By Helen Stuhr-Rommereim
Etel Adnan’s paintings vibrate with color and light. Pastoral evocations of a hyper-real natural world, they present an openhearted embrace of the appearance of things that is seductive and alive. But while her paintings are full of brightness, basking in the beauty of the world, as a writer, Adnan’s work focuses on war, conflict and pain — particularly in her native Lebanon.
In the midst of a rising interest in Adnan’s visual work, marked particularly by her prominent position in the recently ended documenta (13) exhibition in Kassel, Germany, this past Friday the Mosaic Rooms in London hosted a reading of her short play, “Crime of Honor,” written in 2011.
Although Adnan has been known for her writing for much longer than she has been known for her visual work, this spare, 45-minute play was my first encounter with her as a writer. Viewing the play with her paintings still buzzing in my head, I couldn’t help but search for parallels. But what sews these divergent forms of expressions together is, of course, Adnan herself, and the way that she encounters the world. In writing, as in painting, Adnan approaches her material with deft, clear-eyed openness, constructing works in which the shaping hand of the author is visible, but that at the same time seem to spring directly from their natural source. She gathers together elements and allows them to resonate against each other, in all their harmony and discord.
“Crime of Honor” centers on a young woman who stirs up past pain and present unrest with one impulsive act.
The play begins with the young woman giving a nun at her school, her philosophy teacher, the extravagant and unexpected gift of an expensive watch. The sister is uncomfortable accepting it, and the girl begs her to keep it, misguidedly attempting to insert herself into the sister’s heart. She pleads, “I am reasonable, and I am lonely too.”
In the next scene, the girl is confronted by her mother, who has found a large sum of money to be missing — money that was meant for rent and bills. The young woman’s invented story to justify her theft implicates her coworker, Hussein. This seemingly arbitrary trail of actions culminates in a confrontation between the three characters. The mother, seeking repayment, confronts Hussein about his past, and Hussein tells the story of the murder of his sister that gives the play its title.
Winding through all this is a mild love story, between Hussein and the young woman. Hussein seeks happiness through her, but throughout the conflicts her actions spark, she remains steadfastly focused on her own desire for independence. As Hussein declares his love for her, she tells him calmly that she will never marry: “I want space in front of my eyes, uncertainty.”
Most notable in the staging of the play, which was directed by Caitlin McLeod, Trainee Director at the Royal Court Theater, is the way the characters are placed at various heights and distances from each other, always in a way that downplays intimacy and emphasizes them each as separate individuals projecting themselves, their feelings and desires, out to each other across some unbridgeable gap. While the mother is harsh, her anger is righteous, and deeply shakes Hussein’s understanding of his own past. The girl is moved by Hussein’s honesty, angered by her mother’s harshness, but solidly grounded in her hopes for her own future, if unsure of how to act on them.
Between these three humans with conflicting desires for themselves, each other, and the world, Adnan draws out the complexities of love, death and honor with painful clarity, placing the elements together and allowing them to vibrate against each other.
By Nadia Ghanem
It all started to unravel when Hussein was asked to pretend one more time, but not one last. The previous pretence had landed him in jail, serving three years with no appeal. But his father had been proud of him, although he never came to visit. It was going to be a little problematic to tell her, the woman’s mother, that he’d borrowed her rent money. A complete lie of course, he’d borrowed nothing. She, the daughter, had stolen it to buy the nun a watch for her birthday.
Although difficult, this lie was going to be manageable for Hussein because his would be a lie born out of love. A love not too dissimilar to the one Hussein’s sister may have felt on her last evening and night. For the night she spent out, free, until dawn came and they cut her throat. One more lie for Hussein, not too dissimilar to the one his father and brother created for him to tell the courts, a curse that still burdens them today. It was they who killed her, Hussein and his mother could not stop them, but they remain free. Or perhaps they live in another kind of jail. They did not kill for love though, they killed for honour, because honour is sacred.
The nun didn’t really need a watch, least of all an expensive one but the young woman wanted to make her feelings clear. But were they clear? Was it a gift of love from a woman to a woman, or from a young woman to a nurturing teacher? It was certainly a loving present to a Sister who listens and allows the young woman space to think, a Sister unlike the mother. Hysterical, loud, authoritarian the mother is, but she is the only one who spoke out against the crime and the brutal, ‘primitive’ social rules that justify a crime of honour.
These three individuals’ interlinked narratives weave the core of Etel Adnan’s play “Crime of Honour.” A dramatised reading of it was performed in London on Friday night at the Mosaic Rooms, by actors Eve Polycarpou (who played the mother and the nun), Lisa Caruccio Came (the young woman) and Darwin Shaw (Hussein). Three actors, three white cubes to sit or stand and declaim on, and three scripts made for a moving performance, right in the middle of us, in the middle of our external and internal geography. The room was packed, with Etel Adnan in the front row. And we wondered: What is honour? Is it honesty, courage, hard work? Does honour have a gender?
At a time when we no longer can define honour, westwards or eastwards (or perhaps we never could), Etel Adnan’s play is a story we should read, or reread, out loud.
Etel Adnan’s official website is http://eteladnan.com/.
Helen Stuhr-Rommereim is an artist/photographer/writer most recently in Cairo but currently based in London. She worked as a staff writer for the culture section of Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition, and is a contributing editor at Full Stop magazine.
Nadia Ghanem is a reader based in London and tweets at @ayatghanem.