great influxes of refugees, has been less widely publicised. While many issues had been burning below the surface, this sudden onslaught, no doubt had its part to play in the subsequent civil war of Lebanon.

This little book, only 105 pages, is written by a woman, now 87 yrs old, and highlights the mindless cruelty of the conflict. She shows the men as hunters in peace-time, who take to war with the same ferocity. The target in this story is Sitt Marie Rose, a peace-loving woman who crosses cultural and religous barriers to help the refugees.

We know from the information on the back, that this book is based on a true story. We also know that Sitt Marie Rose died for her cause, brutally murdered by a Christian sect who felt she had defected.
The author, in interview, states that the victim was well known and well loved in Lebanon and that people recognised her in the book. I was therefore reading while knowing the final outcome - just the when and how remained to be discovered.

I was interested in the central premise. What let it down for me - and hence the low rating - was the strange style in which the book is written. We are frequently unsure as to who is speaking. Time is not linear - SMR dies several times in the book, narrated by several people involved - yet we are left to deduce who. Even the politics involved were confusing to the outsider. It made for an interesting book group discussion but left the book a bit empty for the solitary reader.

A very different read that would benefit from some prior knowledge by the reader. ( )
  DubaiReader | Jun 7, 2010 |
Told in the first person from various perspectives, this short but powerful novel deals with the murder of a teacher during the Lebanese civil war that destroyed Beruit in the 70s. Her "crime" being that, as a Christian, she taught deaf-mutes on the Palestinian side of the line. It is a novel with a lot of anger about the tragedy of useless, arbitrary death, but more than that, it is about the coarsening of minds warped and limited by the seductions of power and violence and soul-deadening effects of religious fanaticism that rationalizes any barbarity and precludes any vestige of humanity in consideration of the "other". The writing is tight and the psychology is acute. The only difference between the antagonists is their religious carpaces....otherwise they are the same small, blind fanatics.
  John | Jan 5, 2010 |
SUMMARY

Cribbed from my M.A. thesis on Lebanese women writers. Spoilers possible.

Adnan’s novel Sitt Marie Rose is based on the 1976 death of Marie Rose Bolous and tells the story of the kidnapping, torture, and murder of its title character by three Christian militiamen during the early stages of the Lebanese civil war. Both the real and the fictional Marie Rose were divorced Christian women who supported the Palestinian resistance and taught disadvantaged Lebanese children.

Adnan’s novel explores the conceptions of identity, community, and responsibility espoused by Lebanese civilians during the war and attempts to produce a new national narrative for Lebanon. Employing a multiplicity of contending narrative voices, Adnan provides insight into the experience and motivations of combatants, bystanders, resistors, and victims. Her novel shows how each nationalist movement reimagined the shape of the Lebanese nation-state and redefined the criteria for membership therein. While Sitt Marie Rose offers a pointed critique of the war and of the hierarchical nature of Lebanese society, its narrative strategy problematizes readings that attempt to arrive at a straightforward understanding of the war or its participants.

Sitt Marie Rose is divided into two sections, which are set at different times and voiced by different narrators. The first section, ‘Time I: A Million Birds,’ is set immediately prior to the civil war in 1975 and presents the omniscient perspective of an unnamed female narrator who has been asked to make a film with her friends Mounir, Tony, and Fouad about young Syrians living in Beirut. The outbreak of civil war during ‘Time I’ forces the narrator to re-evaluate her role in Mounir’s film; feeling that she can no longer make the kind of apolitical film that Mounir plans, she informs him of her inability to participate in his project.

The second section, ‘Time II: Marie Rose,’ is set a year later and seems connected to the first only by the presence of men named Mounir, Tony, and Fouad, who have kidnapped Marie Rose in order to punish her for her involvement with the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon, which aids the enemy and threatens the cohesion of the Christian community. ‘Time II’ is divided into three subsections encapsulating a discrete moment of time, which are further divided into seven portions, each of which is told from the perspective of a single character, including Marie Rose, her captors, the witnesses to her capture and execution – the friar Bouna Lias and Marie Rose’s deaf-mute students – and an unnamed omniscient female narrator who seems to be the narrator from ‘Time I.’ The second section ends with the death of Marie Rose at the hands of her captors following her interrogation and torture.

