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  • Exploring Third Space in the Beirut Decentrists’ Texts
  • Emilie Thomas Mansour (bio)

The fifteen-year war in Lebanon was over in 1990, and the Lebanese are still trying to remember it. They are trying to gather together the shards of that war by patching together days and dates. But in their focus on time they have overlooked the crucial role of space. According to Robert T. Tally Jr. (2011, 8), “The ways in which we are situated in space determine the nature and quality of our existence in the world.” The French professor Bertrand Westphal (2011, ix), the father of geocriticism, reminds us: “For a long period, time seems to have been the main coordinate … of human inscription into the world. … Space only a rough container.”

Indeed, in the case of the Lebanese war, space was not merely a rough container but a protagonist. The Lebanese conflict, like any civil war, has redefined not only the notions of front line and war space but also the way the population, especially women, deals with intimacy in the patriarchal Lebanese society. When the war broke out in 1975, many women scattered across Beirut started to write about their own experiences. In the late 1980s the American professor miriam cooke (1996 [1987]) gave them a name, the Beirut Decentrists, thus highlighting their physical dispersal in the city. cooke (1987, 4) explained that these women were decentered in a more intellectual way, as they “wrote in the capital but were tangential to its literary tradition.” But we must go beyond the dualistic logic of center-periphery to understand the notion of space in the Beirut Decentrists’ texts. This essay explores the notion of third space as developed by Homi K. Bhabha (1994), Edward W. Soja (1996), and Westphal (2007). Using tools of geocriticism, we will examine how the Beirut Decentrists’ texts engage with an urban space torn by war, allowing us to better understand the many layers underlying a topography of violence.1 [End Page 102]

To Dislocate the Private

In her essay Of Cities and Women (Letters to Fawwaz) Etel Adnan (1993, 78) compares women to architects and doctors: “They describe with an architect’s or a doctor’s precision exactly whatever happened to each house, and balcony, the charred walls, the disfigured facades, the gutted rooms.” The relationship between body and space, as Adnan suggests, is a key theme in the Beirut Decentrists’ literature. In any civil conflict, the front lines are not clearly defined. War nibbles space and eventually devours the body. The collective tragedy conquers intimate territories. Inside and outside merge in a new space that disarrays the domestic, familiar landmarks (Cabanes and Piketty 2009, 15). This dislocated space is reflected in the Beirut Decentrists’ female characters’ intimate behaviors. Many engage in violent, even masochistic, sexuality that may lead to abortion or self-mutilation. Zahra in Hanan al-Shaykh’s (1980) Hikayat Zahra finds relief in disfiguration and refusal of motherhood until she finally finds pleasure in violent sexual encounters with a sniper.

But a unique characteristic of the Beirut Decentrists’ heroines is that they alter the body’s topography, creating hybrid, androgynous beings caught between male and female. Latifa in Mai Ghoussoub’s (2007 [1998], 76) Leaving Beirut becomes Umm Ali, the fighter, who “had crossed the sacred line that separates the sexes and defines their difference.” For Adnan (1993, 37), “it is no longer a question of clarifying the distinction between the feminine and the masculine, but of redefining the human species,” as if the only way to survive in a war-torn space were to embody a borderland territory (Anzaldúa 2012 [1987]).

By breaking the stereotypes of the Eastern woman, the Beirut Decentrists allow not only survival but also the possibility of subverting patriarchal society. They trespass on the public space reserved for men. Their task is not easy. In her novel Sitt Marie Rose Adnan depicts the execution of Marie Rose by Christian militiamen. Marie Rose is executed not only because she is a Christian woman in love with a Palestinian man but also because she “dared” to take part in politics (Adnan 2010 [1977], 106). Blurring the border between private and public, the Beirut...


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pp. 102-106
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