‘The Secret of Being a Woman' on Etel Adnan's Quest

Mona Takieddine Amyuni

Etel Adnan describes a group of friends who gather frequently in Mill Valley, California, ostensibly to paint.  Instead, they are fully involved in the issue of perception. In her book “Journey to Mount Tamalpais,” she quotes one woman in this group: “To perceive is to be both objective and subjective. It is to be in the process of becoming one with whatever it is, while also becoming separate from it.” And, she adds, the moment of perception is a moment of art. 

I read Etel Adnan. I meet her sometimes in Beirut. I try all the time to discover the kind of writer she is, the woman she is, how she perceives herself and the world around her. She tells us that her books are the houses she builds for herself, that she settles nowhere, that she lives all over the world in newspapers, railway stations, cafés, airports. Feeling different early in life, she writes in “Journey": “Memories are as fresh as cool water and a cool breeze floats over one’s fever.”

Her memories take her back to her childhood in Beirut where she lived in an “old big house, with huge windows, lace curtains and a flower stand painted in green.”  She remembers Beirut as a magical place flooded with light. Her mother was a Christian Greek from Smyrna, her father a Muslim Syrian from Damascus. He belonged to a family where the men served in the army of the Ottoman Empire. They settled in Beirut at the end of World War I, and Etel was born in 1925.  Lebanon was a French mandate and French schools multiplied, schools in which Arabic was forbidden.  Etel spoke French as a child.  She said later in an interview that she could only express herself in Arabic through painting.

Educated in a strict nun’s school, she felt that dogmatism occupied the totality of her mental space. She grew up thinking the whole world was French, and felt alienated to her natural environment. Moreover, her mother was as strict as the nuns at school and constantly warned her about the “danger” girls would encounter everywhere. Men would “devour” her, said her mother, anytime she lacked vigilance. With her usual sense of humor, she writes that her mother made her feel men were like “the Chaos of Greek mythology, the original void, the unending vertigo.”

Etel’s singularities accumulated, for she was the only girl at school to come from a mixed background. She dressed sometimes like a boy, with her hair cut very short à la garçon in the latest Parisian fashion. Her mother decided, as well, to have her baptized, while she simultaneously discovered the East through her frequent visits to Damascus with her father. They stayed with relatives and she delighted in the discovery of this different world with its Muslim feasts, dinners on huge copper trays set on rugs, mounds of delicious sweets brought in from the market by boys carrying them on their heads. Damascus was the East with all its splendor. There she was a child of city Arabs mixed with Turkish blood and culture, at the door of the Islamic world. She writes, “Thus I got used to standing between situations, to being a bit marginal and still a native, to getting acquainted with notions of truth which were relative and changed like the hours of the day and the passing seasons.”

Later, Etel worked in Beirut and continued her higher education in Beirut, Paris, and the United States, where she has now been living for a long time.  She writes–in both French and English–poetry, novels, essays, literary criticism, articles for journals and newspapers.  She also paints. She is unquestionably, as well, an Arab author.  Reviewer Ammiel Al-Calay writes of Etel in the Nation magazine: “How, then, can one come to an easy definition of Adnan?  Is she a Lebanese writer, a French writer, an American writer, a woman writer?”

These questions come in the context of the review of a collection of letters Etel wrote between 1990 and 1992 to a friend, Fawwaz, a Lebanese writer and journal editor who lived in exile in Paris during the Lebanese war (1975-1990). Fawwaz had asked her to write for his journal Zawaya an essay on feminism for a special issue on Arab women. The essay, begun in Barcelona at a feminist book fair, turns into a series of letters in book form entitled “Of Cities and Women (Letters to Fawwaz)” that Etel addresses to her friend throughout her peregrinations from city to city.

Etel Adnan allows herself free rein while she vibrates with each city she visits, fully opening up to the multifold spectacles she offers (the personalization of the city as woman, here, is quite in tune with the climate of the book.) She walks in Barcelona, looks at women, and marvels at the freedom and harmony they seem to live from within, and with the world around them. In Marrakesh or Beirut, Etel reflects, women carry malaise in their gait, divisions of all sorts in their looks. In Barcelona, women appear to have control over their bodies and their movements. They make you feel they are whole, that there is unity in their persons, a unity between minds and lives. Etel immediately universalizes this impression: “They remind me that it is interesting to be alive, to be a human being, and to be part of a precise moment in time and space, that theories get lost when confronted with privileged experience.”

