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Issue 212

A Mind That Knows No Borders: Etel Adnan’s Library

Omar Berrada on the artist’s polymathic imagination

BY Omar Berrada in Books , Features , Roundtables | 24 JUN 20

Nobody loves the world more cosmically than Etel Adnan. In her essay The Cost for Love We Are Not Willing to Pay, she highlights ‘two passions that did not concern human beings but that, at turns, took centre stage’ in her life: the Mediterranean Sea in Lebanon and Mount Tamalpais in California. Etel’s is a love nourished by words, however. Her essay starts with a provocative parallel between philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Sufi mystic Al-Hallaj, who ‘self-sacrificed for their radical commitments’, and ends by evoking a cosmopolitan cast of literary figures, including Anna Karenina, Majnun Layla, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Arthur Rimbaud. I would love to read a piece by Etel on her passion for books, although passion may not be the word. Companionship would be more apt, or intimacy – a lifetime of eclectic reading that has woven books and their authors into the very fabric of her thinking. Etel’s texts have no footnotes.

I first met Etel and her partner, Simone, in January 2002. A dozen writers had gathered for a week-long translation seminar in a 13th-century Cistercian abbey just outside Paris. I was young and hesitant. They were brilliant and welcoming. Then aged 76, Etel had a confoundingly youthful spark in her eyes. She still does. The 9/11 attacks were fresh in our minds and George W. Bush’s war in Afghanistan well underway. Etel, Simone and I soon became close. I would visit them at their Paris apartment simply to listen, vicariously immersing myself, through Etel’s reminiscences, in 1940s Beirut, 1950s Mexico City or 1960s San Francisco. 

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2019, oil on canvas, 41 × 32 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg

Etel, too, was listening. Sometime in 2005, she and I were sitting at a table when, seemingly out of the blue, she asked: ‘Have you read Stefania Pandolfo’s Impasse of the Angels? It’s a masterpiece.’ Something in her tone made me order it without delay. On the surface, Impasse of the Angels (1997) is an ethnography of a small village in the Moroccan Drâa Valley, exploring what it means to be a subject on the margins of postcolonial society. To me, it read like a long, intricate poem where history is told through the voices of the living, where stones and streams also speak, where the author is but a shadow amid a moonlit chorus. I was affected and mesmerized. Someone was speaking from a place inside my soul. I had been somewhat estranged from my homeland, Morocco; Impasse of the Angels brought it back as a polyphonic dream, a space of possibility within the ruins of memory. My well-loved copy of Pandolfo’s book has accompanied me everywhere since, while the author has become a cherished friend.

Etel already knew, as she did when she recommended books by June Jordan, Jalal Toufic and Fawwaz Traboulsi: singular writers who were her friends, and whose co-existence in her life speaks to a mind that knows no borders, geographical or disciplinary. Life is one. Poetry, art, activism, history are one. As Lisa Robertson writes in The Baudelaire Fractal (2020), ardent readers acquire ‘the gradual ability, similar to the learning of a new handcraft, to perceive the threads linking book to book, and so to enter, through reading, a network of relation’. On a deep level, reading builds kinship – between people as well as between books, for ‘the text I read seeks through me to another text’, as Robertson put it in Nilling (2012). Life is a weaving.

Etel Adnan, Mount Tamalpais, 1985, oil on canvas, 1.3 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Sursock Museum Collection, Beirut

Journey to Mount Tamalpais (1986) might be Etel’s own masterpiece. Written as a fragmentary love letter to the mountain, it can be read as a statement of poetics, interweaving all of Etel’s preoccupations: writing and art, travelling and reading, pleasure and melancholy, memory and outer space, perception and insurrection. It opens with notes on the ocean and the mountain, on painting and the complexities of perception when, seemingly out of the blue: ‘On KPFA [radio] George Jackson is speaking. We hear a tape made while he was still alive and in prison. He has many voices blended in one, many accents. He cuts his sentences short, sounding like an Englishman. Then his voice slides between his lips, and his longest word, his most important one, the one pronounced with a long, burning, agonizing, pleading and ever-sure voice, is the word love.’

More than once over the years, Etel asked if I had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), adding that it is one of the world’s greatest books. A tale of personal renewal mediated by reading, it is also a dream of larger social transformations by way of revolutionary politics. Malcolm X’s transgressiveness is legendary. Less often stressed is the force of his love. Revolution is not only the indictment of a given state of things, but the tireless work towards a collective aspiration. What makes the protagonist of Etel’s Sitt Marie Rose revolutionary is not her betrayal of the clan, but her love for the Palestinians and for the disabled children she cares for in the midst of a civil war. Like Jackson, Marie Rose and Malcolm X were murdered in their prime. Like him, they knew the risks they were taking. There is a cost for love and they were willing to pay it. Etel’s work reminds us they did not pay it in vain.

Main Image: Etel Adnan on Etel Adnan at Mount Tamalpais, c.1980. Photograph: Simone Fattal

Omar Berrada is a writer, curator and director of Dar al-Ma’mûn, a library and residency for artists and translators in Marrakech, Morocco.