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Etel Adnan was a poet and visual artist from Syria who wrote in English and lived outside Syria for more than forty years, between Paris and California. She is the daughter of a Damascene father, Assaf Adnan Qadri, who was an officer in the Ottoman army, and a Greek mother, Rose Lilia Lacorte, who was born in Izmir. She lived part of her childhood in Beirut and was brought up at a time when French was more common than Arabic in daily use by affluent families. She studied English literature and migrated firstly to France. She then headed to the United States, where she specialised in philosophy and worked as an academic in an American university. She lived in the United States longer than anywhere else, and it was there that she had most of her poetry published.
This interview with her took place in London during a stop on her annual journey between Califormia and Paris. I did the interview 25 years ago while I was editing al-Katiba magazine in London in the early 1990s. A poetic friendship of a special kind linked me to her: she took me by surprise one day when she painted a large painting inspired by my book Mujaraat al-Sawt (Aligning with the Voice). The painting was exhibited in several galleries, in New York, Geneva and Paris, and later in an exhibition in London. After the exhibition she gave me the painting, which resembles an accordion. I regret to say that I lost this sole copy of the painting and I was unable to reveal to this great artist and poet that the piece of art that she had painted and given to the wayward young man that I was no longer exists.
Poets are fickle creatures, but this interview was an eloquent success. I had never read or conducted an interview with a poet who spoke about poetry, poets, words, art, artists and the world with such depth and such compelling simplicity as Etel Adnan. The only thing comparable is the extraordinary child-like depth in the poetry itself. I will add nothing more, but will let the poet speak for herself.
Nouri Jarrah: How do you see the philosophical thread that runs through your book of poetry, Kitab al-Bahr (The Book of the Sea), which came out recently in Arabic translation, a work written early in your career. Would you agree with me that there is such a philosophical thread in your poetry in general?
Etel Adnan: I wrote the first poems in Kitab al-Bahr before I studied philosophy. First, I studied literature and then I specialised in philosophy. In America I worked as a professor of philosophy in a university near San Francisco. I wrote Kitab al-Bahr before I was twenty. My choice of philosophy must have been based on a natural, and therefore early, urge. I was interested in trying to understand the world. A few years ago I was very ill and I was afraid I would die. I now remember how anxious I was about dying because I felt and believed, deeply and strongly, that with my death the world would lose a great friend. That’s what I felt. I love the world. Since I was a child I’ve loved nature – the sky, the sun, the moon, and deep blue. My father was a Syrian officer from Damascus in the Ottoman army. Besides the military sciences, he studied language, astronomy and geography. He was educated and well-informed about various subjects. When I was young, he made me aware of natural phenomena and things found in nature. He would say, “Look at that. No one can go there.” The moon was a three-dimensional symbol of what is impossible. The other thing I loved very much was the sea.
Nouri Jarrah: Which sea was that?
Etel Adnan: The sea at Beirut. I started swimming at the age of four and ever since then swimming has felt like floating freely through the world. I’m also a Piscean. Ten years ago I wrote in a poem something to the effect that I didn’t love men because I loved the sea more than I loved other creatures. And as you can see, people write things and only later do you understand the significance of what they wrote. But this is a poetic truth and not a human truth. We need to distinguish between poetic facts and human facts so as not to obscure the distinction between reality and art. As much as I loved the sea, I was obsessed with a desire to reach the water. I would look at it and be taken to it from behind the buildings across the streets that screened it off and those that led to it. My eyes not only longed for the sea, my whole body sensed it and was drawn to it. After reading Kitab al-Bahr, Munir Akash, if you know him, said to me, “This poetry portrays the sea in ways matched only by the Greeks. It gives the reader a sense of primal motion and offers images of creation in the universe, when the universe was still a cloud of dust. In my opinion it’s a book that illustrates the marriage of the sun and the sea.” My poetry does not draw on the history of poetry but on the intuitive experience of human beings when they think about existence with clarity. So when I write, I feel that the world is turning into something new. I write without thinking back to previous literature, and this relationship with writing began when I first wrote poetry, and it stayed with me in my later works. That applies to everything I have written.
Nouri Jarrah: Do you think that poetry tells us truths about the world? Does poetry have to offer any truths? And if there are social truths in most of what we come across throughout history, they are truths that are anti-mankind, harmful to humanity, if not to say destructive, especially when they arise from an imbalance in favour of dominant forces, of selfishness and greed. In that case what are the truths of poets and of poetry?
