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CULTURE

Why Etel Adnan was larger than life

She was a traveler between two civilizations, three continents, three cultures and several modes of expression. She was Etel Adnan (1925-2021), a philosophical observer of the century that saw her birth, a committed artist and an activist upholding the causes of the oppressed. Adnan was described by those who knew her as generous, enlightened, extremely cultured, very intelligent, gifted and talented. In short, she was “larger than life.”

Why Etel Adnan was larger than life

Etel Adnan in his house in Paris, 2020. (Credit: André Siegel. Courtesy of the Sfeir-Semler Beirut / Hamburg Gallery and the artist's beneficiaries)

“She told me once: ‘When I die, the universe will have lost its best friend, someone who loved it with passion,” Etel Adnan’s life partner, Simone Fattal, said in her precious essay titled: “On Perception: Etel Adnan's Visual Art.”

While the universe lost a faithful friend at the age of 96 on the night of Saturday, Nov. 13 to Sunday Nov. 14, it will not be able to forget this woman who celebrated it and transcended it, in all forms, words and colors.

Almost 100 years old, a key figure on the Lebanese art scene in Lebanon, her native country, and internationally, Etel Adnan (1925-2021) was celebrated as monumental to art, writing and engraving.

She was born in Beirut on Feb. 24, 1925, to a Greek Christian mother and a Syrian Muslim father, and she had lived in California before settling down in Paris for health reasons.

Adnan published various works, notably her famous novel, “Sitt Marie Rose,” which has been translated into several languages, as well as several collections of poetry, both in English and French.

She discovered painting later in her life, at the age of 33. She navigated her way smoothly between the different modes of expression.

“My tragic view of the world is expressed through writing. My joy of living, through painting,” Adnan said to L’Orient-Le Jour in a December 2004 interview.

Her sentences were concise, her style succinct yet poetic. At the age of 16, Adnan, a polyglot, had an excellent command of French, English, Greek, Turkish and Arabic.

She took her first steps in journalism at a press office in Beirut, where she worked while pursuing her studies, until she was 20.

It was there that she met Gebran Tueni, Elisa Abu Chabkeh, Said Akl and George Naccache, who was the father of her friend Amal.

“It was Amal who proposed, a few years later, after my first stay in America, that I collaborate in the cultural page of L’Orient,” Adnan told L’Orient-Le Jour reporter Zena Zalzal in a 2016 interview.

Adnan ended up writing on art in L’Orient-Le Jour from 1973 to 1976, after having landed a job as a cultural editor in the then-newly founded French-language newspaper al-Safa, which closed one year later.

“I contributed to the newspaper [L’Orient-Le Jour] until the release of ‘Sitt Marie Rose,’ in which I clearly expressed my pro-Palestinian views, which obviously displeased the Phalangists and ended my career as a journalist,” Adnan said in the same interview in 2016.

On page 76 of “Sitt Marie Rose,” one magnificent sentence sums up the history of Beirut, a city a thousand times destroyed, and a thousand and one times rebuilt.

“Marie-Rose frightens them. They have all the means in the world to crush her in a second, to subject her to all forms of disgrace; to throw her, cut into pieces, on the sidewalk, and register her name on their bulletins of victory. But they’ve known from the beginning that they wouldn’t be able to conquer either her heart or her mind,” reads the passage from “Sitt Marie Rose,” a pivotal point in Adnan’s career.

Sitting by Etel and listening

Tania Hadjithomas Mehanna, who was Adnan’s editor at the Tamyras publishing house, and poet Venus Khoury-Ghatta both go back to the source text that was the starting point of a dazzling journey.

“When I first met Etel, I felt I was on very familiar ground and in a new country at the same time. Every word she spoke amazed me with its relevance and originality. I didn’t want to leave her side anymore. I have the immense privilege of being the editor of some of her books, and I just wish that the adventure would continue with this woman whose light never blinds but enlightens. The four books published by Tamyras are gems that I never tire of reading and sharing,” Mehanna said, with a lump in her throat, unable to bring herself to use the past tense to talk about the privilege of having known and worked with Adnan.

“‘Sitt Marie-Rose’ was the first book Adnan wrote during the war, following the 1976 kidnapping of a Christian teacher who lived with a Palestinian leader — an event that upset Lebanese society. Adnan tried to imagine the hardship this woman had to go through,” Mehanna added.

She went on to say, “The book made a lot of noise because she pointed a finger of blame at a certain political party. It was her first book on the Lebanese war, which was subsequently published in Paris with [publishing house] Éditions des Femmes. Later, it was Tamyras that brought the rights to publish it again because of the high demand for it.”

“In her next book, ‘In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country,’ Adnan talks about her integration journeys in Greece, Lebanon and the US and makes observations about the differences in these countries,” she said.

“In ‘Paris, When It's Naked,’ she talks intimately about Paris, the city whose streets she wandered. She describes a city seen through her eyes only. Her last book, which is also my favorite, ‘Of Cities and Women,’ is a series of letters to Fawwaz Traboulsi, in which she writes of the visceral link between women and their city,” said Mhenna, who has committed to memory some of Adnan’s texts as well as the moments she spent this artist who particularly liked light colors.

“I remember her apartment in Beirut or in Paris: when you are with Etel, you sit down and listen. She had a way of telling stories that opened our eyes, with her little girl’s voice and stars in her eyes. When she talks to you, she makes you feel you are the most important person in the world. Besides her immense talent as a storyteller, she used every means to express herself, pottery, painting, calligraphy,” Mhenna said.

“She painted until her last moment with all the colors that she could use, as if to console us,” she added.

“Her books are all we have left”

“From Anatolia and the Middle East, the Levant and the West, a rebellious woman and a wise woman, a liberated woman and struggling woman, she is part of all battles and all victories.