Etel refused dogmatism while growing up and continues to reject any sexist categorization, any preconceived theories. Indeed, she asserts that woman and man are human beings and live specific experiences that make them what they are at a precise juncture in history. Lived experiences are what basically interest our author, who insists: “I’ve known for a long time that theories must never let go of experience...it is in women’s experience that we might find some general ideas on their condition.... By establishing relationships, all sorts of relationship...”

Respect, freedom, harmony with self and world– those are the values erected at every turn Etel takes in her quest for the feminine, but essentially, for the human.  With great lucidity and honesty she tells Fawwaz about herself and the Arabs in general, in contrast with what she saw in Barcelona and later in Rome: “We are terrorists, not terrorists in the political and ordinary sense of the word, but because we carry inside of our bodies–like explosives–all the deep troubles that befall our countries...  We are the scribes of a scattered self, living fragments, as if parts of the self were writing down the bits and ends of a perception never complete.”

This statement goes to the core of our existence in the Arab world as Etel Adnan sees it in her two political books, her novel “Sitt Marie-Rose” and her long poem “The Arab Apocalypse,” both originally written in French.

Etel writes about “the deep troubles that befall our countries.” Indeed, she becomes the scribe of scattered selves, of lost souls, of men who fall upon each other, tearing each other apart, and decimating their cities out of sheer impotence and backward tribal mentalities. “Our memory is made of war,” Etel writes in “Of Cities and Women.” Beirut clings to her “like hot wax, even in slumber.” Beirut and Marie-Rose are identified and both crucified on the altar of man. In “Sitt Marie-Rose,”  Etel had to exorcize anger, hatred, and violence out of her soul by writing this modern drama, in the strict classical shape of a tragedy with respect to the unities of action, time, and place, and in a highly stylized fashion.

The story of Marie-Rose is certainly tragic, as this woman is trapped by forces beyond her ability to control, yet transcends them in her heroic spirit. Etel records the true story of a woman who was the director of a school for deaf-mute children in a Christian suburb of Beirut. Christian herself, and pro-Palestinian, she lived in the Western side of Beirut, known for its allegiance to the Palestinian cause and several leftist ideologies. She “crossed” daily a divided city at the early stage of the Lebanese war, during which “crossing” from West Beirut to East Beirut was often fatal. The city was in the hands of militia gangs which imposed their own arbitrary laws in a broken-down state. It is in the midst of such a terrorist situation that Marie-Rose was arrested and killed by a group of young Christian militia men.

Prior to the war, these young men entertained themselves on hunting trips to Syria, speeding in plush cars and killing birds by the hundreds. Thus, Etel’s novel is divided into “Time I: A Million Birds,” and “Time II: Marie-Rose.” The parallels are obvious between innocent birds and the woman, hunter and prey; the gun, the killing, and the game are present in both. Ironically, too, Mounir, a young rich man, asks the Narrator (Etel herself?) in Part I to help him write the scenario of a film on Syrian workers who come to Beirut for a living. This film scene becomes Marie-Rose’s lived tragedy in Part II, the unifying element being Beirut suddenly ablaze: “Violence rises from every square meter as if from a metallic forest....The city is an electromagnetic field into which everyone wants to plug himself....The whole country is responsive without reserve to this call for violence...”

In Part II, the trial and execution of Marie-Rose is staged, and the ritual takes place three times. Each time seven very short monologues build toward a climax as one voice after another speaks, bringing us closer to the victim’s execution. Pattern and rhythm, in imitation of the ancient chorus of the Greek tragedy, punctuate the short monologues which weave the trial’s fabric. Marie-Rose turns the trial into a fierce attack.  Dramatic irony operates swiftly. The group of young assassins obviously cannot cope with the women’s strength and indomitable spirit. Even Mounir, who loved her when they were both 16, is struck dumb to see her as beautiful and as strong as ever. Their only alternative is to kill her. “This female monster dares stand up to us when she’s at our mercy. What a fool!  I should have squashed her like a bed-bug the moment we captured her...” says Fouad, “the perfect assassin.”

Fear grips the young men and translates itself into pure violence, since they have not been taught to love, respect, and reciprocate with women. Love of mother alone dominated their lives, says Etel, mixed with possessiveness and high expectations: “The citizens of this country are accustomed to fear, fear, the immense fear of not deserving their mother’s love, of not being first at school or in the car race, of not making love as often as the other guys at the office, of not killing as many birds as their neighbor...etc.”

