The Poet Cannot Stand Aside: Arabic Literature and Exile

Fourteen hundred years ago and more, the poet-prince Imru’ al-Qais was banished by his father. The king exiled his son, or so the legend goes, in part because of the prince’s poetry. Thus it was that, when the king was killed by a group of his subjects, al-Qais was traveling with friends. Al-Qais returned to avenge his father’s death, but afterward spent the rest of his life in exile, fleeing from place to place, writing poetry and seeking support to regain his father’s throne.

Scholars debate whether any of the stories about al-Qais’s life are true, but he nonetheless stands as one of the language’s most celebrated ancient poets, the best-known of the pre-Islamic bards. The melancholy of al-Qais’s “Let us stop, my friends, and lament the memory of a love and her abode” has echoed through the last millennium and a half, down to exiled Palestinian writers like Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and Mahmoud Darwish.

Migration, banishment, and estrangement have long been themes of Arabic letters. The trope of collective exile, or collective loss of a homeland, has been a separate but overlapping part of the shared imaginative landscape. It took on new force after the 1492 fall of Grenada, after which waves of Jews, Muslims, and others were forced to flee what had been a powerful, diverse caliphate, populated by some of Arabic literature’s most important writers.

These two overlapping threads—personal and collective exile—have been leitmotifs throughout the last several hundred years of Arabic literature. But in the last century, they have moved from the periphery to the center of literary discussion.

The Changing Face of Exile In Arabic Literature: 1948

More than anything else, it was the 1948 expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians that ignited widespread Arabic literary interest in exile. Yet, before that, the Western-colonial era had already drawn attention to a sense of collective loss. Popular literature, such as the poetry of Ahmed Shawqi (1868–1932) and the historical novels of Jurji Zaydan (1861–1914), were marked by this shared loss. Shawqi, Egypt’s influential “Prince of Poets,” was briefly exiled by the British to southern Spain, where he wrote his romantic poem “An Andalusian Exile.” Zaydan, meanwhile, chronicled the fall of Islamic Spain in his massively popular historical novels.

These were literary responses to the loss of an Arab or Islamic empire and were, in part, meant to rejuvenate a collective identity: of literature, science, education, and industry. In the case of many late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century writers, who saw themselves as part of the Arab nahda, or renaissance, this connection was explicit.

But after 1948, exile’s place in literature shifted. Arabic literature had to grapple with significant changes to its surrounding world, including the shock of masses of Palestinians being forced from their homes. In the early years, authors—the young Mahmoud Darwish among them—forged a homeland of literature, and a literature of commitment and resistance.

A New Poetry, A Global Poetry

After 1948, the romantic poetry that had been the mainstream of Arabic verse no longer resonated with young writers as it had in centuries past. Up through the 1950s, Arab poets largely borrowed from the same structures that had served them for a millennium. Readings of world poets, such as T. S. Eliot, were important in helping Arab poets find a new direction. But exile and imprisonment—working at the margins instead of at the center—also spurred the pioneers of the free-verse movement. The “outside-ness” experienced by Iraqi poets Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Abd al-Wahhab Al-Bayati, and the Syrian poet Adonis, informed their reinvention of Arabic poetry.

As George Nicolas El-Hage writes, in “Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and the Role of the Modern Arab Poet,” all of these pioneering poets “were experts on the ideology and poetics of exile, with the majority of them being subjected to political, social and moral victimization.” Yet these exiles, both personal and collective, became important not just because they were a part of the poets’ daily lives, but also because the poetics of exile resonated so widely.

In his Reflections on Exile (2002), Edward Said notes that the modern era is one where "immense aggregates of humanity loiter as refugees and displaced persons." The literature on exile, if it spoke only to refugees and displaced persons, would be of relatively limited interest. But this literature has had a much wider impact. As Said notes, exile from geography and human society has been a feature common to postindustrial communities worldwide, and literature of exile speaks to a common feeling of alienation. Al-Mutanabbi—the “Shakespeare” of Arabic literature—has never much resonated in translation. But Elias Khoury, Hanan al-Shaykh, Tayeb Salih, and Mahmoud Darwish have. Exile has been one of the places where Arabic literature has been able to communicate most strongly across linguistic borders.

Part of what has opened Arabic literature to global audiences in the last thirty years is an anthropological, or “forensic,” interest. But, if, as psychoanalyst Hanna Segal argues, aesthetic pleasure stems from identification, then another part of this interest might well be an identification with exile.

