- The Many Worlds of Etel Adnan
The certitude of Space is brought to me by a flight of birds.Etel Adnan
Etel Adnan is a poet, a philosopher and a painter, the author of essays and of plays, writing across languages, cultures, and continents. Born in Beirut in 1925, she describes herself as an “alchemical product.” Her father was a Muslim from Syria, born in Damascus, an officer in the Ottoman military forces, her mother a Greek from Smyrna, in Turkey. At home she lived with two religions, two languages, and two civilizations: the Islamic and the Greek. Her school in Beirut was French, with no reference to the Arab world outside. “Already as a child,” she says, “I had to construct my personality, to build myself up, in order to be something.”1 Her parents were living in a country not their own, and Adnan discovered quickly that they—and she—were somehow “in between.” On the other hand, the cosmopolitan milieu where she grew up made her understand the diversity of people and the world.
Around 1950, she wrote her first poems in the French language, Le Livre de la Mer. She adored Charles Baudelaire, Gérard de Nerval, and Arthur Rimbaud. In 1949, when she moved to Paris to study philosophy at the Sorbonne—a leap for a young Lebanese woman—she followed their traces. In 1954, the Algerian War started and Adnan stopped writing in French as a reaction against French colonialism. As in Paris she lived in the Pavillon Americain and met Americans who became friends and supported her. In January 1955, she decided to go to the United States with a scholarship for Berkeley and Harvard. Only a few years later she was teaching philosophy at Dominican College, in San Rafael, north of San Francisco, and entered American culture with enthusiasm: “I thought the world was full of geniuses and happenings. The sixties were the best period in the world. But they were also the years of the Vietnam War.”2 With her first poem in English language, “The Ballad of the Lonely Knight in Present-Day America,” published [End Page 77] in 1965 in the S.B. Gazette, a free literary review in Sausalito, California, Adnan became part of the American Writers Against the Vietnam War. She integrated herself into American life, but never lost contact with Lebanon. During the sixties, she made several trips back tracing the blossoming of a young generation, which gave hope for a new cultural scene. But it is in the U.S. that she became aware of the situation in the Middle East and particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “I hadn’t heard much about it at home, nobody spoke about it, but now, in Berkeley it became a reality.”3 In Berkeley, she discovered the dimensions of the Arab World, a kind of flash that, as she says, simply changed her life.
At San Rafael College, Adnan had created a special teaching subject that corresponded very much to her interests: philosophy of the arts. She herself started drawing and painting at the O’Hanlon Workshop in Mill Valley and had her first exhibition there already in 1960. Educated with words, she discovered that “painting is a language that can go as far as any other language.” She became aware of the mutuality of different languages. The reflection that “writing by hand can be drawing and reciprocally drawing can be handwriting” led her to the creation of fanfold books.4 Through graphic characters, Arab hieroglyphics, watercolor spots, pencil and ink—through mixing words and handwritten poetry with colors, symbols, lines—one unfolds a scroll, entering a text, a landscape, a philosophical thought and, altogether, a theatrical moment. On this special surface or stage—in this special space—in various languages, she reflects on the perception of what determines our life: moments of daily routine, thoughts and ideas, form and function of objects, nature in its manifold changes, emotions, sensitivities and states of mind, views onto others and into ourselves, apocalyptic situations, catastrophes, wars. The leporellos, which likely are a basis of Adnan’s work as a whole, seem to be a philosophical perceiving/writing...