Michelle Hartman and Malek Abisaab, eds., Women’s War Stories: The Lebanese Civil War, Women’s Labor, and the Creative Arts (Syracuse University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit and write this book?

Michelle Hartman and Malek Abisaab (MH & MA): We have been working for the past few years on a large oral history project about women and the Lebanese Civil War, doing interviews, collecting information, and listening to stories. For the larger project, we spoke to about fifty women about various aspects of their lives during the war—work, activism, militancy, families, school, politics, and so on. All of the women we talked to spoke about labor and work in many different and fascinating ways. Over the course of this work, we realized we were also starting to come back again and again to art of all different kinds. As a number of the conversations started to focus on artistic topics, we connected our discussions of creative work to labor. We started thinking more about creative labor itself, and the many other kinds of labor that women do. Malek is a labor historian and Michelle works on literary topics, so in a way the art and labor focus is one that really merges our areas of scholarly interest and brings them together in really engaging and stimulating ways. We also know and got to know better some incredible artists, scholars, and artist/scholars, three of whom are contributors to this book. So we put it all together here.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

MH & MA: This book has chapters by both of us and by four amazing colleagues too! It is devoted to thinking about art—widely conceived—and labor, but it also spans more topics as well, particularly how women’s work and labor are thought about. All of the pieces are engaging these issues in relation to the Lebanese Civil War and the way that women worked, created, and lived in this war. Every conversation we had with the contributing authors was so interesting to us as they talk about so many areas of artistic production that are hardly ever written about! For example, one chapter, by Nova Robinson who is a historian, focuses on the fascinating story of Seta Manoukian who was an art therapist working with children during the war. In her chapter, she includes some of Manoukian’s own art, in addition to the art of the children. Another delves into the plastic arts and sculpture and really investigates both the artistic production of three women artists—Tagreed Darghouth, Samar Mogharbel, and Ginane Makki Bacho. The chapter’s author, Yasmine Nachabe Taan, explores Darghouth’s large portraits of olive trees, Moghabel’s sculptures of cars made of found shrapnel, and Makki Bacho’s assemblage pieces. There is a contribution by Zéna Meskaoui which is a detailed, close reading of a performance art piece by Lina Majdoulanie, Appendice. The performance of Majdoulanie is done with her partner Rabih Mroué and focuses around her desire to cremate her body after her death. The filmmaker and scholar Mary Jirmanus Saba’s chapter focuses on cinematic productions that explore the concept of “the most beautiful of mothers” and she shows how poetry, art, and women’s labor are connected in films focused on the Lebanese Civil War.

As you can see, these four chapters are really diverse and treat topics that are both interesting and also understudied. We have also each contributed our own chapters. Malek’s sets up the book by painting a picture of women’s labor during the war, drawing on interviews and writing an oral history of women tobacco workers. Michelle’s chapter closes the book, studying four literary works, by Radwa Ashour, Adania Shibli, Susan Abulhawa, and Janna Elhassan, that offer creative expressions that do and do not talk about the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. She offers readings that focus on how Arab women have narrated this moment, challenging the notion that one must always focus on violent detail to tell stories and histories of violence. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MH & MA: Both of us have done previous work that led us here. Malek is an oral historian who has worked on women’s labor before. His first book, Militant Women of a Fragile Nation, is an oral history of how women working in the tobacco industry helped to shape the modern state of Lebanon through their labor. The analysis in this book is grounded in materialist history and links class, gender, and anti-colonial struggles in understanding the ways in which women became radicalized in their milieus. It focuses on rural women and their militancy and pays close attention to cultural, economic, historical, political, and other factors when trying to understand women’s lives in a changing Lebanon.

Michelle’s work is not in history, per se, but rather in literature, and she has written extensively about women’s fiction, particularly in Lebanon. Two of her previous books focus on Lebanese women’s literature, and how women tell and retell stories, using language creatively as a way to express their realities. In her second book, Native Tongue, Stranger Talk: The Arabic and French Literary Landscapes of Lebanon, Michelle investigates the way that authors use the Arabic language to inscribe messages about class, gender, religion, and sect in challenging ways within their novels.

