The Collector of Worlds
The Lebanese-American writer and artist Etel Adnan is a grande dame of Middle Eastern literature, a collector of worlds and languages. Having grown up in a Lebanon bridging Europe and the Arab world as the daughter of a Greek mother and a Syrian father, she moves easily among cultures and languages. What critics often misconstrue as ‘homelessness’ lets her, now in her 80s, view conditions in Lebanon through the eyes of a dweller in Beirut as well as through those of an outsider. Her material is drawn from the Lebanese civil war and its consequences: ‘Beirut sticks to me like hot wax, even in slumber,’ she writes in her novel ‘Of Cities and Women’.
Etel Adnan, born in 1925, grew up in Beirut while it was still under French control. It was the ‘Paris of the East’, a blossoming Mediterranean metropolis with one foot in Europe and one in the Arab world. Her mother was a Christian Greek born in present-day Turkey and her father a Muslim Syrian, so she was already speaking Turkish and Greek at the age of five on entering a French convent-school. When not at school her Lebanese schoolmates spoke Arabic with one another.
It is this variety of languages and cultures which lends Etal Adnan’s writings a unique and inimitable quality. Even after leaving school, she went on acquiring new languages. At the start of the 1950s she studied philosophy at the Sorbonne then in 1955 left to study in the USA, where she learned English so fast in her spare time that a few years later she could begin teaching at an American college near Berkeley. She has had a lifelong affection for the beauty of Arabic, most of which she taught herself with only a little prompting from her father, and deems it a language of poetry which, in spite of her limited fluency, she can understand better than prose.
She never wearies of emphasizing the influence of languages on her work, as in the essay ‘To Write in a Foreign Language’, in which she details her memories of childhood, since ‘languages begin at home’. In her descriptions the languages and tallying cultures of the post-Osmanic period of her childhood become the last traces of a multi-lingual and almost Utopian world.
‘The Ottoman Empire was an ‘empire’, which meant it was no state with a unified group of people. It was an empire in which Turkish was not even the prevalent language. …So almost everyone knew at least a bit of another language besides his own; but everyone was rooted in his own community’s language and life.’
For this world, nearly a shared Arab paradise, she and many other Arabs have a unifying nostalgia, as she averred in an interview in 2007: “I grieve like most Arab artists for what this world could and should have become at the end of the Osmanic empire. It was a missed opportunity, a world which could have been totally different and which, for diverse reasons, among them the founding of the state of Israel, went from one disaster to the other …”
The Second World War only strengthened the presence of various cultures and languages in Lebanon. Beirut became more international and cosmopolitan and, to Adnan’s eyes, the city shone as a microcosm of ‘war and fun’. Under the influence of British troops the city became trilingual, embodying ‘three cultures, three ways of life, three intellectual options’, which at the age of twenty she found thrilling and stimulating. It was at this time that she wrote her first poem ‘Le Livre de la Mer’ (The Sea-Book) in French.
Her happy experience of the growth of a cosmopolitan world in her hometown Beirut was a foretaste of her experience of the USA later. Adnan became a collector of worlds. Her life became an ecstatic exploration of the New World, where she took to the English language and the sense of freedom, as on the US highways: “Riding in a car on the American highways was like writing poetry with one’s whole body.”
Only here did the French side of her identity begin to crumble. During the war in Algeria she found that she ‘was unable to write freely in a language which brought her up against a deep conflict’. This conflict deprived her of words but not of expression. She sought a way out in the visual arts, a metier which she has never given up since.
The Vietnam War was decisive for her late work. Adnan came back to language to write against the war, this time in English, which together with French later became the language of her international works. In the early 70s, after going on various trips to Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Syria, she gave up teaching at college and went back on the spur of the moment to Beirut, where she became a leading editor of the daily newspaper Al-Safa, recently begun and written in French. The city was still turbulent, active and flourishing and remained so up to the start of the civil war, which began in 1975 with fights between Christian phalangists and members of the PLO. Adnan, who was living in Paris at the time, began writing her first book ‘The Arabian Apocalypse’ after reading in a newspaper that phalangists in Beirut had kidnapped a young woman whom she had briefly known. The book turned out to be quite different to what she had planned beforehand in January, showing, so she believes, how ‘an event writes a book’.
“One starts writing like a bird which traces a whiff of air. That’s what it’s like with art – one catches a wave and then gets carried away. So I wrote about the sun, the sun, the sun … When I got to the second page, the phalangists killed a group of Palestinians, the event which sparked the Lebanese civil war off.”
Two years after the outbreak of war, Adnan left, like many other Lebanese, and waited in Paris for the situation to calm down. But instead of calming down, it only worsened over the years.
