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Byline: Aamer Hussein

'I'm publishing a translation of a novel by Etel Adnan,' Fahmida Riaz told me on one of her trips to London in 1996. 'The translator is Tanveer Anjum, and we've titled the book Das Lakh Parinday [10 Lakh Birds]. Do you know the book? Or its author?'

I told her I knew both. Though I first came across Etel in an anthology of Arab women poets in 1985, I'd read the English translation of Sitt Marie Rose, her seminal novel about the Lebanese civil war, shortly after. But it wasn't until 1995 that I came upon her work on the shelves of the Saqi Bookshop, which I often visited. These genre-defying books, crossing poetry, prose, memoir and fiction, were published in California by her dear friend Simone Fattal - Etel never courted big presses or international literary fame.

By a lucky coincidence, Etel visited London several times that year, and my friend Mai Ghoussoub suggested I interview her at the now-defunct Kufa Gallery. I can't remember when I first met Etel, but we found an immediate rapport. The many conversations we had in the months that followed were illuminating and life-enhancing, and though I felt I couldn't do justice to the depth and versatility of her writings, I remember the occasion as celebratory and inspiring (she signed one of her books 'to Aamer, a mystic lover of women').

We met several times over the next few years, and new books by her would arrive in the post between these meetings. I also think I gave her a copy of Das Lakh Parinday which I carried back from Karachi; though she couldn't read it, she showed an almost-childlike pleasure upon receiving it.

Dense and sometimes ineffable, those books still weave a web of light around me; the imprint they leave is enriched by the paintings I later saw, and a knowledge of her immersion in the ideas and philosophy of Ibn al Arabi, notably his The 29 Pages. 'I feel that his thought is very close,' she said in an interview, 'as a procedure of the mind, to the music of Ali Akbar Khan, or Arabic classical music, which is based on theme and variation ... we read him and it lights our imagination.'

There isn't only love for a person; there is your love for your everyday things. I love nature above all. It attracts me more often than art, and I would rather see a river than a museum.'

I lost touch with Etel because, in those pre-internet days, I was following a difficult path, but I kept in touch with her writing and, later, with her painting: she had an exhibition of her artworks in London's Serpentine Gallery in 2016. The trip to the gallery and, even more, her paintings in the sequence 'The Weight of the World' - as the poet Alev Adil, with whom I'd seen the exhibition, pointed out - inspired the final section of the title story of my first Urdu collection Zindagi Se Pehlay [Before Life], which I wrote three years later.

Etel was multilingual. Born in Beirut in 1925 to a Turkish-speaking Damascene Muslim father and a Greek mother, she heard Arabic all around her. Like many Lebanese writers of her generation, she began to write in French, the language of her schooling. But once she moved to California in the 1960s, English became the language in which she wrote for the rest of her life.

Many of her canvases, however, foreground Arabic verses; she sometimes said she painted in Arabic. She returned frequently to Beirut; it was never far from her writing, as she reveals in the several stories of her 2009 collection Master of the Eclipse, that are told from the perspectives of ordinary working men from the poorer districts of Beirut.

Now both Etel and Fahmida - also a multifaceted writer - are gone. I heard the news of Etel's death a week ago, when I was ill in bed. I knew I wanted to read her again. I returned, among other books of prose and poetry, to the exquisite Urdu translation of Sitt Marie Rose, and compared its first chapter to Etel's original French.

Three decades and more after my first reading, I found it as compelling as ever in its depiction of the brutalities of war, its support for the Palestinians, its portrayal of Syrian migrant workers, and was even more taken by its references to light, darkness and blighted love.

'It's uncannily close to the original,' I told Karachi-born artist and academic Adnan Madani over a Lebanese lunch yesterday, 'even though it's translated from someone else's English version.' Adnan had read Sitt Marie Rose in French years ago but, being of the generation that witnessed Etel's late rise to international acclaim as a visual artist, he was more familiar with her reputation in the latter capacity and not as a hidden literary treasure.

We discussed where and how the traces of Sufi thought may have illuminated her painting in the way they did her prose. One of the many obituaries I read in memoriam has a quote from Etel which goes some way to explaining her approach: 'Love is not easy. Love of another person is the hardest thing to manage, and I think the most interesting. But there isn't only love for a person; there is your love for your everyday things. I love nature above all. It attracts me more often than art, and I would rather see a river than a museum.'

That's the sensation I carried away with me when I left the exhibition at the Serpentine five years ago, when the park seemed to be washed in the colours of her paintings.

'Etel was a firefly that created a light in our darkness,' our mutual friend, Damascus-born Rana Kabbani, wrote to me today. Rana, herself a very fine writer, critic and poet and translator of Mahmoud Darwish, first met her in 1976. They kept in touch for most of Etel's life.

'The light grew brighter as her art and writing did. She was full of laughter and hospitality; in love with life, despite innumerable exiles and even more traumatic wars that had shaken us all. She was our great feminist and cultural voice. It was a boon that she stayed on earth long enough to express what we needed expressed.'

That expression - in her prose, poetry, painting and her stories of her life - is the lasting legacy of this rare and sublime artist.
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Article Details
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Author:Aamer Hussein
Publication:Dawn (Karachi, Pakistan)
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Dec 5, 2021

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