One of the ways in which our scholarly work brings us together is that we are both concerned with when and why people tell stories, and also how specifically they tell them. In our joint project on the Lebanese Civil War, we also both pick up on themes that we have explored separately in our previous work—especially telling stories that we are less likely to hear and that challenge received narratives. We are both committed to highlighting women’s action—their activism, militancy, and resistance—as well as their work and creativity.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

MH & MA: We hope that this book can contribute to the small but growing scholarship on the Lebanese Civil War, especially women and war. As an explicitly feminist study, we hope it highlights women’s experiences and voices, and also offers some new ways of thinking about and working with these issues. We would like everyone to read it who is interested in any of these topics at all—so many topics, themes, and issues are touched on in the book. We hope that it also appeals to a general readership interested in the Lebanese Civil War, women’s agency, struggles in war contexts, women’s protest and activism, and the production of art in wartime. And it also has color illustrations of some of the art we are talking about! We are proud of putting together a collection that highlights art and creative production in relation to work and labor. These are connections that are so important in people’s lives but that are rarely talked about or focused on.

J: What is the pedagogical significance of your book? 

MH & MA: Our book integrates a rich body of theoretical and methodological approaches to thinking about women and war, and this war in particular. We worked to be sure that all of the pieces were written in an engaging and clear way so that it would be useful to students and teachers as well as researchers. Each chapter presents not only a different topic but also integrates different approaches to the study of women, war, labor, and the arts, making it a really useful pedagogical source for students, from undergraduates to those studying at graduate levels. The chapters offer firsthand accounts of women’s experiences in social, artistic, and labor spheres as well as many examples of their creative responses to the Lebanese Civil War. We believe that the diverse and interdisciplinary underpinnings of the chapters, their sophisticated but clearly articulated conceptual frameworks, and the style, presentation, and organization of the book will make it possible to integrate the book successfully into an array of upper-division undergraduate courses as well as graduate courses. We hope it could be used in courses that are organized around Middle Eastern studies; Arab studies; Middle Eastern women’s studies; women in the Arab world; war and society in the Arab world; art and war; art and activism; feminism and war; Lebanese history; Lebanese art history; and oral history and ethnography, for example.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

MH & MA: We are right now working on the next part of this large project and producing an oral history developed out of the stories of the many women we talked to. The working title of our next book is What the War Left Behind: Women’s Stories of Resistance and Struggle in Lebanon. Together with some of the graduate researchers we worked with on the project, we are also working on producing a podcast where we talk about some of the stories that we were not able to fit in the book itself. To put this oral history together, we have transcribed, translated, and worked with the stories of about fifty women who we interviewed over a number of years. Mostly Lebanese and Palestinian women, they all lived and worked in Lebanon during the war. The stories that form the basis of the book are all told by women who were militants and activists during the civil war. They tell their stories in many different ways and focus on different things. This new project is closely linked to Women’s War Stories but delves into stories of militancy and activism in much more depth.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 2-7)

Women’s War Stories

We all have stories to tell, and in one way or another we all have “war stories.” But what these stories are, how we tell them, and even how much they have to do with actual war vary. By invoking “war stories,” we are consciously playing on both the literal meaning of this expression—the stories people tell about being in an armed conflict—and the metaphorical use of this phrase in every day English to signify a story you tell about something harrowing or even just difficult you have lived through in life, something that was a challenge and that you often wear as a badge of honor. Differently than the way people relate to experiences of armed conflict and surviving war literally, we tell our metaphorical war stories all the time. They are a way to make sense of where we fit into the world, a way to work through our struggles, and a way to bond with others.

We bring out both the literal and the metaphorical meaning of the phrase war stories to emphasize the continuity in how stories work as a way to understand and express experience. It is striking how adding the word women’s to war stories changes the expression to privilege the literal. The use of “war stories” as a way to express the everyday difficulties of life seems to be the provenance of men. One of the major reasons we have put this collection of essays together is that we wanted to bring more attention to the ways in which women lived through, survived, worked, and created art during the Lebanese Civil War. All of the book’s chapters focus on women who worked and produced art during this specific war, but as those stories are told, so are all of the other stories of challenges, struggles, and resistance that they faced as women in society—and as women artists, writers, filmmakers, tobacco workers, and so on.

