AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France: Pierre Audi was a high school student in Beirut when he asked the poet Etel Adnan to do a reading in his class. Four decades later, Audi, now director of the Aix-en-Provence Festival, he’s staged “The Arab Apocalypse,” a collection of Adnan’s poems that resonates the tormented region.
The Beirut-born poet and artist, now 96 years old, composed the text in the 1970s, in the midst of the Lebanese civil war. She wrote in French, in an innovative and highly symbolic style.
“When the war started, I felt that it was no ordinary war, that it was the start of greater calamities,” Adnan told AFP. “The apocalypse was awareness of it all.”
The poem ruminates upon a specific event – Christian gunmen’s massacre of Palestinians in the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp. More broadly, it uses the allegory of the sun, a force of evil and of good, and the suffering it will cause when it sets the beauty of the Middle East ablaze.
The poem has been lauded for its near prophetic anticipation of the region’s descent into hell – in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon, currently in the throes of an “apocalyptic” economic collapse.
“The apocalypse is not just wars. Arab misfortune is corruption, like what happens in Lebanon,” underlines the poet, who, for health reasons, rarely leaves her Paris apartment where she lives with sculptor Simone Fattal, her lifelong companion.
“There is no money invested in education and culture in the Arab world. The lack of all this is also an apocalypse, a disaster,” adds Adnan, whose lone novel, “Sitt Marie Rose,” is widely considered a classic contemplation of Lebanon’s war.
During the work’s world premiere Sunday at the LUMA Foundation in Arles, the collection was reformed as an opera – or rather a musical theater performance set to music by Palestinian composer Samir Odeh-Tamimi, who has dreamt of this project since meeting Adnan 20 years ago.
Adnan said she wants the work to be performed in Lebanon.
“The text reminds us that these apocalypses will not stop and will only get worse. It is deeply sad, hence the importance of expressing it,” said Pierre Audi, who himself left Lebanon during the Civil War years. “The way to peace is to stop living in denial and to overcome the fear that inhabits us.
“Etel offers us his courage to express himself,” adds the festival director, who founded London’s famed Almeida Theater before taking the reins of Amsterdam’s Dutch National Opera for 30 years.
The performance sees five singers singing in French, Arabic and Greek. This is no surprise, since the universe of the poet – the polyglot daughter of a Syrian Muslim father and a Greek Christian mother – is itself a melting pot of cultures and identities.
“Music,” Audi believes, “can help a text like this go further in its dissemination and expression.”
The sun, the predominant “character,” is very present in this staging of the poem.
“I remember my mother always telling me ‘Put your hat on because if you get sunburned, you will die,” recalls Adnan. “The sun was at the same time a friend and a danger.”
Her poem ends with a note of optimism.
“The sun will extinguish the gods, angels and men,” she writes, “... in the night in the night we will find knowledge, love, peace.”