Partners in life and art, Etel Adnan and Simone Fattal traveled the world in exile, searching for new landscapes and ideas. But the images they returned to again and again were rooted in the rust soils of Mount Lebanon, the cerulean horizon of the Mediterranean, and mythologies from Mesopotamia to ancient Egypt. In light of Etel’s recent passing and the loss of a spiritual guide, their radical and prolific love affair, between the sea, moon, and sun, lingers as an invitation to decolonial, queer liberation, and resistance.
The sun. Etel Adnan’s first artistic project with her partner Simone Fattal dates back to the early '70s, when, soon after meeting in Beirut, they painted a yellow-hued Mount Lebanon imbued in soft light. Their lines were carefree and sensuous, the solid peak evoking erotic forms. This landscape set the tone for a lifelong yearning for their beloved mountain and the sunshine of a lost Eden. Over the next decades, Etel would paint mountains, suns, and skies repeatedly, obsessively, as if to invoke some celestial force to offset the unfurling devastation.
The moon, sun, and stars are objects of intense fascination at the turn of the colonial era and the space age. Sun Ra lands in Egypt, where his rays of Free Jazz commune with the ancient astral gods. Arab artists and architects explore cosmic Islamic motifs, astronomy, and astrology, reinventing sci-fi sensibilities from the cradle of civilization. These futurists fantasize about alternative dimensions, critiquing wars, environmental disasters, scientific and capitalist advancement, and colonial culture, mapping new imaginaries. Space is the Place.
During the superpowers’ race in space, the Arab world sinks into strife and mass migrations after the 1967 Arab-Israel war and regional power struggles. In 1975, watching Lebanon burn, Etel Adnan writes Sitt Marie Rose as a guttural response to the violence of men and their meaningless blood bath. An oracle of struggle, a shaman of poetry and mysticism, Adnan sets the tone for the somber fate of her homeland, alchemizing a vision for an aesthetic of solidarity and resistance rooted in love—an urgent call for Palestinian resistance that will later lead to death threats.
The unspeakable horrors of 1975, depicted in vivid detail in Sitt Marie Rose, give birth to an absurdist, abstract, extreme experimentation with words, signs, and symbols: The Arab Apocalypse, an exploded poem fueled by the raging civil war. The fifty-nine pages correspond to the fifty-nine days of the Tal-el-Zaatar, a Palestinian camp on the outskirts of Beirut, destroyed by the Lebanese Forces in 1976:
The BIG RED SPOT of Jupiter is a storm. Matter is desperate/ Beirut is eaten by civil war children listen to the roar of cannons matter in fury turns in circles/ in the big void of the planets Beirut wallows in misfortune HOU !/HOU!/HOU!/ Beirut bleeds matter circles in tornadoes on nebulae’s surfaces O Milky Way!/ more blood than milk more pus than wine Jupiter/ defies the sun a yellow sun makes love to Jupiter/ hatred is filled with phosphorus jealousy wears a black ribbon/ Jupiter gets away from the sun and runs back to it: it is a hunting dog/ any Arab crowd is a crowd of poets. Listen to its maledictions! incandescent planets darkly flutter in the heart of the war.
geomagnetic forces dry up our regions We implore the rain we receive solar particles We want to see We are blind
We go in hordes to praise the Lord the solar Face is pitiless/ Jupiter and the sun fight over Gilgamesh’s mortal remains. (p.36)
The sun blazes through the broken verses—raging through the planets, moon, and stars, across ancient Egypt and Babylon, Palestine and Syria, ravaging, lethal, fusing movements of massacre and annihilation. Everywhere is chaos. The poem is visionary in form and content, igniting a new language for post-modern dystopias—an era of severe disruption where existing forms no longer hold meaning.
“In my twenties, I heard the French say that Arabs were the children of the sun, les enfants du soleil,” Adnan told Lynne Tillman in an interview in Bidoun Magazine. “It was said with disdain—Arabs were irresponsible, grown-up children.” Solar power becomes a metaphor for life and death, like the fire stolen by Prometheus, presaging new eras of decadence and destruction. “Because the sun is dangerous. It can kill you, burn you. But the sun is also life.”
Exile, and the search for sundrenched littorals, transport Etel and Simone to Sausalito, in Northern California, in 1980. There, basking in the aura of Mount Tamalpais, they found the Post-Apollo Press, creating a platform for experimental poetry and philosophy in the tradition of the artistes engagés of Arab Modernism. Life, love, nature, protest, teaching, writing, painting: these are facets of a profound commitment to art and total freedom. From afar, they remain connected to Beirut. They respond to movements of oppression, delve deeper into the mythology of the fertile crescent, in dialogue with The Epic of Gilgamesh or Zaat El Hima, Hesiod’s Work and Days, Alexander the Great’s conquests, the pyramids of Ra, Arab Modernism and the Palestinian intellectual tradition. They continue their correspondence with Jalal Toufic, Adonis, Janine Rubeiz, and other old and new friends. Making art is the body’s impulsive response to death, loving in the apocalypse is a mad act of defiance. “Life is stronger than war, and love is stronger than death,” Fattal told me at the 2019 opening of her exhibition "Works and Days" at MoMa PS1.
Enrolling in art school in 1988, Fattal discovers clay as a living force, shaping it into the monumental figures of archeological ruins. Her first sculpture, “Torso found in Today’s Downtown Beirut” (1988), is a colorless block of alabaster carved into a bust, an echo of the fallen bodies of the city.
