Etel Adnan’s Shifting the Silence is a meditation on grief, a gentle greeting of death, and an undulating choir of the many lessons and consolations that emerge from the clarity made possible by stillness and quiet after a long, curious life. Taking cues from Etel’s latest book, Sahar Khraibani writes of her own encounters with the texture and weight of silence and loss, of the many impressions and folds such forces make in both this tangible too-warm world and the deeply interior one. She speaks of the dilemma of becoming while grieving, of embodied remembrance, of heavy contingencies, all while showing how the convergence & collapse of the rooms we inhabit may leave us unmoored, but ready to dream toward future forms. Sahar takes Etel’s words, alchemizes them into her own contemplations, and sends them back into the universe to be held, breathed in. Read and steep in her letter to Etel below.
– Santiago Valencia, Nightboat Fellow
Monday, December 7th, 2020
It is taking a lot to bring myself to the page. My heart is heavy with the silence of loss. I am told that I may be in a great position to write this, though it is one of heartbreak and pain, I am reminded, that time heals all wounds. That time brings back all which is lost. A cliché I have heard and repeated before. But time is heavy, and now silence has to be weightless.
Yes. An absence is a form of silence. And in turn, silence is also a form of absence, but that conclusion is easy to get to. I reread Shifting the Silence on a cold November night, with the window open, wearing a jacket indoors. It was less cold than I thought it would be, less cold than it was last year or maybe the year before. This planet is not doing okay. Now, I am writing this letter in December, having come to a new conceivable notion of silence. I am trying to shift it.
I am in a new space, a new apartment. Alone. Silence in different homes rings differently. This house is not yet a home, though it was selected with the intention to be one. An unwelcome silence lurked outside of my front door, and I, reluctantly, let it in. I obliged. This silence makes space for the sounds of machines. A fridge, heat pipes, drilling, whirring, flushing. It is at times deafening. It is impossible to escape.
Dear Etel, I am trying to but I can’t shift it yet. The silence, that is. I have to tell you that you were right; watching sunset after sunset doesn’t heat a house. And watching the hours go by doesn’t help either. So I am, just like you were, cornered.
From a window, I can see the sky. It is interrupted with buildings, my neighbors’ air conditioning units. Laundry hanging from fire escapes. The sky is blue, the bluest it’s been all month, cotton-like clouds litter its surface, shifting, moving, as I do. I am in New York. I have to remind myself. My positionality is important here. I have missed the sea, for a long time, I have loved it so much, until I loved her, and by proxy, the ocean. And then there was no past anymore, nothing to look back to, I had found it, somewhere on the corner of a street, it met me, and I gave myself fully. Now I stand at the doorstep of loss. I am trying. For now, it is the only thing I can do. I have lost many things, cities I loved, homes that were warm, a homeland that perhaps was never mine, the sea, and a couple of oceans. Can I resign myself to losing her?
How does one find themselves again after losing so many things they love? Is this loss the only way to bring oneself back? Is this the passage to shifting the silence? I am asking a lot of questions that may be better suited to being left unanswered. Sometimes, I don’t know where to take and what to do with this body of mine: this body that needs to be constantly fed, washed, hydrated, scrubbed, clothed, informed, and taken care of. This body that needs to be picked up, dusted off, and pushed out. Can I do away with it on my way to being just a being? Will loss ever stop moving through this body?
Henri Lefebvre explains that becoming is “a remorseless repetition of the sameness which is never quite the same, of otherness which is never quite other than what it is, since the repetitions grow larger or smaller, reach a crashing, convulsive climax, or fade away peacefully.” I look at the four corners of the room, where the ceiling meets the walls, and I think: what is it like to not be interrupted? I also think of points of contact. Points of contact that are never quite the same, never reaching a convulsive climax.
Between wanting to see you and seeing you, there is a field of mines, and yours, and theirs. The Williamsburg Bridge’s lights are on. There was a while when we waited for them to come on. Some days, we would blink, and we’d miss it. I’ve walked that bridge many times, and looked at these lights from many angles. From this new vantage point, I can see them; a little further away, a little dimmer. Memories of summer nights seep through: the silence of the city broken by fireworks, in the distance, roaring till dusk, piercing the tattered horizon, flashing, flashing, flashing. We have seen so much.
As I read, I look for the scar. I try to trace it with my fingertips. I look at the arrangement of the words, the letters. I am crestfallen. The body is a surface on which events are inscribed. My fingertips have picked up traces of ink, of dust, of things left unsaid. I watch you drop your head into your chest again and again. I would hold it with both of my hands if I could.
My body has been slowly and diligently broken down by the weight of lived contingencies. Accumulating like dust, like particles, like grime. It is hard to get up some days. Though I still do. I walk along the river. Perilous waters. I try to go back. Revisit sites, spaces of openness, reconfigure a structure in which I can trace, with my fingertips, the many different forms of change, the many silences I am learning to inhabit. I point to erosion even when it is legible on the face. When the many walls and structures around me collapse, I ask myself: will I ever know what this form is?
Contingencies are defined as future events or circumstances that are possible but cannot be predicted with certainty. I live within the confines of contingencies. I am trying to do what is right, even when it’s hard, or when it complicates things. I have to do what is right.
For once, I want to forgo the sea. This time I am thinking of the Sonoran desert. Saguaros and mountains as far as the eyes can see. I am grateful to have seen them, to have been in their presence, to have my beloved’s fingertips point at them. I am thinking about how Saguaro needles know to point towards a certain direction to direct rainfall. The side that faces the sun boasts a heavier wax coating, protecting its formation from decay, during arid weather, and sandstorms. It is a process of giving and taking, of openness and protection, of trust and vulnerability. In the city’s interrupted landscape, I feel as isolated as a shipwrecked sailor on a raft in the middle of the ocean, wishing to be as grand and rooted as a Saguaro in the desert. I can. I can.
There is plenty more to say, much to talk about, but for now, I must stop here.
In silence and solidarity,
Sahar Khraibani is a Lebanese writer and artist based in Brooklyn. She is interested in the intersection between language, visual production, and geopolitics. Her writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, TERSE Journal, and Bidayat Mag, among others. She serves as faculty at Pratt Institute.