During her stay in Paris she wrote her novel ‘Sitt Marie-Rose’ (1977), which is now a classic of Middle Eastern literature and has been translated into more than ten languages. ‘Sitt Marie-Rose’ is said to be one of the most impressive depictions of the early phase of the Lebanese civil war. With the war, Adnan had found her theme. Her Christian female protagonist is murdered by her own religious community after leaning towards Islam. After the novel was published, Adnan was threatened with murder by Christian phalangists and had to hold back from publishing more for the time being. ‘Sitt Marie-Rose’, written in French, was also Adnan’s first book against war:
“Writing the story ‘Sitt Marie-Rose’, I became a pacifist, because I saw the horror of war. I was convinced – and I still am: Wars don’t solve problems, they only create new ones. Therefore, I am a pacifist... At the end of the book I thought: ‘If you write that, you should also live accordingly.”
Even the following novels and writings of hers are about what has happened to her homeland since the war and about the folk who as victimizers and victims have remained and are haunted by their experiences. These works include ‘Of Cities and Women’, which she wrote from 1990-1992, and ‘In the Heart of Hearts of another Land’ (2003).
‘Of Women and Cities’ is based on letters which she wrote to a friend in Paris from Beirut, Barcelona, Rome, Aix-en-Provence and Berlin. Impressively, in a clear but poetic language rich in metaphors, she wrote about her return to war-torn Beirut, which to her was the child of the old city. Some buildings were stripped to their skeletons, and others defaced. Critically she observed the lack of recollection, the opulent excesses of the post-war phase, the parties and the themes of conversation. The ‘heart of the city is rotting’, she believed. Beirut was trying to forget the war and was losing its grip on reality.
‘‘Homeland’ and ‘identity’ must seem to Etel Adnan like words of a dead language,’’ wrote Stefan Weidner in the weekly German magazine Die Zeit. In fact the opposite seems to be true. ‘Beirut sticks to me like hot wax,’ she writes in her book ‘Of Cities and Women’, many of whose passages can be read as love-letters to her homeland. Her points of view are fascinating, since the various worlds through which she has wandered since childhood let her, now in her 80s, view conditions in Lebanon through the eyes of a dweller in Beirut as well as through those of an outsider. It is a game of farness and nearness like the zooming in and out of a camera. Adman claims to look at the Arab world from inside and outside, in being both detached and involved.
How alien some things in her later home in California still seem to her can be read in a satirical paragraph of her novel ‘In the Heart of Hearts of another Land’: ‘The US government gathers important information about all dogs in the land. Since many citizens have already been filed ad nauseam, many computers are redundant and folk unemployed… How could anarchy ever break out in this rented, measured world of real estate in which life has become a soap-opera?’
Adnan, who in writing relies on her ‘feeling’ for themes, turns out in this case to have been a Cassandra. At the start of the 70s she found in a bookshop of the beat generation in San Francisco a work called ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country’ by the US author William Gass. Inspired by the way in which Gass, ‘section by section’ builds up a ‘mythical place’, Adnan began to record her dreams and to write aphorisms and short essays after returning to Beirut. She took this ‘poetic prose’ up in 2003 – a quarter of a century later – as the basis for ‘In the Heart of Hearts of another Land’, shortly before the outbreak of the Iraq war, to which she dedicated the last chapter of her book while in New York. Thanks to her feeling for themes and to her response to current events, her books are as controversial and up-to-date as they are poetic. She views the Arab world as a wounded body: “When one doesn’t name the illness, one cannot heal it."
Quotations named without literary source are from a"filmed conversation" with Etel Adnan which was screened during the program Di/Visions in the House of World Cultures, 2007
Etel Adnan was born in Beirut in 1925. She is a very versatile artist and writer. In her native town, she studied comparative literature. Later, she studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, Harvard and Berkeley. She writes lyric poetry, prose and plays in English and French, and also paints. Her books have been translated into Arabic, Italian and German; her poems have been set to music by notable musicians. In 1985 she worked with Robert Wilson on his opera CivilwarS. She lives in Paris and Beirut.
Group Exhibitions (Selected)
Exhibition / Installation
UNESCO, Paris, France
Midiath que, Les Mureaux, France
L’Atelier, Rabat, Morocco
Musée de L’Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, France
Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World, The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC, USA
Solo Exhibitions (Selected)
Exhibition / Installation
Marin County Civic Center, San Rafael, CA/ USA
Galerie Sami Kinge, Paris, France
Kufa Gallery, London, UK
Gallery 50 x 70, Beirut, Lebanon
Master of the Eclipse, Interlink Pub Group
Seasons, Post Apollo Press
In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country
Novel. Sitt Marie-Rose: A Novel
There: In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and the Other
Esssay. To Write in a Foreign Language
Of Cities and Women: Letters to Fawazz
Paris, When It’s Naked
The Spring Flowers Own and the Manifestations of the Voyage
The Arab Apocalypse
Journey to Mound Tamalpais: An Essay
The Indian Never Had a Horse and Other Poems
Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World
From A to Z Poetry
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
Culture and Politics of the Middle East
(08 December 07 - 13 January 08)