REVIEW

Although I enjoyed this book, I thought it was very problematic from a number of standpoints. A number of these points also cribbed from my thesis - in a recycling mood today.

CHARACTERIZATION: The novel attempts to present the militiamen as individuals with unique histories and motivations, however, this attempt is undercut by characterization that is often weak and stereotypical. Although Sitt Marie Rose employs a multivocal narrative, which allows the characters to represent themselves through monologues and conversations with other characters, the statements they make almost invariably reduce their complexity, heightening the reader’s impression that the story involves characters who are inherently good and characters who are inherently evil. Mounir is the only male Lebanese Christian character given anything resembling complexity. Marie Rose is depicted as a near-saint, who forsakes the safety of her own community and dies for her cause, which is identified with that of the nation as a whole.

The novel sets up a dichotomy between the Maronites, who are privileged, violent, and callous, and the Palestinians, who are oppressed, desperate, and compassionate. These representations are problematic for the reader, who gains little insight into the ways in which people from all communities were drawn into the conflict and learns simply that the Lebanese civil war was a battle between two groups, one innocent and the other monstrous.

IDEOLOGY: This was also problematic for me. In contrast to a novel like Hoda Barakat's The Stone of Laughter, which displays a mistrust of all radical ideologies that aim to reshape Lebanon, Adnan's novel seems to suggest that in the war between pan-Arabism and Maronite Christian exclusivism, there is a right side and a wrong side. Although the novel attempts to present a genuinely inclusive vision of Lebanon, it simply restages the long-standing debate between pan-Arab nationalism and Christian Lebanese particularism, placing the arguments of the former in the mouth of a martyr and the arguments of the latter in the mouths of butchers, obscuring the fact that both ideologies had failed to provide a solid basis for Lebanese national identity.

NARRATIVE AUTHORITY: Some critics think that polyphonic novels undermine narrative authority and prevent the reader from gaining a single "truth" from a novel. I think that Adnan tried to use this technique in order to give insight into the views of all the participants in the war, but her inclusion of an "over-narrator" (the unnamed female narrator), who speaks from an omniscient perspective while all other characters are limited in perspective, complicates this issue.

The unnamed female narrator occupies a greater amount of narrative space and the space she occupies is arguably the most significant textual ‘real estate’ – the beginning and the end of the story. She is the sole narrator of ‘Time I,’ which provides the characterization of half the narrators that emerge in ‘Time II’ and conditions the reader’s response to them. Her authority is also asserted by the placement of her monologues at the end of each sub-section of ‘Time II,’ making her the interpreter of the events that have transpired within in each sub-section. In a story that seems to have little to do with her, the unnamed female narrator literally gets the last word about everything that happens.

The unnamed female narrator’s perspective is unique in that it is the only perspective that is external to the situation it describes. She does not know Marie Rose nor is she a party to her torture and execution. Her separation from the immediate event frees her to pontificate on issues of geopolitics, religion, and sexuality, offer her explanations for the causes of the civil war, and offer repeated condemnations of the Maronite community, of which she herself is a member. The prominence of the voice of the unnamed female narrator within the text, combined with the fact that she often echoes criticisms voiced by Marie Rose, who is an incredibly sympathetic character, gives the reader the impression that her voice provides insight into the ‘truth’ of the Lebanese civil war.

Overall, I thought this was a fascinating novel, simply because it brings up so many questions and problems for itself. It is interesting to compare the author's published comments on her reasons for writing this novel with the general tone of the novel. I'd also like to qualify my comments above by saying that I'm not trying to exonerate either the novel's characters or real historical actors, just to point out that it is rather one-sided and somewhat simplistic, since it is offering a pan-Arabist vision of Lebanese national identity at a point in history when this identity was deeply threatening to many Lebanese and in part responsible for the civil war. Rather than address honestly why this was the case, Adnan just accuses the Maronites of backwardness, tribalism, and barbarism.