Etel Adnan: If there is something called truth, it exists originally and basically in art. People can lie, but poetry doesn’t lie. Poetry comes from the depths, from whatever precedes thought. Sometimes you have to write in order to know what you’re thinking. In writing one finds the truth of oneself, and from the truth of oneself, one can come across a greater truth, but if one does not start from oneself, one will not reach any truth.
Nouri Jarrah: But can one identify and name the truths of poetry?
Etel Adnan: They are the poetry itself. Poetry is not a translation of any hypothetical truths. And there may be truths that serve no purpose. If one tries, with poetry, to examine and explain everything, the truth will evaporate. Because poetry is like music. Music can’t be explained in words. Poetry is like that, and poetry can’t be translated.
Nouri Jarrah: Poetry is written in words, and words have historical and social meanings. The poet can’t avoid or ignore those meanings. So how can words that predate the poet come to be his words alone?
Etel Adnan: This is the fundamental problem in writing. Poetry bridges the gap between words as tools for use by everyone and words as private instruments.
Nouri Jarrah: So where does the private life of words lie?
Etel Adnan: Words are like the ground on which we walk barefoot, and our poems are our footprints on that ground.
Nouri Jarrah: Is poetry a force?
Etel Adnan: Yes, a force.
Nouri Jarrah: How so?
Etel Adnan: In history we know how poetry has frightened those in power. Tyrannical authorities fear the authority of poetry, because it’s invisible. And anything invisible gives rise to fear. Poetry has a hypnotic effect, and those in power understand this better than anyone else. Some people are changed by poetry without noticing. In my opinion it’s a direct effect. You might see a powerful man listening to poetry and melting because of something in it what he isn’t aware of.
Nouri Jarrah: If he was aware of it, would he cease to be powerful?
Etel Adnan: Maybe. Inside everyone, however good or evil they might be, there’s a hidden distant point that represents them in their innocent form. Poetry reaches that point in the soul of the person. And there it dismantles and destroys the walls inside people.
Nouri Jarrah: But poetry, it sometimes seems to me, stems from an area where there are fractures, ruptures, moments of weakness, so how can it come about that poetry is powerful?
Etel Adnan: Poetry has the power of truth, and there’s nothing more revolutionary than truth. The truth frightens people, and the fact of weakness is more frightening than any other human truth. So the fact of weakness is extremely powerful. People are generally frightened of standing in front of the mirror, and if someone talks about their weakness, I think they’re stronger than someone who displays their power and boasts of it, or pretends to be strong. That’s someone who has the strength to see the world as it is in its deep essence. Such an act requires great mental and spiritual strength, in order to transcend the weakness. The hardest thing to do is call things by their names, however simple or significant these things are. Poetry names things, it gives them names.
Nouri Jarrah: As a poet, you write and fashion poems with words, and as an artist you draw and paint. Which do you think is more representative of the artistic spirit, closer to your self, and more able to reflect that spirit with the fewest barriers - poetry or visual art?
Etel Adnan: I really don’t know. I write before I paint. Writing and painting come from a spontaneous impulse. They come from the same spirit, but they reflect that spirit in different ways. I don’t think anyone can discover all the relationships between the two art forms. We do many things we don’t understand. We walk, for example, without understanding the physical mechanism of walking. Even specialists don’t understand that completely. There’s always a secret. We really don’t know. We feel that in our bodies. How, for example, does a young child suddenly start walking? There are many secrets in the world and we only know very few truths.
Nouri Jarrah: Does that mean that critics, for example, are just readers who might sometimes judge on the basis of an illusion or their own incompetence, and so we don’t have to take their interpretations as necessarily correct?
Etel Adnan: Exactly. If we were to go back to the question of the artist who produces two kinds of art, then it’s difficult to judge which of the two is better, because we’re dealing with different pleasures. Writing, for example, is physically hard, because someone writing usually sits in a physically uncomfortable position, while visual art is like exercising. The body plays a greater part in it than with writing, and so artists are more fulfilled in their work. And naturally the relationships between words and painting differ from one artist to another. For example, Paul Klee and Delacroix wrote, but their writings were either in the form of diaries or philosophical musings. In his letters Van Gogh was also a great writer; he wasn’t just a skilled artist. And although he was Klee’s equal in his artistic ability and his philosophical reflection, he was very different in his art. Van Gogh sought a double truth, not just to paint but also to be pure and metaphysical in both his painting and his writing, while Klee poured all his feelings and thoughts into his paintings. He thought through painting, using lines and colours as words to convey a philophical concept, unlike Van Gogh, who painted to become purer.
