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Etel Adnan, poet, novelist and painter, 1925-2021

By on November 26, 2021 0

Etel Adnan – poet, painter and writer – came into the world as a world war was brewing and left it as his homeland, Lebanon, descends once again into chaos. Yet she was never desperate.

“Developing Hope in Unique Violence. . . can bring deep peace, inner peace. And why not? So you don’t give up hope, but add new perspectives, ”she told poet Charles Bernstein in an interview earlier this year.

Adnan, who died at the age of 96, was an artist in constant reinvention – from teaching philosophy in her thirties to writing one of Lebanon’s definitive Civil War novels in her fifties, to international fame with his abstract paintings in his 80s.

Etel N Adnan was born in Beirut in 1925, the daughter of a Greek Orthodox Christian mother from Smyrna, now the Turkish city of Izmir, and a Turkish Muslim father. Her young mother, Rose Lacorte, was born into extreme poverty, but met the wealthy Damascus-born Ottoman officer Assaf Kadri when he was governor of Smyrna during World War I. The couple fled to Lebanon as the city burned down and the Ottoman Empire crumbled.

Adnan grew up speaking Greek and Turkish, while completing his studies in French at a Catholic school that punished students for any exchange in the native Arabic of Lebanon. The experience paved the way for a life of fluidity between languages ​​and identities.

She traveled to Paris at the age of 24 to study philosophy at the Sorbonne, then to the United States where she enrolled for graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and then at the ‘Harvard University.

His dexterity with both languages ​​and art has become a creative tool. Teaching philosophy at the Dominican University of San Rafael in California from 1958 to 1972, she met American artist Ann O’Hanlon, who headed the art department and encouraged her to paint. She gave up writing in French in protest as the Algerian War of Independence was raging. At 34, she announced that she would start “painting in Arabic”, incorporating elements of Arabic calligraphy into her abstract paintings.

Another act of protest brought her back to writing. In response to the Vietnam War, Adnan wrote poetry, but this time she chose to write in English. Adnan said she enjoys the freedom to write in American English. “In French, if you take the freedom with the language, people correct you,” she said. She identified an “innocence” and an “energy” in American English: “You are not on the defensive, you go ahead and keep going.

Adnan returned to her native Lebanon, became a cultural editor for the French-language newspaper Al-Safa, and returned to Paris when civil war broke out in 1975. From Paris, she wrote Sitt Marie Rose, which was published in 1977 and is considered a seminal novel of the Lebanese Civil War experience. This book, based on a true story, revolves around a kidnapping and examines how civilians deal with war, exploring conflict through the lens of gender.

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2021, Oil on Canvas. Adnan’s art began to gain wider recognition in 2012 © Courtesy Sfeir-Semler Gallery

Adnan extrapolated the brutal lessons of civil war to his understanding of other conflicts, with a universal but intimate glimpse into the feelings of those without power. In her 1990 poem “It was Beirut all over again”, she linked the war and the brutal massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila to the war in El Salvador.

“And it’s still Beirut / because people run / to keep their stomachs and brains / in line, / carrying their honor as their only / baggage / and counting the dead / among themselves / the way we count the pennies / in the cities of Power ”.

Later in life, Adnan openly identified as a lesbian. She had met her lifelong companion, the Syrian artist Simone Fattal, in Beirut. They lived together in war exile in Sausalito, California in the 1980s, where they collaborated and supported each other in their artistic endeavors.

Yet it was in 2012 that Adnan began to gain greater recognition for his art, which was included in the contemporary exhibition Documenta 13, in Kassel, Germany. Fattal, who survives his partner, described Adnan’s paintings as playing “the role that old icons played for people who believe.” They give off energy and give energy. They protect you like talismans. They help you go about your everyday life.

Adnan worked until his last days, publishing two collections of contemplative poetry grappling with his own death. Yet even in her quieter and more philosophical writings at the end, she never lost her faith in the hope for the downtrodden who electrified her earlier works.

“do not bother to fear those / who insult our insubordination”, she writes in a poem in her collection 2019, Time. “The loser will always have / the last word. “


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