Conversations with Etel Adnan and Jocelyne Saab
In 1975, the poet and visual artist Etel Adnan appeared in Jocelyne Saab’s first feature-length film, Lebanon in a Whirlwind. Adnan is also the author of the commentary in Saab’s Beirut, Never Again (1976), a poetic documentary and account of the implosion of a city in the throes of war and of the daily resistance of those who stayed. Saab quotes a poem by Adnan in Letter from Beirut (1979) and considers her poetry and her novel Sitt Marie Rose (1977) to be essential works for reflecting on the wars in Lebanon. We thought it would be very interesting to bring these two artists together for a double interview, as their respective works, shot through with the upheavals of a history and a region in a whirlwind, put together political and poetic issues in an endlessly relevant way.
First Conversation (February 2013)
Jocelyne Saab: I’m jumping back and forth here, but I thought it was very brave and provocative of you to write Sitt Marie Rose.
Etel Adnan: I wrote it in a rage. I even received death threats because of it. As did you. I was sent a message: “She’d better leave Lebanon.” There were attacks on the radio.
Saab: Threats from the Phalangists?
Adnan: Yes. But you, Jocelyne, you also received death threats at the time.
Saab: They no longer allowed us to express ourselves. There was no freedom anymore. At the time, I didn’t fully understand that I was scaring them because I didn’t realize the impact of my work. With my documentaries and my different way of looking at things, I managed to reach European and American television channels. They were afraid my images would shake the public opinion and dismantle their propaganda.
Adnan: The word freedom should be put into perspective. When there is a war, it’s over. They don’t understand this notion to begin with: for them, freedom means obeying the chief and the church.
Saab: Etel, do you think that, today, young Lebanese people are doing what we dared to do at the time?
Adnan: In Lebanon, there are struggles for civil marriage, people claiming the idea of culture as a form of resistance... It must be said that there’s no real coherent policy today. At the time, the socialists actually stood for something, with Kamal Jumblatt.
Saab: Do you think our position was in line with the spirit of a political party?
Adnan: I’ve never been part of a political party, and neither have you, but our positions coincided. A figure like Kamal Jumblatt gave us confidence. He was a man we admired, who thought like us, and who had power. So we believed there was an organized force and thus a future.
Olivier Hadouchi: You too, Jocelyne?
Saab: Yes. And we witnessed the reversal of alliances: the Christian camp called the Syrians to the rescue, Beirut was bombed by the Syrian army... I had this deep-rooted vision of the city in ruins in my mind. I knew that it was all over, that we had lost the war and all our illusions when I filmed Beirut, Never Again. Once the war sets in, it’s like an engine that accelerates, running at full speed. It’s very difficult to stop it.
You never respond with hate.
Adnan: There’s no hate in me.
Do you somehow refuse the logic of confrontation?
Saab: I don’t have any hate in me, but the logic of confrontation was omnipresent. The war took me by the throat. It’s very real. I was hiding to get around. I couldn’t go and see my father. They put me in the trunk of the car to go to see my father. I’d see him for an hour and be denounced. I had to cross all of Lebanon to get back to West Beirut. It was always very dangerous.
Adnan: Jocelyne wrote for the newspaper whose cultural pages I edited, Al Safa. She wrote about pop music, about the latest records, and it was very interesting. She wrote very quickly, so much so that she didn’t always take the time to finish her sentence, unlike Dominique Eddé who was such a perfectionist that it took her weeks and weeks to write back. Quite the opposite of Jocelyne. I liked both of them, each one had their qualities. One day, at the newspaper, someone told me: “It’s not serious of Jocelyne to send you drafts.” I replied that it didn’t matter. What she was saying was interesting.
Adnan: Jocelyne, how did you end up making films?
Saab: My parents forbade me to go to a film school; it was out of the question. I knew that by studying literature at the Sisters of Nazareth, there would only be girls. No doubt I wanted to follow my father’s example; because my mother was at home, she was not an example to me. At the end of the third year of my economics studies, I got a scholarship, and I enrolled in Paris at the École de la rue Blanche to follow a parallel theatre course. Then I returned to Lebanon. My friends assured me that American films were being made these days and that I could take part in the shooting as an assistant. So I went back.
Adnan: While writing small texts, right?
Saab: Yes, and I already wanted to become a journalist, and I started to film my first reports.
Adnan: During the civil war, Jocelyne used to go to downtown Beirut. She brought back some images and asked me to write the text for her film.
Saab: You’re talking about Beirut, Never Again. Plus, you appear in Lebanon in a Whirlwind, and I quote you in Letter from Beirut.
Adnan: Those were exciting years. It’s interesting for you to meet people like us before we disappear.
Of course, and I am very happy to be able to listen to you both. I’m very interested in both of your careers, as they’re often bound up with History.
Adnan: Indeed. People ask me why my poetry is mostly – not always, but mostly – political. I tell them that History is what’s writing my books. I’d love to think about something else; but when there are such enormously important issues, you can’t go around talking about trees and birds. We’ve been in the apocalypse since 1918, since the end of the Ottoman Empire. That’s when the apocalypse began. [Jocelyne Saab nods and looks at Etel Adnan.]