Nouri Jarrah: And where do you stand when it comes to words and colours? Which philosophy do you favour for marking the relationship between them?
Etel Adnan: In the beginning I wasn’t capable of reaching any intellectual conclusions on that, but later I noticed that there were two aspects that appeared alternately in my personality and expressed themselves in my writing – the first tragic and the second philosophical, whereas the love of happiness and the desire to achieve happiness took me to painting. I’m happiest when I’m painting. It’s painting that makes me happy.
Nouri Jarrah: Is that why there is something childlike in your painting?
Etel Adnan: Maybe. I think so, although that might give the impression that my paintings are easy, whereas they are instinctive instead, closer to the profound simplicity that comes from giving form to primal nature.
Nouri Jarrah: What do you think of the poetry of failure and disappointment, where aspects of sadness generate writing that is contemplative and romantic?
Etel Adnan: Failure and disappointment exist in every being. There’s no one who doesn’t have some of this. There are no animals that aren’t broken. There’s nothing in nature that isn’t broken. The sadness of children includes this disappointment. The first loss provides experience of disappointment. More than that, there’s death. In our lives, we die repeatedly. No one can isolate themselves from death and the pain of death. Life’s like that, and one can feel very sad and disappointed for a minor reason. When a child loses a ball, they feel broken.
Nouri Jarrah: I don’t think there are any small things in the world. Small things are big things, as long as the essential component of the part is itself in the whole.
Etel Adnan: Exactly. For example, I think that someone who loves someone and cannot win their love dies to some extent. In the Arab world, for example, everything generates disappointment for people. And in the end there is no world without frustration, because the powers in control don’t believe in human rights or that people need justice and freedom. So, disappointment doesn’t afflict only sensitive poets and their poems, but everyone. And another thing. It isn’t power that matters. It’s honour. However poor someone is, even if they are in prison, if they are still free deep inside, then they are strong. Strength lies in the honourable aspect of people, the part that ennobles them. Whatever jailers do to a prisoner, if the prisoner has something deep inside that the jailers can’t access, then strength is the thing that remains there.
Nouri Jarrah: Is there some meaning you look for in poetry?
Etel Adnan: No, not at all, except to the extent that it’s a meaning that reflects the oneness, the harmony, the serenity and honesty of the spirit. Beyond that, in poetry everyone has their own way, their own vision.
Nouri Jarrah: You’re a poet of Syrian origin, and all of your poetry has been written in English and French. When it comes to identity, in poetry you’ve migrated from your first linguistic identity to another one. To what extent has this other language overcome you and your poetry, so that it’s no longer just another language but has become the language that operates deep inside you? The question is on the problematics of identity.
Etel Adnan: I do indeed see myself as an Arab poet writing in English and French and this is a problem I live with, and it is insoluble. In my childhood I went to French schools in Beirut and the Lebanese nuns were against Arabic and refused to teach it to us. At home my mother was Greek and my father had to use Turkish and French when he talked to her. So I didn’t have the good fortune to speak Arabic and write it well.
Nouri Jarrah: Didn’t your father try to teach you Arabic, at least through conversation?
Etel Adnan: No, because my father was an officer in the Ottoman army and my mother spoke Turkish well because she had lived in Izmir. Their conversations were generally in Turkish. As for my mother, she spoke to me in Greek. Besides, the ambiance in Beirut was French. The Arabic I speak now, I learned from the street at first and then at my family’s house in Damascus. Later, while I was living in America, it was very hard for me to ever write to them in Arabic and they didn’t know any languages other than Turkish and Arabic, and that meant I lost contact with them. I think that the aversion to teaching Arabic in Beirut at that time was a major injustice to young people. They should have taught children Arabic first and then let them choose another language.
Nouri Jarrah: What was your father’s family name?
