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Etel Adnan

Poem (untitled):

1..Why does one see so rarely
the sky at the turn of the
mountain, why this look in
your eye?

2. Everything turns to breath,
even stone columns.

3..My childhood was impervious
to women's power, they
who are similar to great
expanses of ice

4. Blood, in California,
has a dark colour and
obscure causes

5. If it's not made of light,
Being is metaphor.
I am this thing which
goes by.

Etel Adnan studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard. She taught philosophy of art at Dominican College of San Rafael, California, and has presented courses, classes, and lectures at over forty universities and colleges throughout the United States.

Adnan creates oils, ceramics, and tapestry. She has also written more than ten books of poetry and fiction, including Sitt Marie-Rose, which has been translated into six languages. She lives in California, Paris, and Lebanon.

Her selected solo exhibitions include: Marin County Civic Center, San Rafael, CA; Galerie Samy Kinge, Paris; Kufa Gallery, London; Gallery 50 x 70, Beirut, Lebanon. Her selected group exhibitions include: UNESCO, Paris; Midiathèque, Les Mureaux, France; L'Atelier, Rabat, Morocco; Musée de L'Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris; Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World, The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.

Hiwar* with Etel Adnan:
March 10, 1999, New York University
Interview by Ali Alwan 'Ubad, Nasri Zacharia, and Mohammad Jamil Dagman

"It is like your personal memory, if you didn't remember your childhood you would be a sick person, you see, and if you don't remember your historical past you are a sick nation."
Etel Adnan.

Etel Adnan: I started writing in French, because I went to French schools in Lebanon. And, when I was about 20 I wrote a book called "the Book of the Sea," which has been translated into Arabic as "Kitab al-Bahr." Then, I left to go to school in Paris, and then I left France and came to the United States. I came to Berkeley in 1955. So, I switched languages, and I started writing then. In fact, I became a painter, probably to solve the language problem. Then I started writing within the American poetry movement against the Vietnam War. That is how I started writing in English.

Question: When did you switch to painting? We ask this because many Arab poets also paint. Did you find that link to be connected to you as well?

EA: Yes, that is true, and that link exists particularly in the Arab World. There are no European or American poets that I know of, who are also a professional painter. Maybe they paint at home. But, in the Arab World there are. I think that happens because of the tradition of Calligraphy, which is the visual impact of the written word. We are as a civilization sensitive to that. I think that the Islamic civilization emphasized more on the written text, and on the aesthetic quality of that written text. This is a heritage, so it comes easily. I discussed that once with Muhammad Milihi, who is a Moroccan poet/painter, and who may be one of the leading Moroccan painters. He said that in Morocco the combination of text and visuals may solve the problem of language for many, because some of the people speak French only, and where if you take a book in Arabic you also have a part of the population that cannot read it. If you write in French you would also have a part of the population that can read it and another that can't, where the same can happen in Lebanon. So this may explain unconsciously the dominance of the creative textual writer in the Arab World. Because, they may feel that they can surpass the borders through the visual combined with the textual. You see that there are many reasons, but the main one remains within their civilization through the geometric usage of writings in the public places. We are already linking the intellectual with the visual right there.

Q: In your collection There, one of your main questions was that of representation and the agency of the self and the other, which shows that you have identity questions that are reflected throughout your whole book. Can you tell us how does that play into your definition of the self, and who is the other, if there is any, and what is your identity?

EA: Yes that is true particularly in my case. Politically I never had a problem. I was always an Arab, and have been like that not even as a Lebanese or a Syrian. I always felt like an Arab. It makes no difference to me. For example, I went to Morocco in 1966 and when I entered to the hotel and heard Umm Kalthum in the lobby, I said to myself: here is the Arab World. When it comes into expression, of course there is a problem because I went to French schools and my mother being Greek we did not speak Arabic at home. Children learn language at school and at home. I didn't speak Arabic neither at home nor in the school. I grew up knowing French. I also speak Greek and Turkish, because my mother was Greek from Turkey and my father was an Arab in the Ottoman Empire. So, I knew these two languages, but I never learned them in school. So I don't have a problem in identity like saying who am I? Because I feel I am an Arab, I am a woman, and I am a person in the 20th Century, and hopefully the 21st Century. But, when I write of course I have that question. For whom am I writing? For Americans I am an Arab. Arabs say why don't you write in Arabic? So, we have to solve that problem through translations, and also I think the notion of identity should change. Identity is not a race. It is a culture and it is a commitment. I am committed to the Arab World and I am an Arab.