Not all literature of exile has been equally interesting to “world” readers. The pressure of world literature has worked in some ways to suppress Palestine’s collective liberationist literature. When Salma Khadra Jayyusi compiled her Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature, she de-emphasized the literature of “the Palestinian cause,” and the same was true when Ghassan Zaqtan assembled the Arabic poems in the collection Duyuf al-Nar. As Liz Lochhead notes in her foreword to the collection of Palestinian poems A Bird Is Not a Stone (2014), in order to fit into an acceptable Western framework, Palestinian poems in translation have been limited, cut down, “effectively censored.”

For better and for worse, it is the experience of personal exile that has spoken widely to world readers. Young Palestinian poet Mazen Maarouf noted that interest in exile has animated global reception of his work. “The feeling of alienation or the feeling of being the foreigner or stranger or being the refugee—it has many ways to happen,” Maarouf said in a recent Skype interview. “Some individuals have the land, have everything, but they still feel like strangers.”

For this reason, Maarouf said, readers can connect with a feeling of exile in his poetry even if they have never left their hometown.

Maarouf can distill this feeling and craft it into his work in ways that touch both a Palestinian particularity and a global alienation. “I cannot deny the fact that being Palestinian, and being based in Beirut, condenses this feeling of alienation around a Palestinian refugee because of the lack of rights. You always hear that you don’t belong to this place, you cannot work, you cannot do this, you cannot do that. So I am in touch with this state of being a stranger.”

Even though he writes from his own memory and experience, “maybe this can be a starting point to reading the alienation in society” as a whole.

In the last fifty years, many Arab authors have been intensely in touch with this state of being a stranger, the liminal space of unbelonging. After all, there was not just the collective Palestinian expulsion that began in 1948, but also the displacements stemming from Algeria’s war for independence, the civil war in Lebanon, dictatorships that imprisoned and expelled authors, the Occupation and ongoing civil war in Iraq, and the ongoing decimation of Syria.

If authors in exile have possessed nothing else, they have possessed their ability to recreate their country: as a beloved, as a dystopia, as a corrective to how their home was being described by others. Indeed, this imaginative re-creation of a place that can’t be physically visited stands as a metaphor for any writerly act.

Literary Exiles in 2014

Unsurprisingly, many of the most powerful Arabic books that have arrived in translation in 2014 take exile as a central theme.

Lebanese author Jabbour Douaihy’s June Rain, translated by Paula Haydar, beautifully examines the dissembling that comes with an exile’s life. Douaihy’s main character is constantly trying to restart himself, to begin life with a new narrative. His exile is perpetual, beginning again with every person he meets. He returns to Lebanon in order to find a “true” version of himself, and his real life story, but such a thing doesn’t seem possible.

Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser’s Where the Rain Doesn’t Fall, in an inventive translation by Jonathan Wright, explores the splitting of self into multiples that happens when the author leaves his family and beloved behind and goes into exile. When the author returns, these multiples cannot be put back together.

Lebanese novelist Iman Humaydan’s Other Lives, translated by Michelle Hartman, circles around a longing for place that isn’t quite a longing for place, but rather “for what’s inside myself that I’m losing every day, for what I lose while I’m away.” Wherever she is, the narrator is always an outsider, reaching toward a sense of home and belonging that is continually receding.

Two recent novels by Egyptian author Radwa Ashour were published in translation this year: Blue Lorries, translated by Barbara Romaine, and The Woman from Tantoura, translated by Kay Heikkinen. The Woman from Tantoura follows a Palestinian woman from pre-1948 through multiple exiles: in Lebanon, Egypt, and Dubai. Much of the novel’s heartbreak—because Ashour is very good at heartbreak, even when she writes against it—is the mother’s fraught relationship with her exiled children. The protagonist in Ashour’s Blue Lorries isn’t exiled from Egypt, but the book is full of internal exiles: imprisonment, alienation, suicide.

Even books where characters are not exiled are often marked by it, such as Sinan Antoon’s Hail Mary (forthcoming 2014), translated by Maia Tabet, where an elderly man refuses to emigrate, or in Antoon’s The Corpse Washer (2013), translated by the author, where the protagonist is marked because he is the one who was left behind.

Most of these exiles stem from collective exodus or banishment: in Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq. Yet they are all also extremely personal, seeking not to re-create a collective identity, but to examine the effects of exile on the self. In this, the works are both part of an overlapping Arabic and global literary conversation.

Muhsin al-Musawi, who helped organize a recent conference at Columbia University on exile and migration in Arabic literature, sees the issue only becoming more central. In a January 2014 interview with The National, al-Musawi said that the "question has become a subgenre in the humanities and in the next twenty years it will be one of the main topics in academia—in sociology, political science, and history.”

"These changes are as enormous as the world wars," al-Musawi said. "We are talking about billions of people dislocated or killed. The poet cannot stand aside and claim that he has nothing to reflect on."


© 2014 by M. Lynx Qualey. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.