Prose from Poetry Magazine

To Speak with Many Tongues at Once

The poetry of place—and placelessness.

I have always been an immigrant, wherever it is I have lived in the world. I left Egypt, where I was born, at three months of age. 
I lived in the West as an Arab infant whose family had imposed exile. When I returned home as a teenager, I was a stranger to my own extended family who scoffed and giggled at my polyglot Arabic accent. Now that I am living in the United States again, I realize that I have been code-switching my whole life: not only speaking, but also writing in a foreign language, a tongue and vernacular that is not my own, constantly attempting to assimilate. Being a millennial diasporic Arab, I have watched the world devour the image of my people and their collective identities on many stages. I’ve been privy to everyone from presidents to school kids spewing bigoted rhetoric, seeing the Arabic-speaking world conflated with the violence of religious extremism, a condition created and spoon-fed to the public by political commentators who have perhaps withdrawn themselves from their own complicity in making history.

I’ve always longed to find a native polyglot like me, someone who could discuss the mutilation of the Arab image in the Western consciousness, with whom I could talk about Putin and Paris, Netanyahu and Nagasaki, Tehran and Tel Aviv. But increasingly, the freedom of expression is stripped and buried in the Arab world — the critical young Egyptian author Ahmed Naji, for example, was this year sentenced to prison for writing novels that speak of sex and hashish. Egypt, the largest of Arab countries, is becoming akin to the violently oppressive and homophobic Cuba that Reinaldo Arenas protested. With the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the image of the Muslim as well as the Arab became hollowed of any poetry: an apocalypse engulfing image and text.

As we seek resurrection and resuscitation from these ashes, there is one figure that I keep returning to, one who eloquently captures the essence of this collective trauma, and that is the poet, essayist, and painter Etel Adnan. She was born in Beirut to a Syrian father and a Greek mother from Smyrna in 1925. Adnan grew up in a household where multiple languages were exchanged: Greek, Arabic, Turkish, and French, to name the ones that I am certain of. However, in her meditation on growing up, “To Write in a Foreign Language,” Adnan explains how writing in English (as opposed to the many languages spoken in her familial home) became a form of resistance; she then proceeds to untangle the concept of home and the diasporic tongue’s potential to roam across multiple territories. Hers was a life lived in multiple self-imposed and forced exiles from the Arab world (specifically her native Beirut); she spent much of her life between the urban metropole of Paris and amidst the mountain ranges of Sausalito, California. In these places, Adnan worked between prose, poetry and painting, merging these worlds into a tapestry of her imagination. Her elucidations evoked a hybrid being — a creolized subject, persistently developing a sense of home in foreign lands.

In her collection In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, Adnan negotiates these memories of her native Lebanon. She begins:

So I have sailed the seas and come    ... 
                                                                    to B    ...    
a city by the sea, in Lebanon. It is seventeen years later. My absence has been an exile from an exile.

As she continues, she meditates:

The most interesting things in Beirut are the absent ones. The absence of an opera house, of a football field, of a bridge, of a subway, and, I was going to say, of the people and the government. And, of course, the absence of absence of garbage.

Absence is a theme that recurs in her landmark text The Arab Apocalypse, a book where hieroglyphic painted forms sit and breathe next to evocative passages of text. Here, Adnan reflects on the violently mediated image of the Arab, who has become a violently contested and loathed public enemy:

A Hopi filled with bitter whiskey a solar bar in the midst of America.
The night of the non-event. War in the vacant sky. The Phantom’s absence.
Funerals. Coffin not covered with roses. Unarmed population. Long.
The yellow sun’s procession from the mosque to the vacant Place. Mute taxis.
The much awaited enemy has not come. He ate his yellow sun and vomited.
A green sun on the Meadow of  Tears    sun in my pocket 
wretched pocket sun.

The sun in these words is an embittered and pulsing device that evokes, absorbs, and contains the trauma of Beirut after the Lebanese Civil War. The specificity of this context, however, can be used as an allegory for the collective trauma that has ensnared the nations of the Arab world since the collapse of the Pan Arab ideal in 1967. Yet within Adnan’s words are coping mechanisms, ways out of the alienation induced by diasporic Arab status. This is often most clearly evoked by her renderings of landscapes — in poetry, accompanied by her thick broad brushstroke paintings. In   Journey to Mount Tamalpais, Adnan retreats from the burden of the past, seeking solace in the hills before her: “open wide the earth, shake trees from their roots,” she submits, as she makes her way through numerous returns and crossings.

In  Journey to Mount Tamalpais, we begin to sense a kind of liberated renewal taking place. Adnan is emancipating herself from the burden of being placeless (or indeed, of many nonplaces), claiming art as the site of her escape and shelter. By the time we reach forth to 2012, a new form of critical resolve is conjured in her treatise on love, which was first printed as a notebook for the renowned art event Documenta 13, The Cost for Love We Are Not Willing to Pay.

Love begins    ...    becomes a desire to repeat the experience. It becomes an itinerary. A voyage. The imagination takes over that reality and starts building fantasies, dreams, projects    ...    It creates it own necessity, and in some people encompasses the whole of life....

How can one bear such an intensity?...

But what is love? And what are we giving up when we relinquish it?

Love is not to be described, it is to be lived. We may deny it, but we know it when it takes hold of us. When something in ourselves submits the self to itself.

Submitting the self to itself, to acknowledge one’s own polyphony within the world as a conditioned code-switcher is the ultimate resolve of these poetics. Etel Adnan dances through language, speaking not only of many tongues but also of many places. Through her writing, the condition of exile becomes one of possible resistance.


Originally Published: April 1st, 2016

Omar Kholeif is a writer, curator, editor, and broadcaster.

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
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  1. April 3, 2016
     jacob kobina ayiah mensah

    everywhere i go i feel i'm immigrant
    with no place to set even a tent,
    even in my homeland i feel the sick
    even in this poetry world i feel the same dirt
    & the hills are honed with the night dew
    i stop behind them to see myself
    still missing in this religous journey -
    do you have any rooms available
    with no labels? how much is it per night?
    i like a single room in order not to disturb
    the remains i've carried from a distant world

  2. April 5, 2016
     Ibrahim Ahmed

    I relate to everything that is being said
    here except for the part about Egypt being
    Arab or an Arab country. We are Africans
    who speak Arabic. We are part of a very
    complex story and being reduced to
    Arabness is to dismiss our complexities.

  3. September 10, 2016
     Rev. J. Roland Cole

    Thank you, OMAR KHOLEIF, for your beautiful writing and deep insights. I feel led to add to your last sentence, “Through her writing, the condition of exile becomes one of possible resistance.,” the following: “And definitely, it becomes, also, Adnan's place of transcendence as well, not just of survival but of aliveness, of celebration of self and existence itself, in spite of all that’s painful, negative, or horrible going on in the world!”

  4. September 10, 2016
     Rev. J. Roland Cole

    Jacob, how powerfully you express your feelings.
    Overwhelming. Poignant. You make us feel
    so much. Your poetry and feelings and context, I feel,
    needs to be known and responded to. I don't know how,
    now, except to say, "I hear you" and am impressed with the
    evocative power of your simple, profound words and
    sentences. I would like to see your thoughts and poems
    published. Can I help? Can I help you personally?
    And THANK YOU for sharing! P.S. Please read my last two
    paragraphs above to Ibrahim Ahmed. [email protected]