Etel Adnan was born in 1925 and raised in Beirut, Lebanon. Her mother was a Greek from Smyrna, her father, a high ranking Ottoman officer born in Damascus. In Lebanon, she was educated in French schools.
She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, Paris. In January 1955 she went to the United States to pursue post-graduate studies in philosophy at U.C. Berkeley, and Harvard. From 1958 to 1972, she taught philosophy at Dominican College of San Rafael, California. Based on her feelings of connection to, and solidarity with the Algerian war of independence, she began to resist the political implications of writing in French and shifted the focus of her creative expression to visual art. She became a painter. But it was with her participation in the poets’ movement against the war in Vietnam that she began to write poems and became, in her words, “an American poet”.
In 1972, she moved back to Beirut and worked as cultural editor for two daily newspapers—first for Al Safa, then for L’Orient le Jour. She stayed in Lebanon until 1976.
In 1977, her novel Sitt Marie-Rose was published in Paris, and won the “France-Pays Arabes” award. This novel has been translated into more than 10 languages, and was to have an immense influence, becoming a classic of War Literature. In 1977, Adnan re-established herself in California, making Sausalito her home, with frequent stays in Paris.
In the late seventies, she wrote texts for two documentaries made by Jocelyne Saab, on the civil war in Lebanon, which were shown on French television as well as in Europe and Japan.
Etel Adnan’s poetry has been put to music by contemporary musicians:
Tania Leon : “The Queen of the Sea” performed in New York.
Gavin Bryars: “Love poems”, first commissioned by the BBC, then, under the title Adnan Songbook, premiered at the Almeida Theatre in London, in 1996, then performed at the Festival of Music in Cologne, in Vancouver, Bergen, in the Festival of Other Minds in San Francisco, and a great number of other venues. Adnan Songbook is part of the 2 CDs, A Portrait, by Gavin Bryars.
Henry Threadgill put to music 5 sections of The Arab Apocalypse performed in Oakland in 1999.
Annea Lockwood put to music parts of her poem Sea, which was performed under the title Luminescence at La Mamma within the Festival Sounds Like Now, in October 2004, in New York.
Zad Moultaka was commissioned by the Baalbeck Festival in Lebanon to put to music Five Senses for One Death. It was performed in Baalbeck under the title Nepsis, then at the Saintes Festival in France, and at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, France, all in 2005.
Zad Moultaka was again commissioned by the Concertgeboüw Orchestra in Amsterdam to write an opera Ur. The text contains 5 sections of The Arab Apocalypse. The work was performed in Amsterdam on December 1, 2007.
Etel Adnan wrote for the theatre:
The French part of Civil warS, a multilanguage opera by the American stage director Robert Wilson. It was performed in Lyon, and Bobigny, in 1985.
The Actress was performed in the author’s own French translation, at La Ménagerie de Verre Theatre in Paris in March 1999.
Like a Christmas Tree was performed in San Francisco, at Venue 9, in 2003; in Dusseldorf, at the Schauspielhaus, in 2003, in San Carlos de Bariloches, Argentina, in 2003, and in Udine, Italy, in 2005.
Jennin, a poem, was adapted for the stage and produced at Attis Theatre, in Athens, in 2005.
Proximité et éloignement de la mémoire (written in French by Etel Adnan) was performed at La Panta Theatre, Caen, France, in 2009.
Crime of Honor was published in a French translation by L’Arche, editors, in Paris in 2011.
The novel, Sitt Marie Rose, in an adaptation for the stage, was produced at the Forum Freis Theater, in Dusseldorf, in 2009.
In 2010 Adnan received from RAWI (Radius of Arab-American Writers) a “Life-time Achievement Award” and also won the Josephine Miles Award from PEN Oakland that same year.
In October 2011, in Dusseldorf, a play based on To Be In A Time of War, with texts by Heiner Müller, was produced at the Forum Freis Theater, in Düsseldorf, then presented in Berlin and Beirut.
Etel Adnan is also an internationally exhibited painter. Her next exhibit will be part of DOCUMENTA 13, in 2012, in Kassel, Germany.
Etel Adnan’s published works in English:
Moonshots, BEYROUTH, 1966
Five Senses for One Death, The Smith, 1971
From A To Z, The Post-Apollo Press, 1982
Sitt Marie-Rose, Translated from the French by Georgina Kleege, The Post-Apollo Press, 1982
The Indian Never Had A Horse & Other Poems, Illustrated with etchings by Russell Chatham, The Post-Apollo Press, 1985
Journey to Mount Tamalpais, The Post-Apollo Press, 1986
The Arab Apocalypse,Translated from the French by Etel Adnan, The Post-Apollo Press, 1989
The Spring Flowers Own & The Manifestations of the Voyage, The Post-Apollo Press, 1990
Of Cities & Women: Letters To Fawwaz, The Post-Apollo Press, 1993
Paris, When It’s Naked, The Post-Apollo Press, 1993
There: In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and of the Other, The Post-Apollo Press, 1997
In/somnia, The Post-Apollo Press, 2003
In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, City Lights Books, 2005
Master of the Eclipse, Interlink Books, 2009 *Winner of the PEN Oakland Award, 2010
Seasons, The Post-Apollo Press, 2008
Etel Adnan: On Love and the Cost We Are Not Willing to Pay Today: 100 Notes, 100 Thoughts: Documenta Series 006, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011
Sea and Fog, Nightboat Books, 2012
Homage to Etel Adnan. The Post-Apollo Press, 2012
Etel Adnan’s books become films:
A half-hour film based on the German edition of Paris, When It’s Naked was made by the German-Swiss television producer Heinz Butler and shown on German and Swiss televisions in the Spring 2000.
Vouvoula Skoura made a film of 40 minutes, based on On Cities and Women (in its Greek translation), in 2007, shown in many festivals and on Greece’s National Television.