This book should definitely be read, but one should also Hoda Barakat, Elias Khoury, or Rashid al-Daif's Passage to Dusk for portrayals of the war that are more psychologically and politically nuanced. I'd just also add that this is a book that should be read and re-read because my perceptions of it changed quite a lot over multiple re-reads. You will definitely think about it for a while afterwards. ( )
1 vote fannyprice | Oct 25, 2007 |
Told from variable viewpoints this novella centers around the Lebanese civil war of the 1970's. The character of Sitt Marie Rose is a divorced Christian woman--mother of three--a teacher at a school for deaf-mutes who lives in a Palestinian refugee camp with a Moslem doctor.

The story begins with a look at her later to be executioners--led by one named Mounir--a kind of well to do would be intellectual--educated in Paris. He and his friends like to go on hunting expeditions into Syria. They make films of these expeditions though Mounir has bigger ambitions and approaches an unnamed woman (Adnan herself?) for advice and/or assistance in making a film about the milieu he comes from.

The civil war intervenes and Mounir and his friends find themselves taking part in military actions for the Lebanese Christian Falange. Atrocities heap up on both sides. Mounir etal. find themselves in the school of deaf-mutes with Marie Rose as their prisoner. For Mounir's associates this is no big deal. She is simply a traitor and a whore and it would be a good lesson for the young deaf mutes who they consider to be imbeciles to see for themselves what happens to those who betray their tribe, their class, their religion. Mounir however remembers Marie as his first teenage crush. Although he no longer feels the same way about her he does not really want to kill her. The factor that he has throughout the fray managed to support his tribe without getting his hands bloody plays a part also in his mind--and that is something that his comrades are well aware of although they don't voice it outright. They watch him closely and judge him for his weakness. Interrogations begin--possibilities and solutions are posited. The woman's own stubborness non-plusses Mounir and he finally turns her over to a priest--a kind of relic whose beliefs are more akin to the 13th century and the Crusades who passes the final death sentence.

The character of Marie Rose was apparently drawn from the life of a woman that Adnan knew. To say something about Adnan's viewpoints on the two adversarial religious groups in the above conflict. Adnan doesn't go out of her way to point her finger just at Christians. She often makes a point that the same kind of atrocities were being visited on both sides. That it is men using religion to re-inforce their own tribal connections--to keep intact a status quo--in Mounir's case his own well being and position in society informing almost every decision he makes.

To say something also about a remarkable prose style which is why beyond a compelling storyline it gets 5* from me. I will excerpt a few paragraphs. From pages 65-66:

'The Churches of the Arab East are those of the catacombs, those of the Faith, of course, but also those of obscurity. They still define themselves in opposition to an imaginary paganism. They still haven't left the labyrinths. They have never gotten the knife in the belly that the great reforms were to the Church in the West. They're not concerned with human pain. They're not in actual communication with any force other than the Dragon. The sword of Saint George is what inspires their actions.
Set against these churches is an Islam that forgets all too often that the divine mercy affirmed by the first verse of the Koran can only be expressed by human mercy. Their shared existence is a dry flood whose passage leaves more cadavers than flowers.
The four young men seated in the classroom are not merely judges. They are the victims of a very long and very old tradition of man's capitulation before Destiny. For them, the decision of the group is the one thing they must defend and assert by whatever means. They train themselves to become executioners, all the while believing themselves to be judges.
They are moved by a sick sexuality, a mad love, where images of crushing and cries dominate. It's not that they are deprived of women or men if they like, but rather are inhibited by a profound distaste for the sexual thing. A sense of the uncleanliness of pleasure torments them and keeps them from ever being satisfied. Thus, the Arabs let themselves go in a tearing, killing, annihilating violence, and while other peoples, virulent in their own obsession with cleanliness, invent chemical products, they seek a primitive and absolute genocide. In their fights they don't try to conquer lands, but to eliminate each other. And if after death they persist in mutilating the corpse, it's to diminish the enemy's body still more, and erase if possible the fact that he ever existed, the existence of the enemy being a kind of sacrelige which exacts a purification equally as monstrous.'

