Sitt Marie-Rose by Etel Adnan is an in-depth, if brief, look into the first year of the Lebanese Civil War. While the novel’s conflict centers on the plight of a Lebanese Christian woman whose revolutionary vision brings her to serve the Palestinian refugees in Beirut, its exploration through many characters from both sides of the conflict makes it possible for the reader to glean the psychological atmosphere during the first year of the bloody civil war. In short, Sitt Marie-Rose confirms the common wisdom that the plight of one person is the plight of all humanity.
Despite its shortness, and the narrow focus on the death of one person, the novel is rich with in-depth ruminations on the roots of the conflict. This is possible because the person in question, Marie-Rose (“Sitt” is a title equal to Mrs in English) is involved in both sides of the conflict and is against the very behavior that leads to the conflict: the notion that Muslim Palestinians and Christian Lebanese are two different peoples. Hailing from a respectable Christian family, Marie-Rose is determined to help with the education of the deaf-mute Palestinian refugee children. People from both sides of the conflict says what they think of her. Also important in this respect is the presentation of the story surrounding Marie-Rose’s demise: many people give their accounts on the life and death of Marie-Rose.
If Rabih Alameddine’s Koolaids gives a significant amount of discussion on the Lebanese Civil War in relation to the involvement of the Israelis and Syrians, Sitt Marie-Rose highlights the enmity between the Lebanese Christians and the Palestinian refugees that they consider corrupt their cities. The Lebanese Muslims are seen as almost only an ally to the Palestinian refugees because of their shared religion.
Marie-Rose stands out in this scene because instead of buying into the spreading enmity between the Palestinians and the Lebanese Christians, she still holds that both are actually the same people and have been so even long before the births of Christianity and Islam. She strongly criticizes the attitude of her friends and relatives from the Christian section of the town, saying that what they do is totally the opposite of what Christianity teaches. While most Lebanese see the Palestinians in Beirut as less civilized, Marie-Rose, along with a few people from her community, still sees the tie between the Lebanese and the Palestinians. Her respect for the Palestinians as her equal is indicated in a statement by her Palestinian lover: “We need more people like you [Marie-Rose] … who know what we’re not wolves.” Unfortunately not everybody can judge a person more wisely than by the religion that s/he follows, especially when rage is already in play.
Another important theme in the novel is the critique of women’s position in the Arab societies. Before going further, I need to make it clear that by this I don’t imply that non-Arab societies show better treatment of women (patriarchy is prevalent and comes in various shapes, even in Euro-American societies). To her community, Marie-Rose is a threat because is a liberated woman who thinks beyond the walls that the dominant male structure has erected for her. It is apparent in the final pages of the book, and explicitly stated in the following lines: “Every feminine act, even charitable and seemingly unpolitical ones, were regarded as rebellion in this world where women had always played servile roles. Marie-Rose inspired scorn and hate long before the fateful day of her arrest” (Adnan 101). Her insistence on following her own judgement of the conflict, an attitude that doesn’t support the men in her society, is a threat to the male domination of her society. If we take the sentence out of context, and use it to discuss other societies around the world, we can do so easily and we can find justification for it as easily.
I don’t mean to write an abrupt conclusion, but indeed Sitt Marie-Rose clearly confirms that one person’s tragedy is a tragedy of all mankind.