Then begins an abstract sculptural archive in dialogue with her lover’s work. While Adnan’s writing cuts into the tragedy of human existence, her knife paintings, leporellos, tapestries, and watercolors are vibrant landscapes of longing and plenitude—suns kissing seas and hills, squares embracing curves, bursting with desire. As death looms and millennial cities are wiped out, theirs is an archive of remembrance, an homage to the legacies of Eastern civilizations and their mysticism, a stubborn denial of amnesia and erasure. It is a poetic and conceptual language that transforms chaos and loss into a boundless epic of love.
Throughout the years, Fattal molds endless series of rugged, delicate objects—sirens, horses, trees, fruits, lions, houses revisiting ancient myths from Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, dominated by the warrior sculptures of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and other epic heroes. Their massive bodies remain fragile, perched on frail legs, in an uncertain equilibrium. They are rusty, their skins bruised and gnarly, as if rising from the earth. They are monuments and totems, witnessing the violent loop of genocide and environmental catastrophe.
“‘The dead should come back and fight the war instead of us’ Etel wrote about the civil war in Lebanon,” says Fattal in an Apartemento interview with Jinan Khayyer. “When I remembered that I created these standing warriors (such as The Wounded Warrior, 1999) as a witness to this fight.”
Homesick, on a quest for the sun, sea, and mountains, the couple travels to Paris, the Greek coast, Italy, and back to California, engaged with new artists and movements. Torn from their city, free to love, think, and create, they bring together painting and poetry, philosophy and politics, sculpture and writing, love and resistance, life and art, shattering binaries. Their life unfolds outside the oppressive burden of the Arab patriarchy, one that dictates and controls our bodies, minds, and desires. Their union is an embodied rebellion, a testament to the power of queer love, of fearless feminism and intellectual courage. Tracing paths to an ancient and Islamic past, reinventing the traditional forms and colors of their Levantine vernacular, they create a poetry of decolonization where mysticism heals the devastation of exile and the trauma of a lost homeland. A cosmic arch, a constellation of hope, a revelation for a utopian future.
Of Cities and Women, written in the early nineties as the Gulf War looms, is a series of letters penned by Adnan to Fawwaz for the special issue of "Arab Women" of his magazine, Zawaya. It is a free-flowing feminist meditation inspired by trips to Barcelona, Greece, Aix, Beirut, and other places. Adnan seeks women in empty streets and sleepless nights, contemplating the horizon and mountains. Women are everywhere, their bodies nude, free, dancing, rebellious, erotic, mad, assaulted, ailing, elderly or youthful, moving in the supernatural light of the dusk or dawn.
“There is no more nature, I tell myself, in the near metaphysical, ecstatic sense of the word,” Writes Adnan at the Mont Sainte-Victoire, recently devastated by a fire. “And if there is no ‘Nature,’ there is no ‘Woman.’ She turns to the cosmos as a space for mystical contemplation."
Later, riffing on Picasso’s Guernica, she writes, “He knows that the original Power is of a feminine nature, and that women, like him, when exiled from Power, are thrown into chaos… Woman is war, and counter-war.” As the Arab Apocalypse returns with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Adnan reflects on thirteenth-century Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi at a seminar in Spain. “Divine wisdom, thought Ibn Arabi—before Dante, and those who followed him—is feminine; and human love is always a scandal because it is always a necessity, a model of divine love.”
Landing in a dystopian Beirut recovering from the civil war, grieving the loss of her friend, the gallerist Janine Rubeiz, Adnan turns again to the sea for solace. She is a woman, of course, huge and open and fluid and osmotic, bathed by the sun. Woman is the sublime, ecstatic love, oneness. “Woman is not death.”
This thirst for love, nature, colors, and words carries the lovers throughout their wanderings, through strife and exile, producing a vast body of art and writing. When, at the age of ninety-four, standing on the precipice of death and yet more apocalypses, alienated from her beloved Beirut, mourning the cities and lives in Syria, Adnan begins to lose faith.
In Shifting the Silence, written before the Beirut blast, as the COVID epidemic wipes out countless lives, she writes: “And having more memories than yearnings, searching in unnamable spaces, Sicily’s orchards or Lebanon’s thinning waters, I reach a land between borders, unclaimed, and stand there, as if I were alone, but the rhythm is missing.” (p. 2)
Adnan has composed a requiem for the Venice Biennial, with “A new angelic order of astronaut-angels, trumpeting their existence.” (p.73)
“Writing that requiem,” she writes, “I had to hear the representative of those humans who claim that they are tired of the world’s situation and that they will be looking for a new Revelation. But the choir kept telling them that the Revelation is indivisible. It’s one. It’s likely what Nietzsche meant when he mentioned, ‘the eternal return of the same.’” (p.74)
Etel has left us. Beirut is a giant hole, a city in ruins. The sea itself has exploded and there is nowhere left to go. Bombs are falling on Gaza, on Syria, on Kiev. Baghdad "The Victorious" and Kabul’s gardens and palaces are sinister battlefields. The virus has annihilated millions, the earth is burning, migrants perish crossing borders and seas, refugees and the houseless lie in our front yards. The curse unleashed in ancient millennia continues to wipe out lives and hopes in its wake. How do we fill the immense void Etel left behind? Our fallen poets and thinkers, witnesses of our horrifying war, have gone. But look around. Their spirit is here, in the poetic resistance from Sheikh Jarrah to the streets of Beirut, in solidarity movements from Sudan to Brooklyn. Listen.