From page 71:

'She saw him again at the funeral of Ghassan Kanafani who was killed starting his car by a bomb designated for him. She walked behind the coffin with the other women dressed in black. He walked tranquilly before, in the group of the militants of the Resistance, their eyes red, their lips tired, their hands open. She saw how haggard these people were, and understood the nature of their new wandering. These were no longer nomads comforted by their tribe and their herd, but a people perpetually pursued, as if by some cosmic agreement, by both an outer and inner enemy, by their self-proclaimed brothers as well as the adversary, without a single square meter of certainty or security under their feet. They would have to forge a nation in the midst of total hostility. They breathed air laced with betrayal.'

And from pages 75-76:

'Mounir found again vis-a-vis her a complete autonomy. He was hostile towards her. During the two months since he had thrown himself into the clan's battle, he had been completely irritated. Everything annoyed him that was not directly linked to his new functions. Before his maps and figures, his plans for defending this building, or bombarding that neighborhood, he found a milder tone, a calm, an equilibrium. Away from these things, the old flaws of a spoiled child took the forefront. He was fighting--that was all there was to it. For what? To preserve. To preserve what? His group's power. What was he going to do with this power and this group? Rebuild the country. What country? Here, everything became vague. He lost his footing. Because in this country there were too many factions, too many currents of ideas, too many individual cases for one theory to contain. Like the presence of this woman, taken at random at a roadblock, who should, according to the norms, be a part of his clan, his flesh and blood. He wanted to construct a country where this sort of problem could not exist. But the problem came before the ideal country Mounir wanted to build. He would have to fight the dissident Christians to save the real Christians. His head spun.
But how do you think a judgement could be made in these wretched times? How could Justice remain alive in a country so saturated with covetousness? How could anyone manage to see clearly through so many layers of half-cooked ideas jostling in the myth-stuffed brains which have turned into cages for parrots?'

To conclude Sitt Marie Rose was first published in 1978 but why does the socio/political analysis even from these few random paragraphs cited above--in a novel of all things--seem so contemporary and prescient of the future of the Middle East as it seems to be even today? Things have certainly continued to happen throughout the region in the last 29 years since its being published but as can be seen the underlying factors behind the adversarial relationship between the Moslem, Jewish, Christian religions in the region have only exacerbated the rage felt by all adherents of the major religions founded there. Unfortunately this novella as great as it is will retain a contemporary feel for the forseeable future--another 29 years? or even longer?--until the zealots on all sides someday hopefully find themselves marginalized. ( )
  lriley | Sep 10, 2007 |
This is definitely one of the most unique novels I've read this year. Marie Rose is an Arab Christian with facial features that could pass for European, all of which wins her acceptance in a number of Lebanon's tightly knit ethnic and religious communities. When Civil War breaks out in 1975, her humanitarian activities in Palestinian refugee camps inflames fellow Christians, leading to her capture by the army. The book is told from a variety of points of view, but the characters speaking are rarely identified overtly. Both the dialogue and exposition are dense with metaphor, allusion and existential debate. The writer adds further layers of complexity by never allowing us to see outside each narrator's narrow point of view, so it's hard to figure out what, if anything, is actually a fact. All of these things demonstrate how dehumanizing and primitive warfare and tribal affiliation truly is.

This is an engaging and thought-provoking book, but don't read it until you're in the mood for something intellectual. At 100 pages, you could swallow it in one sitting but if you want to understand, you'll need to read slowly and possibly more than once. Recommended for readers with a strong interest in the Middle East and readers who can appreciate a book that's more about ideas than characters. ( )
2 vote cestovatela | Aug 22, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 094299633X, Paperback)

Fiction. Translated from the French by Georgina Kleege. SITT MARIE ROSE, an SPD bestseller, is the story of a woman abducted by militiamen during the civil war in Lebanon. Already a classic of war literature, it won the France-Pays Arabes award in Paris and has been translated into six languages.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:17:59 -0400)

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