CUTBANK REVIEWS: Of Cities & Women by Etel Adnan
The Window Wide Open: A Dialogue
on Etel Adnan’s Of Cities & Women
by Julie Lauterbach-Colby and Laura Maher
We begin as Etel began in her first letter to Fawwaz, the summer of 1990, Barcelona:
I go through the streets of this town “mentally” writing you a letter, and another discourse keeps rolling in my mind…Women, when in the street, don’t seem to consciously play a role, or live an exception: they are part of humanity, of a place, of a climate, of a country. They remind me that it is interesting to be alive, to be a human being, and to be part of a precise moment in time and space, that theories get lost when confronted with privileged experience.
I thus renounced the idea of writing you a formal letter on “feminism” and began writing that which was given to me.
Dear Readers—here is our own discourse, filtered through the lens of our experiences: our walks, our letters, our conversations with others and those overheard.
The writing naturally developed as fragments, echoing the ways Etel’s words became a part of our everyday lives. To read Of Cities & Women is to live an experience, to go through the streets in search of an open space, a privileged place where the free line of the horizon creates a pure pleasure.
We wrote letters back and forth to each other, hoping that our fragments would speak with Etel’s, which appear in italics throughout the essay—
I sit down in front of my window (Don’t we always, when we write?), and even though the view outside is rather uninteresting—one could argue blank—I will not start the page as such. I have an address and your name—what I can return to—
This is the reality of my return. There is a point where I get so removed from daily life that I begin to miss these: cooking for myself, sitting in front of an open window, reading or writing. Just the time to think.
I have a lot of ideas about women, but reality obscures them more than it enlightens them. The problem is the heart can never be separated from the flesh.
I don’t know what else to tell you. I wish I could stay more.
Misreading this the first time, I wish I could say more, meant,
begin: Dear Friend.
Letters this morning.
The opening—how beautiful to imagine the possibility—
—to imagine my reality, to give you relief:
The window was not enough for me. I had to be out in the world. I know you’ll understand
what I mean.
Imagine, for a moment: The sun hanging high.
I resume my letter. I slept very poorly last night. In the heat, with the window wide open, I listened to the sound of the sea…
through the roads of her memory, her grief, her joys. We are as close as we could be.
I listened to the sound of the sea, her breath…
What did you do, and what did you feel while in the middle of it?
The rest of the afternoon spreading out in front of me like a map.
People have all sorts of stories to tell me… But for the stories of women, it’s something else. The women have kept contact with the earth, if I may say, in the ancient roles of witness and memory keepers.
Friend, can you imagine? A dove, perched on the wrist. Perched on the wrist—
How does one know pure pleasure?
I don’t know how to describe it except that it felt as life was—
the very space I occupied at that moment.
I look at the sea, as if there had never been anything else to do besides looking at her—
The letter writer— she
hasn’t run out of words, but found time to stay
The sun is hanging high over the sky, clear for winter, and warm—
Who is there, at the heart of her investigation?
beauty? The desert or the sea?
I look at the sea, as if there had never been anything else to do in this city besides looking at her. But the heart of this city is rotting, burdened with heavy sorrow… Do we love death because we don’t know how to live? Is it because we would rather lose everything than settle for less?
we write letters, yes, but why do we read letters? What stays in the imagination?
Yes, I contemplate the sea, what else is there to do? To dive in. There is no separation between the sea and a woman and it is futile to look further [than]the essence of what is feminine: water, salt, phosphorus, plankton, all the minerals in liquid form, and the sun covering it all. To look at the sea is to become what one is.
To read letters:
we want to see the world
through someone else’s eyes.
The relief it affords us—to be outside of our own body—a letter allows us to transform.
Could it be a grace we give to others?
the boiling of my heart calmed
How many times have we written just to expel excess emotion: anger, sorrow,
frustration, confusion, elation. And how many times have we written a letter
only to burn it afterwards?
those pieces of the self
determined—Dear Friend—the space to be born and to settle. A return to the familiar, a return to
To look straight into the eyes of this open space, a privileged place where the free line of the horizon creates a
Does it call to you as it calls to me?
We are guests of the wedding, dove on wrist, woman hauled away at night, Picasso’s nude,
we are steam bath and mountain, religion of the flesh, frail shoulders and old knowledge.
But, still: we are (a city and a date)—
Barcelona, June 25, 1990
Aix-En-Provence, July 23, 1990
Skopelos, August, 19, 1990
Murcia, November 10, 1990
Amsterdam, November 30, 1990
Berlin, January 28, 1991
Beirut, August 23, 1991
Rome, February, 19, 1992
Beirut, August 7, 1992
I return return to this:
A life on the page—since we can’t stay, let us hope to return
and let it continue
asking to be opened, or filled, begun again
Poet, essayist, and painter Etel Adnan was born in Beirut, Lebanon. She is the author of numerous books of prose and poetry, and is also a painter, sculptor, and weaver whose art has been exhibited internationally. Her collections of poetry include Seasons (2008); There: In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and the Other(1997); The Spring Flowers Own & Manifestations of the Voyage (1990); The Indian Never Had a Horse (1985); and Moonshots (1966).
In addition to Sitt Marie Rose (1977), Adnan’s prose includes Of Cities and Women (Letters to Fawwaz) (1993), a series of letters on feminism that Adnan wrote to exiled Arab intellectual Fawwaz Traboulsi; Paris, When It’s Naked (1993); and Master of the Eclipse (2009), winner of the Arab American Book Award. She lives in Sausalito and Paris with her partner, the artist and writer Simone Fattal. (biographical information courtesy of The Poetry Foundation)
Julie Lauterbach-Colby and Laura Maher are artists and writers living in Tucson, Arizona. They meet weekly for coffee, where conversations range from fairytales, to sustainable food practices, to their favorite vintage clothing haunts. Although they regularly write in each other’s presence, this is their first collaboration.