Adnan, Etel (1925—)

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Adnan, Etel (1925—)

Lebanese author and painter. Born in 1925 in Beirut, Lebanon; moved to United States in 1955.

Selected works:

Moonshots (1966); Five Senses for One Death (1971); Jebu et l'Express Beyrouth-Enfer (1973); Sitt Marie Rose (1978); L'Apocolypse Arabe (1980); Pablo Neruda is a Banana Tree (1982); From A to Z (1982); The Indian Never Had a Horse (1985); Journey to Mount Tamalpais (1986); The Spring Flowers Own and the Manifestations of the Voyage (1990).

Though Etel Adnan was born in Beirut, Lebanon, French colonialism in the region most heavily influenced her upbringing and writing. When she was five, Adnan's Syrian father and Greek mother enrolled her at a convent school run by French nuns, where children learned, spoke, and studied in French, a language unknown to Adnan's parents. Etel was not an avid reader since books were rare—in her home there was a Greek religious text, her father's Koran, and a dictionary—but she quickly showed a proficiency for writing. The nuns accused Adnan of plagiarism. Her essays, they claimed, were too good to have been written by a child. They soon learned that she was a genuine talent.

By her early adolescence, the language difference between child and parents caused stress in the family. Adnan's father, 20 years her mother's senior, was the weaker partner; old, ill, and unable to work, he was largely absent from matters involving his daughter. It was Adnan's mother who held the reins. When Etel was 16, her mother demanded she quit school and work to support the family, which included a young boy, the illegitimate child of a cousin. Adnan took a position in the newly assembled French War Office, which had been established in response to the threat of war (WWII); there, Adnan handled secretarial duties and, for the first year, enjoyed being one of Lebanon's first generation of working women. By the following fall, she began to miss school. Her boss Jean Gaulmier, who found her crying one morning, arranged for Adnan to take morning classes in preparation for the French baccalauréat and then work from eleven in the morning until eight at night. At the end of the day, the office chauffeur drove Adnan home, since the streets were unsafe for a woman to travel alone.

Adnan completed her baccalauréat and hoped to move on to college studies in engineering or architecture, but her mother forbade it. Fearing Adnan would lose her femininity, her marriage prospects and her ability to work, her mother instead enrolled her at the École Supérieure des Lettres. When the war bureau closed, Adnan took a new office position that left her afternoons and nights to study literature, art, and philosophy. She worked with Gabriel Bounoure, who encouraged Adnan's writing and recommended her for a scholarship at the Sorbonne in Paris. Adnan won the prize, but that same year, 1947, her father died. Her mother refused to let her go to Paris.

Instead, for three years Adnan taught French literature at the Ahliga School for Girls. Then in 1950, she no longer postponed her scholarship. Disowned, Adnan moved to Paris to study philosophy. By 1955, she had earned invitations to the United States, where she attended both Harvard and Berkeley, before taking a position in 1959 as a philosophy professor at Dominican College in California. Adnan had written her first poem, "The Book of the Sea," in 1947, but it was in America, protesting the Vietnam War, that she began to write political poetry in both French and English. She sent some of her work back to Europe, and her reputation as a literary activist and critic of life in Arabian society began to grow. In 1972, Adnan returned to Beirut for a brief editorial stint at the French Lebanese paper L'Orient-le Jour. At the outbreak of civil war there, she left.

Etel Adnan has since made homes in France and America; she continues to write in either French or English and translate her work between the two languages. She also assists in translations to Arabic but does not write in that language. Adnan does, however, paint "in Arabic" she says, and her art, as well as her designs for carpets, continues to grow in renown. She has published ten books, including the novel Sitt Marie Rose.


Badran, Margot, and Miriam Cooke. Opening the Gates. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Orfalea, Gregory, and Sharif Elmusa, eds. Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab American Poetry. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988.

Schipper, Mineke, ed. Unheard Words. London: Alisson and Busby, 1985.

Crista Martin , fiction and freelance writer, Boston, Massachusetts