The women’s war stories told here are different from each other, but all of them in one way or another narrate something as a way to cope with, understand, analyze, express, represent, or symbolize their struggles. To understand the meanings of these stories in our analyses, then, we draw upon the work of Dina Georgis. In her book The Better Story: Queer Affects from the Middle East (2013), Georgis implores us to look at stories and locate within them what she calls “better stories”—ways to live our lives and narrate them that can bring about better worlds than those we have. She thus proposes:

If we have suffered from trauma and loss, it is impossible to experience that loss without symbolizing it. And, as long as the affect of loss persists, we continue to symbolize it in the writing of history and in the production of culture and identity. If we take seriously the presence of injury in our constructions, then it requires that we become different (ethical) learners and readers of history. It means that we account for the site of loss and injury in our postcolonial narratives and that we face all of the past’s ruins; namely all of our postcolonial dreams and nightmares….Not all responses to injury lead to the kind of “creative” survival we would wish for. Not all those injured by colonial violence resist the power of colonial domination heroically.

Georgis reminds us here that not all resistance is heroic, not everyone accounts for or reacts to situations in the same way. But in our writing of history, according to her, we can change the way we read history and learn about history. The title of her book, The Better Story, encapsulates her argument. We all must seek out and strive not only for better ways to tell our stories but also for better ways to read each other’s stories. When Georgis talks about the better story, she does not always mean the “happy ending” or a story containing only positive or good things. Rather, she suggests, we all should be looking for ways to create better stories—for ourselves, for each other, and for our world. Following this line of thinking, this collection is focusing on how we and others write our histories and produce culture and identity specifically in relation to the Lebanese Civil War.

Feminist Storytelling: The Ethics of Telling Other Women’s Stories

Academic work based on women telling their own war stories is not a case of simple and transparent storytelling. Because we are producing this work in our roles as historians as well as literary, art, and film critics, all of the contributions in this collection are mediated versions of the stories that women tell about war. Publishing women’s stories—as carefully as we pay attention to accuracy and detail in reproducing them—is never a straightforward process. For example, all of the women interviewed for our project spoke in Arabic, and most of the creative work has also been produced in Arabic. With only a few exceptions, however, the academic work we are producing is being published in English. Even as we are documenting and translating women’s war stories, therefore, we shape their stories, and we ourselves are narrating another war story through them.

The issue of language is one we are particularly sensitive to and have reflected on in great detail, especially as much of the work that one of us (Michelle Hartman) does is located in translation studies, the politics of translation in particular. How do we translate the stories of women from Arabic into English, from the Arabic-speaking Lebanese context to an English-speaking one in academia, from stories of war to words on a page? Language is connected to culture and society not only in relation to the politics of language but in the ways language encompasses more than just words spoken. We have tried to ensure that all of the contributions here take language and translation into account as one of the important areas to think through carefully when we tell stories about women and war and when we are responsible for telling and talking about the stories of other women.

The question of our responsibility in (re)telling, researching, analyzing, and writing about the stories of other women is the overarching ethical question that our collection—and, indeed, our larger project—grapples with. We are extremely attuned to the fact that in making the space for women to tell their own stories, whether in the context of writing an oral history or presenting an analysis of interviews or studying film, literature, art, and performance, we are shaping and telling stories that belong to others. This delicate balance is one that we all have navigated individually in our own chapters but also one that we have worked on collectively. It was important to the integrity of our project that we ask all contributors to keep in mind their relationship to their material and their subjects as they were producing their essays.

These ethical questions about storytelling and writing the stories of others and for others are amplified in the context of war. Because war stories often recall trauma and difficult times and can trigger even more memories than an interviewer might have intended, not all women want to tell them—or even for them to be told. The final chapter in the collection, for example, explores the question of whether all stories should or must be told—or, in the words of Toni Morrison, if they ought to “be passed on.” Morrison’s acclaimed novel Beloved (1987) probes the question of stories to be passed on, specifically in relation to slavery in the United States. The parallels are remarkable: the comparison with stories of the Lebanese Civil War begs the question of why and how we tell stories, who we are telling them to and for, and how we choose to tell them.

Finally, in relation to the ethics of writing war stories, we have endeavored to think about all of the stories we are passing on through these explorations of labor/work and the creative arts as not only rooted in one time period but also having a life before and after the specific part narrated. In thinking about what came before, we follow Sara Ahmed’s suggestion in Living a Feminist Life that “a story always starts before it can be told.” The collection of essays here looks to life before the war and follows along after it to give the fullest and most complete idea of what is being discussed. We hope to have identified some of the places and times where the stories we are telling here started not only to facilitate our way of telling and thinking about them but also to tell them better or, as Dina Georgis’s formulation would have it, to allow the “better story” to come through.