f i c t i o n 

e t e l  a d n a n

he Churches of the Arab East are those of the catacombs, those of the Faith, of course, but also those of obscurity. They still haven’t left the labyrinths. They have never gotten the knife in the belly that the great reforms were to the Church of 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 this 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 thy 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 inhabited 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, violent 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 sacrilege which exacts a purification equally as monstrous.

They don’t feel the opposition between that internal road which leads back to the tribe, and that need that one feels under other skies, to break down the barriers and take a look around, like liberated goats, to go randomly towards a humanity that moves to the rhythm of the turning stars. It’s not the first time that an Arab woman has shown such courage before them, but their memories are rebellious. They see greater virtues in their cars than in their women. Their women only exert indirect powers over them, powers that seem ineffective, or else are so strong that they, the men, can’t recognize them as such. But a woman who stands up to them and looks them in the eye is a tree to be cut down, and they cut it down. She falls with the sound of dead wood which disappears among the perfidious murmurings of the city, and to the smirking of other women who are satisfied with the male victories.

They only admit to good qualities in their mothers because they can remember a well-being in them and around them, which they have never left, even if it were only to go kill birds and other men.

The exclusive love of the mother sets the cycle of violence n motion again. When a stranger appears on the horizon, or the poorly loved, he is the dispossessed whose hatred sprouts and grows before the eyes like jungle plants that don’t even wait for the rain to stop, to proliferate, then he, the one loved by his mother an blessed with wealth, takes his rifle and goes to the attack. He feels he’s the strongest, and doesn’t know that those bullets will carve bloody words on his naked chest. Deadly, like the stranger, he too will disappear.

How long must we wait for the impossible mutation?

It’s fear, not love, that generates all actions here. The dog in the street looks at you with terror in his eyes. The combatant has the mentality of a cave man, and despite his courage, goes forward with a mask, or huddles for hours behind sandbags. Snipers, mercenaries, attracted by the bad smell of this war, lie in wait for their prey, like snakes. They are ashamed of their appetite for crime and odiously proud of their ability, and yet they hide, in the night of their veins, a kind of panic that drove them to kill Arabs in Algiers, blacks in the Congo, and Moslems or Christians in Beirut. The citizens of this country are accustomed to fear, fear, the immense fear of not deserving their mother’s love, of not being first at school or in the car race, of not making love as often as the other guys at the office, of not killing as many birds as their neighbor, of being less rich than the Kuwaitis, of being less established in their history than the Syrians, of not dancing as well as the Latin-Americans, of being less of a break-neck and extremist than the Palestinian terrorists.

Marie-Rose frightens them. They have all the means in the world to crush her in a second, to subject her to all forms of disgrace; to throw her, cut into pieces, on the sidewalk, and register her name on their bulletins of victory. But they’ve known from the beginning that they wouldn’t be able to conquer either her heart or her mind. The more she spoke to them of love, they more they are afraid. Mounir, Tony, Fouad, and even Bouna Lias, an orphan who had never known his mother, finding themselves before a woman who can stand up to them, are terrified. She breaks on the territory of their imaginations 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 loved Power, their 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?

She thinks of that “other” whom she has just left, and who waits for her with her children in mortal apprehension. She had met him in the narrow streets of the Sabra camp the day she went to the U.N.W.R.R.A. for the first time. She was trying to find her way around, casually looking at the children playing, the multi-colored laundry hung out on lines, the little houses with the colored walls, the old people looking out windows that had neither bars nor glass. He was returning from the dispensary where he had been the doctor on duty that day. She spoke first, in a severe tone as though to insure that he would not think she was being forward. He understood, smiled, and responded.

One evening while she was having a lemonade in a café in the Hamra, he was there. He sat down with her and they chatted. He was happy to hear her speak of the Palestinians with such affection. “We need more people like you,” he said, “who will know we’re not wolves.” She laughed. She didn’t tell him that she directed an organization that worked for their cause.

A feeling of well-being surrounded the café. Outside, the movie theaters were all in a row. Groups of young people, mostly office workers, salesgirls, students on holiday, male hairdressers, and shirt salesmen passed and re-passed, zigzagging through the cars which also loitered there. Everyone moved in slow-motion because no one wanted time to pass.

Suddenly she felt a need to confide in him the discovery of the day, an idea of the kind she hadn’t had for very long. On her walk from her house to this café where she was waiting for the box office of the Saroulla Cinema to open for the nine-o’clock show, a huge idea had filled her brain: each passing person, she said, is full of his own term of time. Everyone lives Time. If then one added every second lived by each of these people, lived by each of us, by all the people of the world, at this precise moment, it would make all the eternity of Time. She told herself that she had just discovered a new dimension. She had just been thinking these things sipping her lemonade through her straw as he came up and sat down before her.

He had asked her if she was worried about something. She laughed and began to tell him how time was as infinite ass space and as mysterious, using her hands to draw invisible lines and spheres. He was a bit stunned, but very amused.

She had gone home happy to have talked to a man who, though she wore glasses and spoke of serious things, didn’t seem bored. She asked herself if she were not perhaps prettier than she had thought.

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 lops tired, their hands open. She saw how haggard these people were, and understood the nature of their new wandering. These were no long 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.