With great irony, Etel expresses her anger and disgust by underlining their trivial preoccupations and then adds: “Marie-Rose frightens them.  They have all the means in the world to crush her in a second... but they’ve known from the beginning that they wouldn’t be able to conquer either her heart or her mind...”

The “males of this country” seize power in their own hands out of their sheer terror of woman and force her to submission unto death. Only the Mother resists the turning upside-down of the game of power by internalizing all its rules, and holding power in her hands once she begets boys. And the vicious circle operates from generation to generation in the midst of never-aging tribal mentalities. Etel’s answer to break the vicious circle is quite simple: “When a man and a woman find each other in the silence of the night, it’s the beginning of the end of the tribe’s power, and death itself becomes a challenge to the ascendancy of the group.”

In other words, Etel suggests that as long as the individual has no specific identity separate from that of the group or the tribe, there is no chance for man or woman to fulfill themselves in true love, in shared equality, and mutual respect. Mounir’s heart went out to Marie-Rose when he saw her standing in front of him, so beautiful, so dignified. But he belonged to the “group,” the gang, and could not act the way he would have liked to. In reality he was one of the few who could admit woman as a worthy partner but he would have been laughed at by his “group.” In her violent satire, Etel goes to the heart of the violence triggered by male dominance in history.

In the long dramatic poem entitled “The Arab Apocalypse,” Etel draws a huge mixed media canvas where she fuses poetry, painting, and music to create her own “Guernica,” with the sun setting, then dying away in gradation all over the scene. She captures, in very fine poetry, reverberations and echoes which spring from the deepest layers of man/woman’s psyche in such apocalyptic times:

And I saw; masked men execute a carnage
We have to drink blood in order to join them and wait for
them in hell....
underscored by syncopated rhythms and haunting refrains:
flies are buzzing worms stink  blood is turning white
They came wearing masks STOP They came poisoned STOP                      
        They came castrated STOP ...
There is no bread  no water no air  no light ...
it is by peeling onions that cities fall stone on stone ...
LAUGHTER the sun is LAUGHTER the sun is laughing                                              
        LAUGHTER the sun is laughing
5 billion solar years are grass snakes hiding in the texture of TIME.

Our voyage in the company of Etel Adnan has taken us from city to city back to Beirut, Etel’s original home, to Marie-Rose, her sister and ours as well. We journeyed to the tragic plight of both man and woman in this “nomadic and immobile Orient,” as she satirically calls the Arab world in “Sitt Marie-Rose,” where the only outlet for pent-up feelings and frustrations is in terms of violence, and an exercise of power that thinly covers up fear. Our quest for the feminine broadens and turns to a quest for the human being as such. 

A definition of woman is one of civilization, and we cannot agree more with our author in this last decade of the century, where such issues of feminism, human rights, individual rights, and equality amongst people and nations have become global, with all frontiers in the world falling down, one by one. Etel feels it deeply, and writes in “Of Cities and Women,” of recapturing woman’s battles, and civil battles in general, be it in Lebanon or elsewhere: “Women’s Liberation is a function of the liberties granted by the societies in which they live, and no gain is definite. They are thus fighting on several fronts, and as in any civil war–because it is a civil war–the battle is chaotic and constantly shifting: in the bedroom, the street, the office, the salons. The fight differs from state to state, from neighborhood to neighborhood. The question is not linear, but spherical. The problem concerns the explosive impulses of the individual. Violence shoots its thousand arrows and pierces all that it encounters. It is no longer a question of clarifying the distinction between the feminine and the masculine, but of redefining the human species.”

Absolutely. In fact, to subject or to be subjected, are two poles of the same rod. One wonders who is internally richer and more fulfilled: Marie-Rose, the victim, or those mad, young assassins, her torturers. She dies but her liberty sprang from within. They would live thwarted until the end. Indeed, “freedom is a state of mind,” as Etel asserts. Thus, “the secret of being a woman,” for her, is in living fully one’s humanity. Similar to some women she encountered in her journeys, it is “living with a kind of independence which is reflected in their bodies and in their ideas, in their attitudes towards life. It is as though things have been worked out in private, in the delight of existence.”

Many women feel it today and live it. Many men are joining hands, too, although we all recognize that there is still a long way to go in Etel Adnan’s concept of what it means to be alive and self-fulfilled. We are indeed, grateful to her for having sharpened our perception and shared in “the secret of being a woman.”

This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 25, Fall 1998.

Copyright © 1998 AL JADID MAGAZINE