This paper examines the trope of the journey in three works by Etel Adnan: Journey to Mount Tamalpais (1986) The Manifestations of the Voyage (1990), and Of Cities & Women (Letters to Fawwaz) (1993). In each of these texts, Adnan focuses on some aspect of nature (Mount Tamalpais, the linden tree, stars, the sea) and pairs it with specific built environments (a staircase, a road, a city) to explore ideas on art, feminism, loss, and exile. In Of Cities, Adnan declines to write “a formal letter on ‘feminism,’” as her friend Fawwaz Traboulsi had requested for his magazine Zawaya, and instead composes a series of letters from different cities to which she travels, with the purpose she says, of “living that which was given to me.” In Tamalpais, Adnan declares the mountain a woman and elucidates how “geographic spots become spiritual concepts.” In Manifestations, she asserts that “exile emigration the voyage/ are the halts of Knowledge,” inviting us to explore the relationship between places, movement, and the literary trope of the journey.
Unlike the triumphalist wanderings of Odysseus, the exploratory "rihla" of Ibn Battuta, or the poetically ambitious journeys of Bashō and Dante, Adnan invites her reader on a “journey into the unknowing.” From the vantage of exile and through her painter’s eyes, Adnan traces layers of history in geography, describes the shape and color of light on surfaces, observes the ruins of abandoned places, and elucidates an embodied feminism that situates women’s experiences in specific social, economic, and political conditions as well as in nature and in specific places. This paper argues that Adnan’s uses of the idea of the journey disrupt typical narratives of gender, nature, art, nation, and migration. A comparative approach to her work, moreover, reveals how it not only converses with older texts but also resonates with more recent narratives of migration by Arab American writers such as Laila Lalami, Zeyn Joukhadar, and Rabih Alameddine, who, like Adnan, unsettle the relationship between the detached observer and the knowable subject, between the place of departure, nature, art, gender, and the notion of arrival.
-Etel Adnan, Of Cities & Women (Letters to Fawwaz). Sausalito, CA: The Post-Apollo Press, 1993, 3.
-Etel Adnan, Journey to Mount Tamalpais. 2nd edition. New York: Litmus Press, 2021, 4.
-Etel Adnan, The Spring Flowers Own & The Manifestation of the Voyage, The Post-Apollo Press, 1990, 42. 6 Ibid, Of Cities, 34.
In Sitt Marie Rose (1977), Etel Adnan recounts the story of Marie-Rose, a Lebanese Christian teacher who was kidnapped and brutally murdered by a right-wing Christian militia for supporting the Palestinian cause and refusing to be exchanged for her Palestinian lover at the outset of the Lebanese Civil War. Upon being interrogated, the transgressive Marie Rose defies her kidnappers, lashing out at them for their internalized colonialism, sectarianism and xenophobia. However, Palestinians and their supporters are not the only targets of violence and othering in the novel. Rather, other women, disabled children, Syrian laborers—and the environment—have their own experiences of violence and marginalization as Beirut is split into East and West, and militarized masculinity becomes the new social order. Drawing on Sara Ahmed’s conceptualization of “stranger danger,” embodied encounters, and migration, this paper provides a contextual analysis of Sitt Marie Rose, focusing on the novel’s engagement with intersectional violences, including colonial (and “postcolonial”), gender, environmental, sectarian and racialized violence. I show how in Sitt Marie Rose, orientalism and colonialism are not portrayed as the evils of an exclusively Western occupier; rather, it is the upper-class Lebanese who—in their advancement of the colonial legacy—internalize self-deprecating discourses of what it means to be “Arab”/“Lebanese” to violate and exclude disenfranchised “others” whom they deem as primitive, foreign, and subhuman. I demonstrate the novel’s relevance today, particularly in light of Lebanon’s recurrent political polarization, the Syrian refugee crisis, the ongoing oppression of Palestinians, and the country’s socio-economic meltdown. Finally, I draw comparisons between the novel and other cultural production, including contemporary films that engage with Lebanon’s lingering struggles with internalized colonialism, xenophobia and exclusion.