Marie-Rose and the young doctor found themselves together before the coffin of the assassinated militant poet. Together, they left the little cemetery of exile, in the disorder of the crowd. For a few steps they walked hand in hand, but they became embarrassed and separated. He followed and finally caught up with her, and, as the hot afternoon waned, they walked without a ward under a threatening sky, through the streets to the both lively and sad Zarif quarters where she had lived with her children since leaving her husband. They were spending a week of vacation with their paternal aunt. Marie-Rose was alone. So was he. He didn’t wait long before taking her in his arms. She didn’t protest. During the night he never once said “You are my wife” or “You are the mother of my children.” He didn’t need to mentally project a pornographic film seen on a trip to Denmark, in order to possess her with pleasure. He simply wanted to be completely with her, and she with him. And when he said to her, “I think I love you,” she knew it was true, and there, in the darkness, kept her eyes closed.

The news of her capture had the impact of a submarine missile in the camps. “Allah bring her back,’ some said, while others said, “Blessed Virgin, we’ll light a hundred candles for you if you just send her back to us safe and sound.” The young doctor who for months had care for the wounded seeing some recover and some remain in agony, who had operated sometimes without anesthesia or during power outages by the light of an assistant’s flashlight, and who had trained himself to avoid pity in order to hold on, because he knew misfortune had moved in for a long stay, took off for hours from the war and paced around and around in his room. He took the time out to cry. He discarded all that he knew. He forgot his name and his age. He was reduced to nothing but the consciousness of his own pain. He went out into the street, avoiding the eyes of all who knew him, to walk among the garbage cans at the feet of some stunted pines that were even sicker than his patients, and for which he felt a strange affinity. These spindly trees survived with as much difficulty as the Palestinians and they had already seen other bombardments of the refugee camps, other disasters. He said to them, they’ve captured her and they’re going to make her suffer. They’re merciless. All the suffering of Palestine was in the muteness of those trees. He felt powerless to help her and strangely humiliated.

He came back to the underground shelter that served as a hospital for a few minutes, before going out again to run to the General Headquarters at the front. The patients were taking advantage of the truce to rest, at least those who were still up to it.

In the various western quarters of the capital, in the sectors allied to the Palestinians, even in families accustomed to tragic news that was repeated with the monotony of weather reports, there rose a kind of death-rattle. Sensibilities, though almost dulled by the daily dose of pain, experienced an enormous shock. Telephone calls become more numerous, people went out in to the streets to question each other, stunned, and carried to the point of rage. Everyone knew how horrible this war was, but this woman’s capture brought to light a feeling of revolt against the injustice of the war which up until then had been clenched inside.

Contradictory rumors began to circulate through the city where naturally fertile imaginations had been over-excited for months and months.

While people looked for her all over, and her capture was at first denied by the various suspected parties, and then confirmed, she was till watching them there seated before her, still calm enough to detect that the over-charged life the whole country had been living had gotten to them, cut them down, and debilitated them like a stiff and apparently inert muscle. Her own mind was a kind of boat ferrying between the outside world she had unwillingly abandoned with her loved ones, her friends and her reasons for being, and these four faces that were now the masters in a place where she was used to being mistress. She was their prisoner to a complete degree, because for a long time now moral and judicial law had been suspended, and reason itself had foundered.

Mounir was a complete stranger to her now. It seemed to her that she had left the world to which he belonged light years ago if she had ever actually been a part of it. He ore his elegant clothes while his comrades wore the party uniform. Violence had not marked him. Murder, torture – he had managed to avoid being party to them, and above all, not to feel responsible for them. He was still the perfect rich kid. She felt she was being judged by creatures from outer space. They were completely locked into their own logic. They were impermeable to everything. She saw in the slight sea-sickness that had become her thoughts, the sign of the difference between their world and hers. She carried herself back to the brown faces, the agile bodies, the willfulness made out of anguish, and the need for survival of the young Palestinians. Wandering had put questions into their eyes which, at the moment they felt accepted, quickly became luminous sparks. She needed them. She was suffocating.

Mounir found again vis-‡-vis her a complete autonomy. He was hostile towards her. During the two months since he had thrown himself into his clan’s battle, he had been constantly 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 judgment 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?

The air that the men who direct the Arab world breathe is particularly wicked. (It is time to call a cat a cat and wickedness an ally of stupidity and envy.) No one is interested in anything but his own destiny. It’s always the destiny of others that must be conquered and destroyed. A true political enterprise, the opposite of oppression, does not exist here. And oppression, God, how they know how to do that. If the human spine could be adapted to it, they would oblige people to walk on all fours. The political enterprise that they don’t know is similar to the poetic one. Che Guevara and Badr Chaker el Sayab have this in common: that neither of them can be imitated. It is always the next phase, the next poem or the next march through the jungle that shapes them. Our leaders live sitting. When they arrive in power they grow into their chairs, until they, body and chair, become inseparable. In this society where the only freedom of choice, when there is any, is between the different brands of automobiles, can any notion of Justice exist, and can genocide not become an inescapable consequence?

Thus, when the impossible mutation takes place, when, for example, someone like Marie-Rose leaves the normal order of things, the political body releases its antibodies in a blind, automatic process. The cell that contains the desire for liberty is killed, digested, reabsorbed.



©1978 Des Femmes, Paris

©1982 The Post-Apollo Press (U.S.)

from SITT MARIE ROSE, A Novel, by Etel Adnan.

Published with permission of

Post-Apollo Press URL

35 Marie Street, Sausalito, California 94965

on the twentieth anniversary of the English translation.




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