Reciprocal Transmission: My « women and war » journey with miriam cooke. By Evelyne ACCAD

Miriam Cooke and I have shared so many important events in our lives. It all started in the 1980s in Beirut. I first encountered miriam’s sensibility in the apartment I was assigned to at the Lebanese American University (then called Beirut University College) because she had left it to return to the United States. I was the recipient of a Fulbright research award, just as she had been. I was to conduct research on my book on the role of women in the Lebanese war. Amazingly enough, miriam had been conducting research on a similar topic during the previous months in Lebanon. We were both students, teachers and researchers of literature, Arab and women’s studies. People in Lebanon talked to me about miriam’s liveliness and commitment to issues in our part of the world. She had made many friends. The communion we shared before meeting was reflected in the charming LAU apartment we lived in consecutively in the midst of the devastating 17 years of war that ripped Lebanon apart. When we finally met at a Middle East Studies Association annual meeting, we immediately connected and talked for hours on the subject so dear to our hearts. We were indeed sisters and colleagues in a subfield that was increasingly coming into the avant-garde of academic research and publishing. My long conversations with miriam over the phone or at conferences were always lively and interesting. We encouraged and inspired each other.

Women and War

Our books on women and war as analyzed through Lebanese literature were published within three years of each other (cooke 1987; Accad 1990). I connected sexuality to the war that devastated my country of birth and adolescence. I searched for answers by comparing literature written on the war by men and women authors I was studying and teaching. Scholarship on the war did not address how sexuality, physically and symbolically, was intertwined with the violence and destruction. In keeping with the feminist theory that the personal is political, I knew the tragedy we were living required such analysis. I argued that we needed a sexual revolution to transform traditional relations of domination and subordination that permeated intimate sexual and family relations. Developing an exchange of love, tenderness, equal sharing, and recognition among people in intimate life would create a more secure and solid basis for change in other spheres: political, economic, social, religious, and national because these are often characterized by similar relations of domination.

miriam reached similar conclusions in her earlier book that studied women-authored Lebanese war novels by individuals she called the Beirut Decentrists. She challenged the notion that only men wrote about war. She traced the transformation that took place among women who observed and recorded the chaos in Lebanon. Although they differed in ideological and religious beliefs, these authors were bound by their exclusion from the literary canon and social discourse. Their vision would rebuild shattered Lebanon. During the so-called two-year war of 1975-76, little comment was made about those who left the country, usually men in search of economic security, and the women who remained behind. These women became increasingly aware that they had stayed out of a sense of responsibility for others. They survived in spite of the terrible violence and destruction. The Beirut Decentrists wrote of a society that had gone beyond masculinization, normal in most wars, to achieve an almost unprecedented feminization. Staying became the standard of Lebanese citizenship. The writings of the Beirut Decentrists offered a way out of anarchy. If men and women could espouse this sense of responsibility, the energy that fueled unrelenting savagery could be turned to reconstruction. Women writers, she finds in much of her scholarship, present a worldview that offers alternatives to the traditional binarisms of war versus peace, home versus front, and civilian versus combatant. Such women often sought to transform their own role, even if it is sometimes too late.

Cancer and War

When I was hit with breast cancer in the mid-1990s, a topic of a subsequent publication (Accad 2000; Accad 2001), miriam offered to visit me in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois and take care of me for about a week, knowing that I was alone and could use some help. I will never forget what that visit meant to me and how it became part of my healing.

As I write in the journal-based book:

July 27th 1994:

Miriam arrives tonight, and how marvelous it is to have her here! I feel we’re building strong links outside of academia. We have already begun to build them a bit, but the essential elements of friendship are now being brought out through illness; for example, we’re able to speak, in depth, about our families as we’ve never done before, and as a result of the urgency of the movement, and of moments we want to capture and keep in our memory. (p. 214)

July 29th 1994:

Having miriam with me, as with Eva Enderlein, is very stimulating. Both women have their eyes wide open to the contemporary scene and are leaving their mark. My conversations with them are always very intense…. (p. 214)

During her stay, miriam insists on accompanying me to the radiation treatment, and I find it very comforting to have her with me. Even though her face reflects the same pain and anxiety as Monique’s Loubet, she seems more at ease, talking with the technicians, coming into the radiation room when she’s allowed to and entertaining me by telling me stories about her life. I’m stretched out under the machines, waiting for the rays to start. She holds my hand. She tells me that she lived through similar experiences when both her parents had cancer. She leaves the room, and the grilling starts…. When it stops, she comes back in, I cheer up when I see her smile and her expressions of concern and love: I’m not alone. (p. 215)

miriam wants to organize a conference at Duke University, at which she teaches, on the theme of war, sexuality and cancer. I understand how much cancer is present in her life when she tells me about the death of her parents…. She’s haunted by the illness. (p. 215)

July 30th 1994:

I feel so distraught when miriam departs. It’s been so wonderful to talk with her about the many interests we share, from Middle Eastern literature to women’s roles, and issues about violence, sexuality and war. We also connect at a deep emotional level; we talk about our fears, joys and experiences…. (p. 216)

miriam cooks a delicious chicken Masala, and we have many lunches under the trees in my garden, surrounded by the beautiful flowers that my neighbor Rod’s been planting to cheer me up! (p. 216)

When miriam departs, I’m left feeling disoriented and lost. It’s strange how when you have a disease, you’re dependent on other people, especially when they’re close friends who nurture you and surround you with love. I’m re-reading some of the letters that keep coming in so I stay distracted from the loneliness I’m feeling. (p. 217)

Conclusion

I feel indeed fortunate to have miriam as a friend, colleague and inspiration. The tribute paid to her during the April conference at Duke University reinforced my conviction that she is an outstanding individual and leader with persuasive intellectual and social intelligence. She has certainly left her mark in her creative and scholarly writings.

REFERENCES

Accad, Evelyne. 1990. Sexuality and War: Literary Masks of the Middle East. New York: N.Y.U. Press.

Accad, Evelyne. 2000. Voyages en cancer. Paris: L’Harmattan; Tunis: Aloès ; Beirut: An-Nahar.

Accad, Evelyne. 2001. The Wounded Breast : Intimate Journeys Through Cancer. North Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex.

cooke, miriam. 1987. War’s Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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