Etel, Simone, some dishes and lilies of the valley –

By Ibrahim Kombarji


I dreamed quite often of the day I would meet Etel. I give myself the permission to call her by her first name as we all do with magical daily poets that touch us and intrinsically become parts of our daily life. When I think of these poets like Etel, I also think of Oum Kulthum, Zaha (Hadid), and Agnes (Varda). Etel’s words first touched me a few years ago when I read one of her poems about the sea, later I discovered her obsession for a massive, ‘more than human’ friend that she had: the Mount Tamalpais in California. I found in these little painted poems of mountains, some of the obsessiveness that inhabits us all. In Lebanon, we breathe, smell and linger around mountains, across the sea, and staring at the sun. Etel touched upon these obsessions we all grow within.




I knew meeting Etel Adnan and Simone Fattal, was somehow quite possible being both Lebanese and friends of friends of friends of friends but I also just kept telling myself that it was still a bit impossible: Me, Etel, and Simone on a Saturday morning having tea at 29 Rue Madame. Sometimes these things happen, thanks to friends, patience, and to some luck. It happened on Wednesday the 1st of May 2019 in Paris. On the quiet afternoon of the ‘Fete du Travail’. Almost as I had imagined it to be, I found myself in front of Etel and Simone’s Haussmann edifice, waiting for the ‘ok’ message from Sara’s mother who was directing and producing a video interview with Etel in her apartment that day.




I cannot arrive empty-handed I thought, ‘”walaw!” (as one would say in Lebanese). I decided to come with one of my latest unfinished leporellos of watercolor in hand. I had decided to start using this paper medium composed of a particular type of binding for a folded leaflet, when I first saw one of Etel’s leporellos in a museum in New York, some years ago. Leporellos are quite frequent in Etel’s work, opening up like little folded universes of watercolor. I also took the time to buy a bouquet of lilies of the valley (they are only sold on this day in Paris everywhere on the streets, a ritual that shapes the city). I had always loved these little white flowers, they had a sort of Ronsardien fragility that I was sure Etel would appreciate.





In his book ‘Education Sentimentale’ (1869), Flaubert described the time he met his lover, I would like to think this is how I also felt. He says ‘it was like an apparition! […] appearing in the cover of the stairs’. There, I saw you, Etel, sitting in your armchair, Simone on your left. You already back then had slower movements and certain tranquility in your face. I offered you the leporello and the bouquet of lilies of the valley, you looked at me and said ‘it’s the special lily of the valley of the first of may!’ and you looked curiously into the leporello. Simone helped you understand the situation…an admirer is here to meet you. I then sat on the side, while Etel pursued the interview, talking about life, colors, and the passing of time. The interview is sometimes slow, you must be a little tired Etel, but you keep fluidity and lyrical continuity in your thoughts at 94 years old. The interview is over, a round of applause is improvised and you can almost go back to your daily habits. At that point, you were trying to get to the other room and asked me to help you walk you there. That little room was where you painted and wrote most of your works, on the little wooden table and surrounded by walls filled with early paintings of yours, some of Simone’s beautiful collages and one thing I vividly recall from this room is a white styrofoam fruit box that you had simply reused adding some simple black lines of ink on it. (What a pure and spectacular way of repurposing objects of every day that only artists can think of I thought!)

Once you were seated, I asked you about your favorite color. ‘All of them’ you said. ‘It depends on the day’ you added, Then you proudly showed me Simone’s latest sculptures displayed in a magazine that was kept on the table where plenty of gouaches was still half-opened. You also asked me about my interests, my dreams. Sooner after that, you went to have lunch in the kitchen while Simone so kindly accompanied the dismantling of the filming crew and their equipment. Simone also took the time to show me some of her latest works, a little shelter model in ceramic that was inspired by ‘the recurrent losses in Syria’.




I helped Simone take back the heavy tray of water glasses to the kitchen. From one thing to another, the filming team had left, I stayed conversing with Simone, while Etel was having lunch, Simone and I kept talking, doing the dishes, and sharing details of life. The return to an almost normal day for you two, an unforgettable one for me. I got to share your daily rituals, enter your universe. Simone even gifted me a few of her favorite books of Etel and on the way out and with her lavishing caring smile..she wrapped and handed me the little yellow ceramic plate she had sculpted a few months ago and that was used to keep the dishwashing sponges we had used! Etel and Simone’s work is so powerful in its attempt to address the daily, in understanding that it is the peculiarity of the quotidian that speaks to us, that helps us cope with the magnitude of our ‘crisis-as-usual world’. I still gather today the tranquility of that special afternoon encounter to cope with the daily péripéties.


Ibrahim Kombarji is an architect and researcher at Formafantasma Studio in Milan. He holds a Master’s of Science in Architecture from Columbia University, a Bachelor of Architecture, and a minor in Art History from the American University of Beirut.
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