Working through War: Women Tell Their Stories through the Arts

Lynne Rogers
“After the Bombing” (1977) by Seta Manoukian, which appears in “Women’s War Stories.”
Women’s War Stories: The Lebanese Civil War, Women’s Labor, and the Creative Arts
Edited by Michelle Hartman and Malek Abisaab
Syracuse University Press, 2022
In “Women’s War Stories: The Lebanese Civil War, Women’s Labor, and the Creative Arts,” editors Michelle Hartman and Malek Abisaab curated six essays that begin to address the lack of scholarship on the role of women during the 15-year Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). As part of a larger project that includes a collection of oral histories, sponsored in part by McGill University and the Social Science and Research Council of Canada, their work in this collection aims “to put women and women’s work at the center of a story about this war. In this sense, we are writing a different kind of study and a different kind of history at war” that focuses on women’s labor and creative production.
The first essay by Malek Abisaab explores the myriads of complications in cigarette factories where Lebanese women from all religions found survival for their families manufacturing cigarettes for the general public, unemployed men, and militia members to smoke while shooting at each other. Could this unique situation have happened in any other country? Like Rosie the Riveter, these women found new freedom in being wage earners and sometimes the sole wage earners of their families. Through detailed charts and analysis, Abisaab found that most working women “articulated a general aversion to and disillusionment with all Lebanese political parties and factions.” Despite the existing strife between the groups, they could unite to argue for workers’ rights. Within his analysis of these contradictions, Abisaab includes explicit accounts of the armed battles between the various factions, which could be very helpful for other historians.
Filmmaker Mary Jirmanus Saba questions in her essay the metaphor of motherhood during the war in a discussion of Maroun Baghdadi’s newsreel film, “The Most Beautiful of Mothers,” and Jean Chamoun and Mai Masri’s documentary “Wildflowers: Women of South Lebanon.” While respecting the contribution of these films, Jirmanus gently uncovers the issue of associating maternal images with birthing future soldiers and examines the confluence of life, land, and resistance. She poses a radical question of whether the future of cinema could not “consecrate already existing inequalities but rather explode them?”
The third essay, “I Was Beirut: Seta Manoukian and Art as Therapy During and After the Civil War” by Nova Robinson, pays tribute to the Lebanese Armenian artist whose work and life reflect the quiet but brave resistance of one person’s effort to find some moment of sanity as the world around them explodes. Born to a wealthy and artistic family who had fled the Armenian genocide, a young Manoukian’s talents brought her to Italy and England to study art. Upon her return to Beirut, she taught at the Lebanese University and was a staple at Hamra’s Horseshoe Café, where intellectuals and artists gathered. When the war broke out, Manoukian searched for safe makeshift places to create studios and provided paper and paint for children to have a place to paint. Trained as an artist rather than a therapist, instinctively, she encouraged the children “to produce free-form paintings, a hallmark of art therapy.” Similar to the artist Mona Saudi’s work with Palestinian children in the Baqa’a refugee camp in Jordan, these paintings provided a child’s perspective of the war. They were collected in two books, “Lebanese Children and the War” and during the Israeli Bombing of Beirut in 1982, “Traces rouges et bleues:  painting,” yet their paintings express the “psychological and spiritual impact on civilians, especially children.” One can barely imagine what a gift Manoukian gave these children; her work is a testimony to individual compassion. In her work, Manoukian also recorded the war and found healing in her paintings. Robinson notes, “Manoukian was one of the few painters who painted the Lebanese Civil War as it unfolded rather than in hindsight.” Although Manoukian continued to paint after the war to process her trauma, her recent work reflects her conversion to Buddhism.
The last three essays examine women’s artistic production during and after the war. While these cutting-edge essays are undoubtedly informative, unfortunately, Evelyn Accad’s seminal work on women during the war is neglected. Critic Yasmine Nachabe Taan deals with three Beiruti artists whose work can be seen at Saleh Barakat’s Gallery in Beirut. Influenced by European painters, Tagreed Dargouth’s painting documents the Nakba and the uprooting of Palestinians. Samar Mogharbel’s fascinating project car explosion sculptures reproduce “moments of explosion in her art to commemorate these tragic incidents.” Like Dargouth, Ginane Makki Bacho’s work contrasts the symbols of life with the symbols of war. Switching from art to theater, Zena Meskaoui analyzes “Appendice,” a post-war collaborative performance piece by Lina Majdanie and her partner Rabih Mroue that plays with the human body, language, ruins, and war. Michelle Hartman also examines the relationship between language and trauma in her analysis of four women authors who center their narratives and their silences around the Sabra and Shatila massacres. These women, Radwa Ashour, Susan Abulhawa, Jana Elhassa, and Adania Shibli, treat these pivotal massacres as ”a gendered experience by children.”
“Women’s War Stories: The Lebanese Civil War, Women’s Labor, and the Creative Arts” fills a neglected need to record Lebanese and Palestinian women’s experiences and resistance to war during and after the war. Every essay attests to women’s creative and practical initiatives during a reign of terror and brings the reader to Lebanon’s vibrant contemporary art scene.
"Working through War: Women Tell Their Stories through the Arts" by Lynne Rogers is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 74, 2023.
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