If you type Etel Adnan’s name into Google — in Arabic or English or French — you won’t find a single picture of the poet in her youth. Even if you type “Etel Adnan young,” you will only see results from her later years. Among these is a black and white picture of an elder Etel, her face partially covered with a flower, like an Ottoman girl preparing to transcend time.
Throughout Etel’s literary and artistic career, which has lasted over six decades, she has constantly endeavored to deconstruct questions of language. This quest has its roots in her family history; whenever she is asked about Arabic, she refers to her parents’ house in Beirut, and recalls her Greek mother and Syrian father, who met through the Turkish language. Etel’s father was born in Damascus and later joined the Ottoman army, where he learned German and French. In her poem “To Write in a Foreign Language,” Etel recalls her father’s attempts to teach her Arabic and explains how the many languages in her life often changed based on location: Turkish and Greek at home, French in school, Arabic in the streets. Etel says that her father spoke to her mother in Turkish, but during the wars he would write her romantic letters in French. In this way, French became the language with which Etel would battle the world.
Etel describes the Arabic language as her “paradise that is forever lost.” She often speaks about Arabic in terms of neglect and regret — perhaps even vindication — but she doesn’t allow these terms to overshadow her positive and more subversive relationships with the language. In her many attempts to return to and reclaim Arabic, she disrupts the necessity of language and its essentiality to literature and the litterateur. Etel deals with language as a political and artistic idea; it can be a dystopian poem that thinks in Arabic but is written in French, and it can also be a visual appropriation of words, and a constant act of translation from self to text to readers.