Online Edition: Summer 2006

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In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country by Etel Adnan

In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country

Etel Adnan

City Lights Books ($14.95)

by Kim Jensen

Etel Adnan, perhaps the most significant Arab-American writer since Gibran Khalil Gibran, is the author of many important works, including The Arab Apocalypse, The Indian Never Had a Horse, and a haunting portrayal of the Lebanese Civil War, Sitt Marie Rose. Ever the itinerant poet/artist, she has, for five decades, divided her life between three cities—Paris, Sausalito, and Beirut. With her fractured yet attentive adherence to the particulars of place, Adnan’s writing encompasses a complex investigation of a migratory and hybrid consciousness. This hybridity is widely referenced in contemporary culture but rarely so thoroughly explored and defined as in these pages.

In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country is a gorgeously, multi-layered prose poem/poetic essay which represents a journey through the 20th century. Adnan, who has been consciously present for most of the historical disasters of that century as well as its many experimental literary movements, has tuned her language to an indelible pitch that is by turns lyrical, quizzical, wistful, and wise.

The book cover itself is a masterpiece of evocation, transmitting the content and themes of the book in a heartbreakingly organic way. The black and white cover photo taken by landmark California photographer Pirkle Jones, depicts a sort of overgrown, woodsy back garden pathway from the older, more bohemian days of San Francisco, which Adnan discovered and loved at first sight in the 1950s. With its unhinged and foggy windows and doors, and the sense of beautiful decay, the cover image anchors the text and evokes an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia and mystery and sadness.

This garden scene of lush abandon and exquisite defeat is bordered by a tessellated Arabic design—as if to say that one never strays far from one’s core identity no matter how far one travels. The back cover is graced by another black and white photo of an old Beirut wall covered with graffiti that’s been worn away by time and the elements. Both the faded scrawl on the wall (which reads “The Arab Revolutionary”) and the old street address—written in both French and Arabic—seem to point to the impossibility of hopeful retrieval. What unfolds between these melancholic representations of California and Beirut is Adnan’s vision of the human heart, when that heart is oscillating between painful poles.

The structure of the book is something of a palimpsest itself, bringing together, in seven separate sections, work that spans from the 1970s to present. The first section of the collection was written upon Adnan’s return to Beirut from California in 1972. Inspired by William H. Gass’s collection of short stories by a similar name, Adnan uses prompt words and phrases—People, Place, Wires, Weather, The Same Person, Another Person, Church, Final Vital Data, Politics—to trigger a series of automatic writings. The passages following the cues encompass a variety of tonalities: lyrical fragments, aphoristic paradoxes, journalistic observations, philosophical inquiries, and surreal encounters.

Twenty-five years later, Etel Adnan returned to these same prompts, and reflected on the themes of the work; she then added several more pieces in the same vein. The book also includes a groundbreaking meditation on the meaning of the figure of Lawrence of Arabia, “At Both Ends,” as well as a stream-of-consciousness reflection entitled “To Be in a Time of War,” written during the U.S. assault on Baghdad in 2003. The result of this cross-generational compilation is a poetic memoir that reveals an elegiac progression and the evolution of a distinct literary voice.

The opening sequence, written at the time of the Lebanese Civil war, is marked by searing contradiction and impossibility. “Like a salmon I came back here to die,” Adnan writes. “But this place is not a place. I am unable to die”—words that call to mind the poem “Abduction” by Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef written much later, after the first Gulf War. “That was not a country,” Youssef insists with the same tragic denial as Adnan here. This feeling of aporia and paradox seem to be the hallmarks of much post-colonial war literature.

War is only one of many themes that emerge across these pages. As in much of her writing, Adnan returns to meditations on the nature of perception, the dynamic interplay between the solipsism emblematic of Western experience vs. Eastern collectivism, and explorations of the skittery dislocations of contemporary identity. Adnan also offers affectionate odes to the things and people she loves: the architecture of windows and doors, the sea, weather, food, and the great Egyptian diva, Um Kalthoum: “I heard her when I was twelve in the Grand Theatre of Beirut. It was a beneficial trauma.”

Oscillating between daily pleasure (“If the business of life is happiness, I will describe for you my linen sheet”) and cognition of horror (“The human body is one’s capital. Savage capitalism creates savage pornography”), Adnan often returns to the idea that humans at times seem nothing more than a series of electrical impulses, pure motion or pure pain. “Pain is both the journey and the traveler, a traveler who doesn’t live side by side with you, but within you.”

The repetition of the original cues— People, Place, Wires, Weather, etc.— throughout this book create both a sense of continuity and permutation. One of the most memorable series of reflections is centered on the word “wire.” In the early section, Adnan writes “The thread of this century is made of wire...People’s mouths sewn with wires and Che Guevara’s body bandaged with them and dragged from one place to another. A Viet Cong hanged not by rope but by iron...Each one of us is a dog attached by steel threads to a purpose, waiting for lightning to strike.”

This image of death by wire is reincarnated through later discussions of telephone wires in California: “anyone who deals with paradise knows that something always casts a shadow on our bliss: in my case it’s the wires that cross my immediate horizon.” Later Adnan describes fenced ranches as a symbol of our times; further on the wires become the bars of a bird cage, and then a nightmarish electric chair. Some of the transformations of the other images in the book seem to reflect a cold war/ post-cold war dichotomy that is never overtly referenced, but nevertheless provides a strong undercurrent.

Whenever the “I” enters the language, the essay takes on its most intimate tones: “I have the sadness of a meteor. I count one sunset after another. I become the stem of a new tree battered with wounds on which birds come to hold their tribal encounters.” In the passages entitled “Household Apples,” Adnan offers autobiographical memories of eating pungent “Zabadani” apples on the train to Damascus and in her uncle’s orchard in a Syrian village, Bassimeh. These sentimental scenes in the orchard by a river lovingly root the text in a body and a place. One gets the sense that every adult debacle is being judged against such scenes of original paradise.

Much more than a personal excursion, however, this work represents an encounter with insurmountable paradoxes. On the one hand there is the yearning for an end to tragic contradiction; on the other, there is the obvious delight in the language of contradiction, which makes for interesting literature. Adnan is acutely aware that this is a luxury too.

Adnan’s use of uncanny juxtapositions and a formal language of inquiry result in the creation of a vast interior space of freedom. Yet, the writing reveals just how small this interior space is when faced with political realities of war and imperialism. The claustrophobia yet warmth of such a vulnerable space is suggested by the “heart” of the title—it becomes something of a bunker, a grotto, an underground cave, a place to bide one’s time and wait out the worst; it is not the place to stage a revolt or act for change.

Perhaps the overall wistful tone in this work, which swings the text further toward the Arab side of the identity equation, arises from dual urgencies— a justified anger that is modulated by a sense of powerlessness. In this way the essay is a poignant excavation of a century of Arab loss and despair. But this text, like Adnan, is always traveling, and in the windy wake of these voyages it brings, through our dusty windows, deserts, music, and the sea.

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