by Nona Blyth Cloud
Etel Adnan (1925 — ), poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, and painter, was born in Beirut, Lebanon, the daughter of a Greek Christian mother and a Syrian Muslim father. Her languages are Greek, French, English and Arabic. Much of her writing is in French and English.
In an interview with Lisa Robertson, Etel Adnan recalls her childhood, and her life-long fascination with light:
“I was an only child. I didn’t have brothers and sisters to play with, so the light coming in through the window was a great event for me. I played with that instead of playing with other children. It was my companion. Beirut is a very sunny city and there were very few cars when I grew up. That was a blessing, because there were people in the street. I remember trying to walk on my shadow. Shadows and light were two strong entities.”
“We owe life to the existence of the sun; therefore light is a very profound part of our makeup. It’s spiritual, in the way that even DNA is spiritual. What we call “spirit” is energy. It’s the definition of life, in one sense. Light, as an object, as a phenomenon, is magnificent. I am talking to you and the light coming in through the window has already changed. You go on the street and you look at the sky and it tells you what time it is. We are dealing with it constantly, and obscurity is also maybe its own light, because it shows you things. Obscurity is not lack of light. It is a different manifestation of light. It has its own illumination.”
After attending the Ecole Supérieure de Lettres de Beyrouth, she studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, the University of California at Berkeley, and Harvard University in the 1950s. Adnan taught philosophy at Dominican College, now named Dominican University of California, from 1958 to 1972.
During the Algerian war of independence (1954-62) she had decided to stop writing in French, and took up painting. In response to the Vietnam War in the 1960s, she began writing poetry again, but in English.
In 1972, she moved back to Beirut and worked as cultural editor for two daily newspapers—first for Al Safa, then for L’Orient le Jour. She stayed in Lebanon until 1976, then returned to California, making Sausalito her home, with frequent stays in Paris.
Now in her 90s, Adnan still paints and writes. Her abstract paintings recently brought her late-in-life popularity in Europe. Adnan remains an outspoken feminist, member of the LGBT community, and opponent to oppression and violence. She lives in Paris with her partner, artist and writer Simone Fattal, who translated Adnan’s best-known novel, Sitt Marie Rose, into English.
The struggle of Palestinian/Arab forces during the first years of the Lebanese civil war (1975 to 1990) inspired Adnan’s long poem, The Arab Apocalypse. Her searing imagery continues to reverberate in the continuing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Here are three sections from The Arab Apocalypse:
In the dark irritation of the eyes there is a snake hiding
In the exhalations of Americans there is a crumbling empire
In the foul waters of the rivers there are Palestinians
OUT OUT of its borders pain has a leash on its neck
In the wheat stalks there are insects vaccinated against bread
In the Arabian boats there are sharks shaken with laughter
In the camel’s belly there are blind highways
OUT OUT of TIME there is spring’s shattered hope
In the deluge on our plains there are no rains but stones
When the living rot on the bodies of the dead
When the combatants’ teeth become knives
When words lose their meaning and become arsenic
When the aggressors’ nails become claws
When old friends hurry to join the carnage
When the victors’ eyes become live shells
When clergymen pick up the hammer and crucify
When officials open the door to the enemy
When the mountain peoples’ feet weigh like elephants
When roses grow only in cemeteries
When they eat the Palestinian’s liver before he’s even dead
When the sun itself has no other purpose than being a shroud
the human tide moves on . . .
Where do you want ghosts to reside?
In our wakeful hours there are flowers which produce nightmares
We burned continents of silence the future of nations
the breathing of the fighters got thicker became like oxen’s
there is in that breath sparkles of scorched flesh and the fainting of stars
we crucify Gilgamesh on a TANK Viking II reaches Mars
Imam Ali dances over a nuclear blast
cursed are the clouds which repel water
cursed are the Arabs who fell tall and haggard eucalyptus trees
Etel Adnan writes:
“Do I feel exiled? Yes I do. But it goes back so far, it lasted so long, that it became my own nature, and I can’t say I suffer too often from it. There are moments when I am even happy about it. A poet is, above all, human nature at its purest. That’s why a poet is as human as a cat is a cat or a cherry tree is a cherry tree. Everything else comes “after.” Everything else matters, but also sometimes does not matter. Poets are deeply rooted in language and they transcend language”
“Love in all its forms is the most important matter that we will ever face, but also the most dangerous, the most unpredictable, the most maddening. But it is also the only salvation I know of.”
Sources and Further Reading
“XXXVI” – “XXXIX” and “XLIV” from The Arab Apocalypse, © 1989 by Etel Adnan,
Post-Apollo Press —
Bibliography – Works Available in English
- Moonshots, BEYROUTH, 1966
- Five Senses for One Death, The Smith, 1971
- From A To Z, The Post-Apollo Press, 1982
- Sitt Marie-Rose, Translated from the French by Georgina Kleege, The Post-Apollo Press, 1982
- The Indian Never Had A Horse & Other Poems, Illustrated with etchings by Russell Chatham, The Post-Apollo Press, 1985
- Journey to Mount Tamalpais, The Post-Apollo Press, 1986
- The Arab Apocalypse,Translated from the French by Etel Adnan, The Post-Apollo Press, 1989
- The Spring Flowers Own & The Manifestations of the Voyage, The Post-Apollo Press, 1990
- Of Cities & Women: Letters To Fawwaz, The Post-Apollo Press, 1993
- Paris, When It’s Naked, The Post-Apollo Press, 1993
- There: In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and of the Other, The Post-Apollo Press, 1997
- In/somnia, The Post-Apollo Press, 2003
- In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, City Lights Books, 2005
- Master of the Eclipse, Interlink Books, 2009 *Winner of the PEN Oakland Award, 2010
- Seasons, The Post-Apollo Press, 2008
- Etel Adnan: On Love and the Cost We Are Not Willing to Pay Today: 100 Notes, 100 Thoughts: Documenta Series 006, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011
- Sea and Fog, Nightboat Books, 2012
Awards and Honors
- 1977: Awarded the France-Pays Arabes award for her novel Sitt Marie Rose.
- 2010: Awarded the Arab American Book Awards for Master of the Eclipse.
- 2013: Her poetry collection Sea and Fog won the California Book Award for Poetry.
- 2013: Awarded the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry – Sea and Fog (2012)
- 2014: Named a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government.
- RAWI Lifetime Achievement Award from the Radius of Arab-American Writers
- Photo of Etel Adnan, 1971
- Traditional-style Lebanese Pottery
- Photo of Etel Adnan at 90 with 1974 canvas, james-mollison-for-wsj-magazine
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud