Dear Etel, 

I have just traveled from the peaks of California, wrapped in a luscious mist atop the jagged cliffs and ocean infinite, to the creases and folds of the Dom mountain in the Swiss Alps, where milky fog rests on pine forests sprawled under snowy crests. You are everywhere, flowing in those heights, hills, sea breezes, clouds, moody skies, and birdsongs. I follow you in this incessant exile toward desire and freedom. I see you, I imagine your gaze settling into the horizon, longing for our beloved Beirut, where I am headed next. I am here to study philosophy, as you and my mother did; I am a professor, as you and my aunt Ketty were. Now our guides are gone, and we are lost. As you taught me to, I dive into our ancestral myths and cosmologies looking for the source, from the Mediterranean to Babylon, seeking truth in the scripts of Gilgamesh, Zarathustra, Isis, Ishtar, and ghazals. We were colonized time and time again, and men tried to tame us, but we went searching for some wild place to lay our dreams, to enjoy our sensuality, to fantasize about outer space, a respite from chaos and destruction. Last night, I stared at the sky — a constellation of stars were dancing like fireflies. Today, you would have read the news, as you feverishly did, and you would have felt grief. Affirmative action was revoked in the United States; migrants are drowning in the Mediterranean; forests are burning; Palestine is being bombed again; the fascists triumph everywhere as you had prophesied; the Bay Area is hit by extreme inequality and climate crisis. Our world has become uninhabitable, ravaged by greed. Your recent departure was a painful reminder to seize the day. While we corresponded, and I interviewed your partner Simone Fattal in New York, I regret not spending time with you. 


You were born into struggle, but you held onto your sense of awe. Your love remained abundant. Your mother was a Christian from Smyrna, Greece, and your father was a Muslim from Damascus. In the uneasy rift between those worlds, and the overwhelming domination of French colonization, you began crafting your own language. Engaged with Arab modernism and revolutionary intellectuals, you pushed experimentation to the extreme. When your mother died in 1958, you settled in a small town north of San Francisco to teach philosophy of art at Dominican College, where Ansel Adams had studied. That is when you began to paint, at the age of 34. Distancing yourself from writing in French in solidarity with the Algerian independence movement, art became a refuge from the violence of language. 

Your compositions were a place for hope and joy. Using crayons, oil paint, and a palette knife, you created brute compositions where geometries in bright tones formed peaks, suns, and seas. Sketched impulsively and obsessively, your art radiates a sense of calm, a spiritual experience that you recreated countless times, channeling some cosmic force outside language, mystery, and mysticism.    

Poetry came in response to war. You left war-torn Beirut for Paris to chronicle the unthinkable violence in Sitt Marie Rose (1978), responding to the real story of the Christian militia’s torture, dismemberment, and killing of a woman who worked in the Palestinian camps. In your novel, death haunts a school of hearing-impaired children cared for by Marie Rose, under the siege of bloodthirsty men and their brutal and obscene rituals. 

Those men are moved by a sick sexuality, a mad love, where images of crushing and cries dominate. They are inhabited by a profound distaste for the sexual thing. A sense of the uncleanliness of pleasure torments them and keeps them from ever being satisfied. In their fights, they don’t try to conquer lands, but rather aim to eliminate each other.

Your words redeemed the martyr and her children in a radical act of defiance and resistance. Tragically, war and its unimaginable carnages lingered on, throwing you into a lifelong wandering, in-betweenness, tearing you away from your sea, sun, mountains, and sky. You wrote The Arab Apocalypse (1989), a visionary epic capturing the total collapse of meaning in catastrophe, setting the tone for an era of profound despair and trauma:   

The Arabs’ sun is a perennial atom bomb drinking milk sadistic tubercular
with its fingers sewn the sun caresses the Euphrates
It runs and multiplies from the Atlantic to the Gulf to smash a blade of grass

a tattooed sun eats the hand that helps it to rise
It hurries from Baghdad to Beirut to rip up 8,000 horses
on the pine forests a sickly sun drops pesticides
it hunts the gazelle from a motorcycle
a rachitic sun marries the Bedu woman to beget a deformed child
It goes to sea to only decimate blue sharks
a sun ball of smoke puts harbor after harbor on fire STOP black smoke
It eats up wheat silos in front of hungry mouths
a cholera-stricken sun moves in the Camp’s labyrinth
it tortured the Palestinian fighters already gunned down on a bed of dirt


Etel Adnan, “Mont Tamalpaïs” (2020), oil on canvas, 13 x 16 1/8 inches (© The Estate of Etel Adnan)

