Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Etel Adnan: An International Citizen with Multiple Identities

Etel Adnan
Poet and painter Etel Adnan. Source: Wikimedia.

Youssef Sharqawi

Before Lebanon as we know it was born, poet, essayist, and visual artist Etel Adnan came to life in 1925. She was the daughter of a Greek Christian mother whose family lived in Izmir, and a Syrian father, a Damascene Muslim, and an officer in the Ottoman army. So, she has never known any religious conflict in her life, she says.

One could say that she was a guardian to the old memories, as she says that she saw the Mandate and the Great palace that was the headquarters of the French Chief of Staff. She witnessed World War II and Lebanon in different stages. She also lived the development of women’s lives, whether in the Arab world or globally, as she was one of the first Lebanese women to work in an office at the young age of 18-years-old.

At the age of 24, Etel travelled to France to study philosophy, then to the United States to study the philosophy of art. Later on, she returned to Lebanon and then left it during the Civil War, so she spent her life on the move travelling.

More than One Identity

Etel was born in Lebanon to a Syrian father and a Greek mother. She was Arab, French, and American. In her view, different identities are not lethal. For her, we can control them and live with them. About that issue, Etel says: we can be many things together.

She attended the French Convent School, and she was forbidden to speak Arabic, which explains the distance between her and the Arabic language, her mother tongue. Her mother spoke Greek and her father Turkish, so she grew up in an inclusive world and found it natural to speak several languages.

Nevertheless, she loved and longed for the Arab world. “I often felt that I had this unique state, to be part of a world and see it from the outside”, Etel says in one of her recent interviews. “I used to say that I love the Arab world as an Arab, as well as a foreigner who’s passionate about it”. She describes herself as an “Arab poet” in both English and French. But when she could not write in this language, she declared that she would “paint in Arabic”.

Etel touched on this multilingualism in one of her articles entitled “Writing in a Foreign Language”, in which she mentions how she became attached to Arabic calligraphy without mastering the language and how she found herself in Beirut.

An International Citizen

On the other hand, Etel believed that the origin is what one – as an individual – prefers, saying that language is essential to identity, but the sincerity in expressing the depths of one’s self through any language is the actual gate to identity”. She believed that identity is acquired by choice, so she belonged to all humanity.

She belonged to the oppressed Native Americans and wrote about their cause. She belonged to the Vietnamese people, the Algerians who fought the war of liberation, and the Palestinians who lost their land to the occupation. She says that she felt that the loss of Palestine was the defeat of the entire Arab world. She also belonged to the Iraqis after the American invasion.

Even if she had several roots, identities, and languages, she still belonged to all of humanity. And this open belonging did not take anything away from what she was, says Abdo Wazen. “Her homeland is the language she speaks through to address whoever reads, be it in French, English, or even Arabic, into which many of her books and poems were translated. Even her painting seemed to overflow with the East’s spirituality, the Mediterranean light, the blueness of its sea and sky, and European and American modernity features. That globalised her art as much as it was rooted in the land of the East and the Mediterranean. Perhaps this artistic uniqueness is what made great museums welcome her wonderful works”.

Woman and Commitment

etel adnan
A vibrantly colorful rug by the Lebanese-American poet and artist Etel Adnan at dOCUMENTA(13). Source: Flickr, Richard Lemarchand.

Fawaz Tarabulsi says that Etel echoed Karl Marx’s famous equation, which states that women are the future of men. Not only this, but she also captures the strongest feature of man to feminise it. She captivates man in his weakest and most beautiful state: the state of pleasure. As he surrenders to joy, he is feminised. However, Etel’s feminism, Tarabulsi says, is not pretentious, fundamentalist, or hostile.

What Etel witnessed during her life of nearly a century made her adopt a committed approach in her writing. In addition to witnessing World War II and the loss of Palestine in the 1948 Nakba; She was among the generation shaken by the defeat of 1967 and pleased with the victory of Vietnam. She also witnessed the French Youth Revolution in 1968, Israel’s invasion of Beirut, and America’s invasion of Iraq. She recorded this invasion in her book “In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country”.

The tragedy of the Native Americans reminded her of the Palestinians uprooted from their land. Also, what happened in Beirut hurt her, so she recorded the Civil War in her writing, including the novel “Sitt Marie-Rose”, which became a classic of war literature and was taught in the United States. Also, in her book “The Arab Apocalypse”, she alluded to the 1967 defeat and the memory of the colonial wars and the Lebanese Civil War.

Etel believed that poetry scares authority; that is why it sought to buy off poets. She says that the power of poetry is that “it comes out of a soul to reach another soul. Therefore, the oppressive authority fears the authority of poetry because it is invisible. Poetry has a hypnotic effect, and authority realises that better than anyone”.

Therefore, Etel sent a message to poets, saying: “Poets, change the world, or go home”!

She was drawn to the concerns of poetry, art, culture, commitment, and struggle in its comprehensive human concept. When she converted to the English language in writing, she wrote a poem about the Vietnam War declaring her rejection and proving that she is a world citizen.

Abdo Wazen says that her poetry contains a call to love and a cry against injustice for the marginalised. We see this in her most famous political poetic works, such as “The Arab Apocolypse – poem 27 October”, which she wrote following the American invasion of Iraq.

“To be alive is to be free”. This is how Etel defines life.

Between Painting and Writing

In the retrospective exhibition of Etel’s work, held by the Centre Pompidou-Metz, the title “Writing is drawing” was chosen since she is a “poet of painting, painter of poetry”.

The French critic Bodson says about her experience in painting: “What attracts the eye in Etel Adnan’s paintings above all is the happiness, or rather the happiness of contemplation. However, this simplicity imprinted with joy that is revealed with this first impression will not complete its meaning and will not leave an imprint on us unless we then direct our attention to the diversity, depth, and vitality of her personality”. In Etel’s own words: “I see to paint, and I paint to see… Painting expresses my happy place, which is one with the universe”.

Etel, the poet, describes her poetry herself in this way: “My poetry does not come from the history of poetry, but the being’s innate experience, and its contemplation of existence with clarity. That is why I feel when I write that the world is transforming into a new existence. I write without literary memory. This type of relationship with writing began with my first book of poetry and accompanied me through my later work. It applies to everything I’ve written”.

Etel Adnan passed away on Nov. 14, 2021 as a child, as her friends and lovers described. She says in one of her poems:

“This evening, my friends, I’m going to bed

early because the dark is too thick. I’ll try,

contrary to what’s usual in dreams, not to let

myself be carried by waves, nor hunt

for my key. I’m going to try to sleep,

I believe, as children do”.

She felt that she had retained her ability to always dream, to wish for a better world, she says, and believing that death will never be the last word.



  1., website.
  2. Asfour, Nana – Etel Adnan, Lebanese American Author and Artist, Dies at 96 – The New York Times, 2021.
  3. Etel Adnan: Poet, Writer and Painter – Workshop for Etel Adnan – Dar Al Tanweer, 2013.
  4. Al-Jarrah, N., Etel Adnan: I am a Greek Damascene, interview, Al-Jadeed Magazine, 2020.
  5. Wazen, A., The Loss of Etel Adnan: An International Creative Poet and Painter, Independent Arabia, 2021.
  6. Tarablisi, F., Fawaz Tarablisi Writes about Etel Adnan. Alroumi Magazine, 2014.
  7. Maa Ricardo Karam, Etel Adnan.


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of our bloggers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.

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