“Today, I devour her metaphors, I feed on the fluency of her pen, I keep trying to fathom her unique universe, which she has kept alive. I would like to conclude with her own words. ‘This century has often told us to stay alone, to never look back, to conquer the moon. This is exactly what I did. This is exactly what I continue to do,’” the editor added.

When Venus Khoury-Ghatta learnt about Adnan’s death, an immense silence followed. Then, little by little, the words started to flow, spontaneously drawing the picture of an old poetic association that continues to live.

“I lost contact with Etel the moment she arrived in France; we lost touch with each other. There were times when we met at literary and art events with Simone Fattal. I remember her very well in Lebanon, where we met from time to time, and her first book, ‘Sitt Marie Rose,’ was very moving to me. It was filled with tolerance and a categorical denunciation of fanaticism; I was devastated. I am also very sensitive to her poetry. She had a very distinctive voice, and she knew how to transmit intense feelings into a literary form. She writes about people, ideas, experiences; she is not a writer who only indulges in crafting sentences. Also, in the East, female poet voices are so rare! Today, a free woman is disappearing, a voice is fading, a creator is leaving, her books are all we have left,” said the author of “Ce qui reste des hommes” (“What Is Left of Men”) (Actes Sud, 2021) sorrowfully.

The woman of the “eternal present"

“How can we talk about the passing of an artist who has constantly sought to make life sublime?” Sabyl Ghoussoub, a writer, journalist and curator, asked. “Etel, this woman of the ‘eternal present’ as she described herself, Etel was a complete artist who followed nothing but her gut, she set herself free from all the rules of the arts she performed. A free woman.”

Ghoussoub, who is currently working on an upcoming exhibition centered on the artwork of Adnan and that of a Lebanese photographer, said, “I have a chance every morning to read over and over again her writings, to look again and again at her canvases, her leporellos, her paintings, and to keep discovering new ones; she was so prolific. I have the impression of being nurtured daily by her words and her colors, and that her jaded yet luminous world lights up my days. When it comes to the death of a loved one, she wrote this thought that could be dedicated to her today: ‘I am trying (…) to convince myself that there is something eternal in all that once was; how else can we accept the indefinite absence of a person who lit up the lives of those she knew.’”

“With her inquiring mind and her acute power of sensitive observation, she explored the people’s swirling emotions, wandering and successive exiles. Etel Adnan had a fresh look on our world and nature. She saw in the sea and mountains the most enduring and consistent human face,” said the Arab World Institute president Jack Lang, who paid tribute to the late artist.

Her paintings

Etel Adnan's first exhibition in Beirut took place at Gallerie Janine Rubeiz in 1999, where she displayed a series of paintings of bridges, dubbed “Painting Bridges, New York, Paris.” Ten years later, Etel Adnan's chef d’oeuvre was exhibited at the Sfeir-Semler Gallery.

“It is an honor to have known Etel Adnan and to have had the chance to work with her,” gallery owner Andree Sfeir-Semler said. “It was in 2007 that I got to know the painter in her. It was in 2010 when I first asked her to showcase her work at our gallery in Beirut. Since then, we have worked together on holding exhibitions at the two galleries in Beirut and Hamburg, and in various museums around the world. We were fortunate enough to display her artwork in the biennials, the Documenta [exhibition] and the most prestigious museums around the world,” Sfeir-Semler, whose gallery in Beirut hosted in January 2020 the Uprising Of Colors exhibition, adds.

Just like her body of work, “Etel is glowing, love, life, beauty, generosity. Etel is a universal artist! Eternal. Etel will not die!” the gallery owner said. “I am heartbroken ... Thank you, Etel, for being and lasting for generations to come. In these times of grief, our thoughts are with Simone Fattal, her longtime partner.”

For his part, gallery owner Saleh Barakat said Etel Adnan was “a great painter, a great poet, a great writer, a great critic; she was also much more than all these roles combined.”

He added, “I have always been fascinated with Etel. I met her at an early stage of my life and it was a seminal meeting: I saw this woman, half Muslim, half Christian, lesbian, writer, poet, francophone who is equally interested in Arabic, who was fascinated by this idea of enlightenment in the Middle East. Personally, she taught me the true meaning of pluralism, of the pluralism of the Levantine identity. I learned from her how to be open-minded, she really shaped my thoughts. She showed me how pluralism is the pinnacle of human enlightenment, of openness and knowledge.”

As an unusual character on a constant quest for beauty, love and transcendence, Etel Adnan fascinated art lovers, art collector Abraham Karabajakian attested.

“One cannot be larger than life if one is not extremely intelligent, if one is not very generous in every sense of the word, if one does not have this abundant culture, if one is not charming. One cannot be so extraordinary if one does not have this richness that is cultural, human, humorous and sensitive at the same time,” Karabajakian says. For him, the simplicity of Adnan’s pictorial style gives her work its “an enormous power.”

He added, “Her very simple, pure artwork, full of freshness and color, depicts nature, sun, mountains, landscapes and radiates the joy of life. She is full of unmatched superior artistic power. It’s normal to fall in love with what she painted or wrote and especially with who she was as a person. All the aura that radiated from her improved our knowledge and made us happy.”

As Andree Sfeir-Semler summed it up, “It’s difficult to turn something so simple into something so grandiose.” 

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury and Sahar Ghoussoub.


“She told me once: ‘When I die, the universe will have lost its best friend, someone who loved it with passion,” Etel Adnan’s life partner, Simone Fattal, said in her precious essay titled: “On Perception: Etel Adnan's Visual Art.”While the universe lost a faithful friend at the age of 96 on the night of Saturday, Nov. 13 to Sunday Nov. 14, it will not be able to forget this woman...