You witnessed your friends’ deaths and faced lethal threats as the war ravaged our homeland. Rage took over, but you were determined to overcome. Your unrelenting movement carried you to new landscapes and underground networks. In 1976 you settled in Sausalito, land of the Coast Miwoks, with Simone. Did you find a sense of peace in California, a way out of death culture? Did the trees and shorelines help you heal? With a found tribe of Beats, artists, poets, and hippies, came a sense of rebirth. Mount Tamalpais, which you reveled in from your window, was a revelation, the source of desire itself, a connection to your Mount Lebanon and others in art history, like the Fuji or Cézanne’s Mont St Victoire. You said it was the most important encounter of your life. Every day you revisited Mount Tamalpais on long walks, in your paintings, in your verses and fantasies, speaking to the coyotes, trees, native people, and hobos. You watched the light shift, the lines thicken and darken, the mass rising over the ocean. In Journey to Mount Tamalpais (1986), you wrote: 

This morning I took the card table and put it out on the deck, under the pine trees. On a piece of paper shadows fell. I tried to catch their contours but they were slowly moving, all the time. They made me think of sidewalks on which people pass, swiftly. And the big mountain sent a wild smell of crushed herbs into the air making everything feel slightly off.

Like a chorus, the warm breeze had come all the way from Athens and Baghdad, to the Bay, by the Pacific Route, its longest journey. It is the energy of these winds that I used, when I came to these shores, obsessed, followed by my home-made furies, errynies, and such potent creatures. And I fell in love with the immense blue eyes of the Pacific: I saw its red algae, its blood-colored cliffs, its pulsating breath. The ocean led me to the mountain.

The mountain was life, hope, love, and lust. You sketched its every curve, angle, surface, and climax, your thick paint saturated with its sunny colors, becoming more and more calligraphic, abstract pure form. It gave you courage.  

Once I was asked in front of a television camera: “Who is the most important person you ever met?” and I remember answering: “A mountain.” I thus discovered that Tamalpais was at the very center of my being.

Year after year, coming down Grand Avenue in San Rafael, coming up from Monterey or Carmel, coming from the north and the Mendocino Coast, Tamalpais appeared as a constant point of reference, the way a desert traveler will see an oasis, not only for water, but as the very idea of home. In such cases, geographic spots become spiritual concepts.

You and Simone worked tirelessly, founding the Post-Apollo Press in 1982 as the culmination of your collective work in experimental thought, art, and feminism — an aesthetic and political homage to the revolution — from Arab modernism to resistance movements in Palestine and Algiers. You and Simone poured your energies into art, she sculpting in clay and you painting in blood red, ochres, and deep aquas, searching for pristine landscapes of untouched utopias. The repetition of patterns and sun-filled hues formed a rhythm, a persistence to live. Nature was your solace: 

Standing on Mount Tamalpais I am in the rhythms of the world. Everything seems right as it is. I am in harmony with the stars, for the better or the worst. I know. I know. I know.

Cycles of evil 

Etel Adnan, “Mont Tamalpaïs” (1970 / 2017), wool tapestry, 63 x 78 3/4 inches, Edition 2 of 3 (© The Estate of Etel Adnan)

But grief and melancholy always loomed, even on Tamalpais. You wrote: 

I feel trapped in this universe and think of what an anti-universe could mean, which is still a universe; there is no way out.

Years later, unable to return to your beloved mountain and sea, settled in Paris, and witnessing a Beirut in ruins, your eternal candor and joy for life began to fade. You had battled for a radical existence of poetic and intellectual resistance, for unashamed queer liberation and decolonial practice, and you had mapped out your singular vision of pacifism in a life of profound engagement. But the world continued to burn, madness all around. As you began to contemplate your death, you wrote Shifting the Silence (2020) — wondering why the cycle of violence and destruction devoured our existence — you lost the rhythm, you envisioned death enveloping you. You left us with an invitation to love and live harder, to be one with nature and the cosmos, to commit to the struggle holistically. You left us far away from California’s soft light and sunshine, the monumental grandeur of Mount Tamalpais, and the taste of freedom you had savored with abandon. Today I walk in your path, on the sinuous and dangerous roads to liberation, conscious of the sacrifices they demand of us, following your call for a collective ethic of ecstatic love. When I finally landed in Beirut, over the shimmering Mediterranean, we all clapped in delight. You are missed. 

This article was made possible through the support of the Sam Francis Foundation in honor of the 100th birthday of Sam Francis.

Shirine Saad is a Beirut-born journalist, programmer, and DJ focusing on culture and activism. She recently taught Arts Journalism and Criticism at Brown University, where she is the Founding Editor of...

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