Etel Adnan: Kadri. But in the East, it’s customary to use your grandfather’s name. My father’s given name was Assaf and my grandfather was called Adnan. Because I went to France when I first left home, and then to America after living in Beirut and because I lectured at an American university for more than thirty years, in the end I concentrated on learning English well enough to express myself in it satisfactorily in poetry and literature, and I couldn’t achieve that in Arabic, and now I don’t think I have a problem with language. But I’m very sad that I’m not good at Arabic, which I love and which I consider an amazing language. But in the end I think the fundamental thing is what you prefer as an individual. In every civilisation there have been people who write in other languages. In the golden age of Arab civilisation there were Arabs who wrote in Persian and Turkish and even Greek, and there were Persians and Turks who wrote in Arabic or in two languages. Language is a very important element in identity, but integrity in expressing one’s deepest thoughts in any language is the real approach to identity. Identity isn’t always something fundamental that comes from outside you. It’s that thing that’s deep inside us, by birth or by acquisition. There are people with dual identities. That in itself is an identity. Identity isn’t necessarily something singular. But if you have four children, you necessarily have the energy to give them your love in different ways. There’s no ethnically pure civilisation. The greatness of Arab civilisation is that it was based on a mixture of civilisations, and every important civilisation is like that. I see identity from this perspective. Yes, an identity can be acquired by choice. And the concept of identity changes from one time to another, and from one civilisation to another, and one person to another.
Nouri Jarrah: But what about acquiring an identity under coercion? European colonialism abused peoples and their cultures and tried to suppress their personal choices at pivotal moments in the history of their development by imposing on them another culture and other languages.
Etel Adnan: That’s true, and I think that’s a crime of suppressing these peoples, their cultures and their choices in life. That’s why I said I suffer from double allegiance.
Nouri Jarrah: What was your mother’s name?
Etel Adnan: Rose Lilia Lacorte.
Nouri Jarrah: What influence did she have on you?
Etel Adnan: My mother wasn’t sufficiently educated. She stopped going to school when she was twelve. But she was inclined to love beauty with enthusiasm. When we were in the kitchen and she had just finished cleaning a saucepan, I would see her and hear her say, “Now it’s shining like the moon.” She loved beauty in everything and she could see it in everything. From her I learned to love beauty, starting with simple, ordinary things. Her dining table was always colourful. The table cloth was embroidered like a bedspread. She crocheted curtains and was happy with what she did. She didn’t have bourgeois tendencies. I never saw a woman as fond of manual work as she was. Her father was a carpenter. I remember that she used to go to the seamstress and she loved beautiful dresses and the nice things in the city shops, like silk. I’ve seen people in America who are very educated, but they didn’t know the difference between cotton and silk. My mother lived, and was in a position to live, a life of the senses. She took pleasure in the differences between things, she took pleasure in having a clean house and delighted in small, simple things.
My father, on the other hand, loved carpets. He treated them as we now treat paintings. I remember that he used to go to the Hamidiya market in Damascus and visit a carpet seller in the same way as we in London or San Francisco would go to an art gallery to look at paintings. His purpose was purely aesthetic. And just as we think Turner was a great artist, my father would think that carpets were a big thing artistically. The Arabs, unfortunately, have lost their character. They can no longer feel the amazing artistic features latent in their own heritage, which is still alive.
While we’re on the subject of carpets, it seems to me that some of them think carpets aren’t important just because we walk on them. They want to imitate the West in everything. The strange thing is that Westerners respect manual work and stand in awe in front of carpets, as if they were amazing paintings. Our forefathers took their shoes off to walk on carpets. The people of the Arab world today, I’ve discovered, respect only money.
Nouri Jarrah: From your cultural position between several languages, what do you think of Arabic poetry compared to other kinds of poetry?
Etel Adnan: I love the new generation of poets, the generation of the early 1980s. I’ve read many of them and I think their poetry is more modern, newer, more courageous than the poetry of the people before them. The important thing in this poetry is the difference of sensibility. There’s something that trembles in it, like trees in the wind. There’s a real search for what’s new. They are not listening to the past, to the unpleasant status quo; they are listening to themselves. They have completely new rhythms in poetry. I think they’re a rich source of that trembling I was talking about. The new poets don’t talk about language and the precepts of language as a history that’s fixed, but they rely on their personal experiences because, if poets put all their trust in language, there’s a fear they’ll write automatically, especially as Arabic is such a beautiful language that it can be used with compelling fluency, and the beauty of a language is in this sense a trap for the poet.
Adonis speaks about the beauty of language and he’s a model in this respect. But this is a trap, because you can say anything and it sounds beautiful. Poets should be wary of the beauty of language. I liken the beauty of language to a railway that carries a carriage at high speed. That’s frightening.
On the other hand, it’s wonderful that most of the new poets don’t fall into this trap. They start from their new selves, and their new selves are where they end.
Published in Banipal 74 – Celebrating Khalida Said and Modern Arabic Poetry (Summer 2022)
Translated by Jonathan Wright
For more about Nouri Al-Jarrah, click here