Second Conversation (April 2013)
Saab: Etel, what did the screening of Lebanon in a Whirlwind (several decades after it was made) at the Cinémathèque française provoke in you?1
Adnan: In your film, we clearly see that all young people looked alike. They all lived in a similar way, except that they all blamed the others. The Muslims spoke like the Phalangists, who themselves spoke like the Shiites, and so on. Fundamentally, they had the same problems. They led similar lives. They suffered from the same economic and social mismanagement of the country, from the same corruption. The political parties diverted them towards ideas of fear, so that every group we see in the film says: “I’m afraid.” Instead of saying: I’m afraid, so let us talk to each other and work together. The parties had an interest in people not getting along, in not fully discussing their shared problems, because if they had faced these problems, these similar common demands, it would have created the possibility of democracy. The leaders responsible for this state of affairs, through their clientelism and feudal practices, knowingly lied, feeding hatred of the other, pitting their troops against other communities. It was an operation of propaganda and manipulation; the keys to the problem were never exposed. Foreign television stations did not allow us to speak, did not invite us to take part in debates, the French spoke for the Lebanese.
Saab: Does the film still seem relevant to you?
Adnan: I’d never seen it in its entirety, and I had the impression that we hadn’t made any progress, that it was a film about a burning issue in Lebanon. First of all because the leaders are the same, except replaced by their children. The discourse of the men in power has not changed. The government, the members of parliament and the party leaders use the same words. This film also showed the naivety of the common people. Poor children, young people who are innocent, courageous, maybe even admirable, but who don’t talk about the real issues. They don’t say that they’re unemployed, that they’re poor and frustrated... They tell us that they’re afraid because their boss tells them that whoever it is is going to attack them. And they are incapable of dialogue. They all had the same social background, but their political leaders stressed their religious difference in order to push them to fight. It wasn’t even a theological war like in the Middle Ages, like in the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics, for example. Today, no religious group understands anything about the other: Muslims know nothing about Christian religion and vice versa. It’s not a war of religion but a war in which religion is used for strictly political purposes, against a background of corruption. The party leaders get rich, have young people who are willing to die for them, literally, and they’re worshipped, which goes right to their heads. The common youth feed this madness, this lust for power of the leaders.
Saab: Do you think that a film like Lebanon in a Whirlwind can teach us something?
Adnan: I think it’s necessary for people to be able to analyze it and put it into context, if we show it to a larger audience in Tunisia, Egypt or Paris, for example. A short introduction to the film to inform the audience seems necessary. At the screening at the Cinémathèque française, the audience understood. Some of my French friends were there and they understood, and an American friend understood too. But if you show it to a larger audience, even an Arab audience, some might say: these people are afraid... But in reality, these people are the same. The fear was instilled by the leaders. The problem isn’t religious or theological, it’s the exploitation of religion, the way of playing on emotions. For example, for me, Beirut was murdered after the war, rather than during the war. We constructed so much. Twenty-storey buildings on roads that only allow one car in each direction. The concrete has suffocated Beirut. The rich spend their holidays abroad, and the poor suffocate without even realizing it; their windows are being swallowed up by those of their neighbours, less than a metre away. If the neighbours talk to each other, and they both find out they have the same problems, it could bring them closer together. The most beautiful mountains in the Mediterranean, the Lebanese mountains, have been devastated.
Saab: What is your analysis of the fact that it was a woman and not a man who felt the need to analyze what was happening in Lebanon?
Adnan: Perhaps it was a coincidence. Maybe if you hadn’t done it, there wouldn’t have been another woman to do it. You were a young, innocent, courageous and intelligent woman who wasn’t looking for personal profit. I’m not saying a man couldn’t have done it, I don’t know. In my opinion, in Lebanon, and even if it is difficult to generalize about women and men, women have proved to be more interesting. In art, and even in business or journalism... Women fight more, they are happier when they manage to do something. They know they’re pioneers. I know that I was the first girl of my generation to take a taxi. I was one of the first girls to work in an office. Because of the Second World War, there were foreign offices: the French army, the British army... This period coincided with the first generation of female graduates. Historically, women moved around much more in these countries. They took risks, and they suffered. Much more than the men, who continued on their path. When you see Saudi women going to study in America, doing PhDs and living by themselves. If they return, they’re made to wear a chador, they get locked up. They become schizophrenic and depressed, you know. It’s a happy coincidence, Jocelyne. You picked up a camera without going to film school, and you have a keen eye. You need talent as well as courage, one is not enough, you need both. And a little genius.
Adnan: Anyway, we had a nice conversation.
Saab: Olivier, you didn’t say anything.
Adnan: He’s amused by our discussion.
It was very interesting.
Adnan: And I must say that even if the French and the Jews have left Algeria, I have the impression that the idea of diversity is still present there. The energy there is different from Morocco or Tunisia. It reminds me of Lebanon.
- 1Nicole Brenez and Olivier Hadouchi organized the first European retrospective of the work of Jocelyne Saab at the Cinémathèque française. It was part of a larger framework of sessions dedicated to cinema of the avant-garde. It was called Jocelyne Saab, les astres de la guerre and ran between 29 March and 24 May 2013.
Originally published as ‘Conversations avec Etel Adnan et Jocelyne Saab’ in a more extended version in La Furia Umana paper#7 (November 2014).