Chronicling Women's Voices in the Midst of Middle East Wars

Women and the War Story

By Miriam Cooke

University of California Press 340 pp., illus., $50 cloth, $18.95 paper

Right now, in one of the world's most volatile regions, the war-torn Middle East, there are women who are writing their own version of events and, in doing so, challenging the stereotypes that foster and justify war.

This, more or less, is what Miriam Cooke, a professor of Arabic at Duke University, argues in her book "Women and the War Story."

Although she admits that the various Algerian, Palestinian, Iraqi, and Lebanese women whose writings she discusses are generally nationalists and "rarely pacifists," Cooke believes that in the very act of recording their own observations and experiences of war, these women are reshaping the traditional, propagandistic war story into something much closer to reality.

The classic war story, Cooke explains, represents war in a way that makes it seem justifiable, meaningful, or at very least, bearable to those being asked to fight or otherwise support it. Analyzing its structure, Cooke finds that the traditional war story is based on dividing things into paired opposites: Us vs. Them, civilization vs. barbarianism, good vs. evil.

And traditional war, she argues, is also based on another set of paired opposites: home front and battlefront, civilian and soldier, that which is being defended (women, family, homeland) and that which is doing the defending (fighting men).

Thus, in the traditional war story, "men made war and women kept the peace; men went to the front and women stayed at home; men fought and women were fought for, ... men were masculinized if their side won ... feminized if it lost."

But "postmodern" war, according to Cooke, blurs these tidy oppositions with terrorists targeting civilians, women and children fighting as guerrillas. This happened in the war for Algerian liberation, when women came out from behind their veils to experience a new kind of freedom fighting for their country.

Yet, when the war was over and a nationalist government installed, Algerian women seemed to lose what they thought they had gained. And this, according to Cooke, in some way had to do with the women's failure to write about their wartime experiences, thus allowing themselves to be erased from public memory.

Palestinian nationalists have long modeled their "liberation" struggle on the Algerian war of independence, and according to Cooke, Palestinian women writers are determined not to make the same mistake as their Algerian counterparts.

Even in Iraq, Cooke points out, not all writers, censored though they may be, are presenting a slavish version of their leader's party line. And surveying Lebanese women writers, Cooke finds a new kind of nationalism based not on ethnic, religious, or political groups but on a feeling of loyalty to the land itself.

Summaries and discussions of the novels and stories of women like the Algerian Assia Djebar, the Iraqi Lutfiya al-Dulaymi, the Lebanese Huda Barakat and Emily Nasrallah, and the Palestinian Sahar Khalifa make for some of this book's most interesting reading.

Whatever the specific political content of their works, Cooke contends, what is most important is that these women are no longer being silenced. They are inscribing their own stories over the age-old model of the war story.

It is indeed fascinating and in some respects heartening to get a glimpse of some of the social and cultural ferment going on behind today's headlines. Cooke has not only read and studied these women writers; she has in many cases met or corresponded with them to ask about what they were writing and why. But the reader must slog through Cooke's obscurant academic jargon before finding out much about the individual writers and their work.

The first couple of chapters are taken up with constructing a shaky theoretical edifice about the nature of war and what makes "postcolonial," "deconstructionist" wars so different and special. The result is pages and pages of writing like this:

"The literatures of what was previously the margin celebrate the emergence of plural agents who recognize that their othering is necessary to construct the unified hegemonic self."

Such writing does not inspire confidence. Indeed, such writing scarcely risks comprehension.

Not surprisingly, Cooke assiduously invokes the authority of like-minded academicians who share her passion for pretentious obfuscation, while ignoring the perfectly lucid, plain English arguments advanced by someone like the feminist Robin Morgan in her book on the conflict between terrorism and feminism, "The Demon Lover." Much as one may welcome the signs of a feminist self-expression and humane compassion that Cooke draws to our attention, it is hard not to be put off by her murky theorizing.

Cooke places a great deal of hope in the possibility that these women's divergent views of war may betoken a sea-change in cultural attitudes. But one of the greatest anti-war novels to come out of World War I was written by a German woman, Erich Maria Remarque. "All Quiet on the Western Front" was published in 1929 and read the world over.

In 1933, it was burned by the Nazis as they took over a nation that had not yet learned the lesson so passionately urged by one of its leading writers.

* Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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