Poet, Publisher, Painter, and Patron of the Arts: Remembering the Extraordinary Etel Adnan (1925-2021)

Elie Chalala
Etel Adnan, photographed by Patrick Dandy.
Lebanese-American writer Etel Adnan, beloved by many for her ‘meditative’ voice and colorful language in writing, passed away on November 14 in Paris at 96, leaving behind an evocative legacy of poetry, novels, and art that vividly depicted war, history, and nature. “It seems to me I write what I see, paint what I am,” she once said, as quoted by Harrison Smith in the Washington Post.
Born in 1925 in Beirut to a Greek Orthodox mother from Smyrna (today Izmir) and a Syrian Muslim father, a high-ranking officer in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Adnan’s family was no stranger to exile. Both of her parents had lost their homes when Mustapha Kemal’s army burned Smyrna down in 1922. The Ottoman Empire fell years before they settled in Lebanon. Adnan studied in a French Catholic school in Beirut during her primary years, becoming fluent in English and French while speaking Greek and Turkish. She spoke on her multilingualism in an article entitled “Writing in a Foreign Language,” which discussed her early poetry in French and her father’s attempt to teach her to write in Arabic. She was enamored with Arabic calligraphy, but lacking proficiency in the language, felt herself “alien to the world of her father and mother, this city… a ‘little storm’ of languages, wars, and desires,” according to Abdo Wazen in Independent Arabia. Though she attempted to learn the language on multiple occasions, she “quickly realized, with her attentiveness and kindness, that learning Arabic is difficult,” recalled Charbel Dagher, who gave her lessons in Arabic in the 1970s.
Adnan studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1949 on a scholarship, then completed her studies at the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard University. She moved to the United States in 1955, where she remained for some time, teaching philosophy at the Dominican University of California in San Rafael. She told Aftim Saba in an Al Jadid interview, “When I first came to America, it was a liberation, not exile. Although I was not in jail, life in Beirut at that time for a woman was limiting. There is no need to explain that, nor to explain the desire for adventure. Some people, like birds and fish, have an inner drive to travel and explore more than others.” There, she actively wrote in opposition to the Vietnam war and to support the civil rights movement, all the while opening her doors to painting.
Adnan’s art received widespread recognition much later in her life, but she paid little mind to the attention. She said, “I always had a few people who liked what I did, and that was enough,” according to the Washington Post. To her, poetry was “the purpose of life,” and painting was “a kind of poetry expressed visually.” She frequently painted in vivid colors, depicting the sun, sea, unknown planets, or her beloved Mount Tamalpais of her home in Sausalito (a subject she continued to paint even away from her California home while on the move). Adnan also combined her writing with art, creating accordion-like booklets — leporellos — that mixed her poetry with paintings. Her work reached a broad audience for the first time at the Documenta 13 contemporary art exhibition when she was 87, where she was asked to return to the next edition of the exhibition. Her work was also featured at the Whitney Biennial and the New Museum in New York.
Adnan’s relationship with exile shifted after the Arab Defeat of 1967, rife with personal conflict as the U.S. supported Israel against the Arabs. “My American friends were not involved in what I felt. It was, for them, a remote problem. I was emotionally alone. Therefore, I felt in exile. I felt they did not share things I cared for,” she told Saba. In 1972, she returned to Lebanon, drawn to the Arab world and the conflicts consuming it, particularly Palestine, according to Mohamed Houjeiri. She worked in the press and managed the cultural sections of the French language newspapers Al Safa and L’Orient-Le Jour, but moved back to America in the late 1970s when one of the newspapers she worked for closed, and the civil war began. According to the Washington Post, Adnan “was more at home in her work than in any particular city.” She wrote, “The books I’m writing are houses that I build for myself.”
Much of Adnan’s writing draws from her lived experience with war, particularly the Lebanese Civil War that characterized the 20th century as “an apocalyptic century” for the Arabs. Writing in French and English, she published two-dozen novels and poetry collections that often referenced Rimbaud, Che Guevara, Native Americans, and the Jebusite inhabitants of ancient Jerusalem, among others, as cited by the Washington Post. She is perhaps best known for her novel “Sitt Marie Rose” (1977), a classic of Lebanon’s civil war literature. Focused on sacrifice, the novel described the tragic kidnapping and killing of a woman who dedicated her life to the weak and called for the rights of downtrodden groups. The novel was based on the kidnapping of a woman she had learned about through newspaper coverage, as cited by Houjeiri.
Adnan’s book-length poem “The Arab Apocalypse” (1980) comprised 59 sections, each representing a day the Palestinian refugee camp Tel al-Zaatar was besieged during the civil war. In 2009, Aftim Saba spoke with Adnan in an Al Jadid interview covering her poetry book, “There” (1997). “There” contemplates the complicated relationship between war and conflict, survival, and identity through the ‘Other,’ victims forced into exile in their own countries, whether the Bosnians by Europeans or Palestinians by Israelis.
Adnan frequently explored national identity, feminism, and political conflict in her works. Her own identity was often under scrutiny. She did not overly concern herself with choosing one identity over the other — whether as an Arab American, Arab, or Greek, or her religion as a Muslim or Christian. Instead, she believed all aspects coexisted with each other.
A feminist, she often wrote about women’s relations to world events. She told Saba that women of her generation processed tragedy differently from men because of social and cultural differences. Men responded to conflict through political allegiances and ideology; women instead “translated tragedy into everyday life terms, which is what tragedy is really all about.” Women, she explained, mourned tragedy while “we expected men to fight for the idea that led to war and perhaps die for it. They are almost like different duties.”
An artist and nomadic writer whose works drew the international art world’s attention and inspired Arab American writers, Etel Adnan touched the hearts of many through love, language, color, and memory. Her artworks recently appeared in the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Centre Pompidou-Metz in France. In the words of Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of London’s Serpentine Galleries, as cited by the Washington Post: “It’s so rare that you have someone making such important contributions to poetry and art…[Adnan is] one of the most influential artists of the 21st century. Her work is the opposite of cynicism, and it is pure oxygen in a world full of wars.”
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