Iocasta: What is an exile’s life? Is it great misery?
Polyneices: The greatest; worse in reality than in report.
Iocasta: Worse in what way? What chiefly galls an exile’s heart?
Polyneices: The worst is this: right of free speech does not exist.
Iocasta: That’s a slave’s life—to be forbidden to speak one’s mind.
(Euripides, The Phoenician Women; author’s translation)
Writers in exile often face the question of why they left their countries, and whether this departure has not resulted in a loss of memory, a vagueness about those cherished places where they lived—whether it hasn’t made their writing lose the heat and immediacy of those who are still living inside, made their positions lose the same degree of credibility. It would not be an exaggeration to say that from ancient times until now, there has not been a period in which this question has not been put to a writer or an artist without regard to his nationality or the motives for his departure. For how many artists are there who have been accused of being traitors because they left their homelands, from Dante to Joseph Conrad and Joyce, García Marquez and Gunther Grass and Vargas Llosa? And whatever the explanation that those posing the question—usually more interested in politics than they are in literature—claim to have arrived at, in the end they don’t look at the writer by what he writes, but rather evaluate him by where he lives, or by the location of “the room” from which he writes, as the Peruvian writer Vargas Llosa noted in his commentary on the issue in one of his articles.
This narrow view drives some of those who cast a suspicious glance at the writer living outside of his country to end up with the naïve idea that it must be hard for writers in exile to write about their home countries: it must be too difficult for them to grasp the core of the historical events about which they would write, which need a period of intellectual and emotional maturation to be properly understood. For this and other superficial reasons, these people say it should satisfy writers to write about exile, even though some writers have spent close to twenty years in expatriation and their exile has itself begun to become part of history as well. Statements such as these only come out of ignorance. No one can impose on a writer his own personal problems related to his own fear of the idea of exile, of distance from the homeland, and ask writers to stop writing about their home countries and to write automatically about exile simply because they are outside of those countries. Naturally when I say this I don’t mean those who talk about the subject idly or with bad intentions, but rather those serious journalists who ask the question when interviewing writers in exile.
It is every human being’s right to go to any place he or she wishes, for any reason at all, but these people’s minds are too narrow to see that. The most important question of all eludes them: Does going into exile necessarily mean the end of the writer’s memory and imagination in writing about “over there,” and must the writer now write only about exile? I answer simply and unabashedly: NO. First of all, because effective writing will be about the exiled person even if he or she is living in what can be called “the homeland,” which is more a political term than a creative one. For in the end, the writer’s homeland is the language in which he writes, and his house is the world which he constructs through his work, just as the homeland of the traveler is wherever his feet may fall. There is no powerful relationship between the place where I sit and write and the creative imagination, which knows no specific place or boundaries. For someone who believes in the value of literature, it is not the place where he writes that is important, but rather the nature of the creative work that he produces. For what is the value of work that doesn’t breathe free air, that is not written in freedom but under the power of a dictator or of social taboos? Does such work serve anyone? Will it form a document for the culture of the country, or for all humanity? Vargas Llosa knows that he would not have been able to write The Time of the Hero or Conversation in the Cathedral or The Green House if he had not been living in exile in Paris at that time. It is the same with García Marquez, who declared not long ago that he would leave Colombia again because he didn’t have the tranquility he needed-not only for writing, but even for “singing,” for living with peace of mind: “exile” once again. And he is not the first to seek his country outside of it: before him, Joyce searched for Dublin, which he passionately hated, outside of Dublin. Did Joyce betray his country, as the fanatics accused him? And did the Iraqi Al-Jawahiri betray his country by leaving it as well? It is not important to answer the question here, since there is no doubt that these men served their countries precisely by leaving: they were then able to write what they were not able to write “on the inside.” Furthermore the value comes from the text they created; we do not evaluate them on the basis of the place they were living when they wrote it. What is the use of an artist staying in what is called his or her “homeland” if he can’t complete the text he wants to write? An artist leaves in order to write freely and to speak up with a louder and more effective voice than the “brave” underground writer, or the writer living with closed mouth and dry pen. The issue for the writer, therefore, is not geographic exile.
It is true that there are many writers and artists in geographic exile. I believe, however, that it would be more exact to say that they were in exile in “the homeland” ever since their first painful stirrings of consciousness in the countries where they were born and lived; or let’s say since they first felt the headache and heartache that have accompanied them ever since they became aware of the injustice of the state, and their rejection of the societal oppression which gives state terror the legitimacy it needs to crush beauty. And when “mere survival” becomes the principal way of life in a given country, then the beauty of that country becomes pain, and the country itself becomes exile. Even that small band of writers who belong to a political “opposition” party feel estranged. To make it clear: Exile knows no borders, and emotional attachment is not measured by distance. It is internal and deadly. Estrangement and exile begin when a person realizes that he is alone and abandoned, when his feet go in search of earth that will support him and that earth flees from him. Estrangement begins when the heart begins its weeping. Exile is too big to be defined by borders; it is the heart that leaps from the ribcage. It tears down friendship with others and with the world. This is how exile can begin, starting with the person’s consciousness of creativity, or consciousness of pain, not only when a person is exiled geographically.
When we talk about our own condition, it is no secret that some members of my generation and the one before it—even the one after it—always wanted to leave, even before the pursuits of the dictatorial powers got worse and people began to be arrested. They were not cowards, nor were they “traitors” (as some heroes like to shout to the wind)—they simply wanted to withdraw from the bloody scene without incurring calamitous losses.
As far as I know, not one of them took up an official post, nor did they write about the glorious battles of Qaadisiyya or Umm al-Ma’aarak. They were simply excluded from the “paradise” of the good graces of the regime and its allies. But despite that—I say—those paradises they constructed out of the small freedoms which they seized for themselves, in addition to the desire to free themselves from the grip of the suffocating, constricting cities in which they were no longer able to breathe pure air, were greater. Maybe their thinking about getting out was like the thinking of our forefathers the Sumerians, our original ancestors, who called the lands that extended outside their walls “paradise,” showing that they looked at their cities essentially as suffocation, like prisoners look at their prisons. It is possible to say that some of us were looking for our paradise outside of “the homeland” (an ideological prison in which they wanted to incarcerate us), and that we felt there as though we were already “exiles” (this time those same people want to fence in our exile, ideologically!). Within this interpretation it’s true to say that every piece of creative writing is in the end a creative performance of “exile,” the eternal exile of man and his alienation both “here” and “there.”
When I studied German literature at the University of Hamburg, I specialized in the beginning in “literature of exile,” and I found that I could count the number of novels written about geographic “exile” on two hands. It is the same with novels written in other languages, or at least those novels which I can read now in the original (Spanish and German, and to a certain extent English). Most of the great works were written in exile (but not about “geographic” exile), and they talk about the idea of man’s eternal sense of exile and alienation from his society. The great writer taps into the intangible, and his characters translate a human language that surpasses all borders and scorns narrow, nationalistic definitions. As the ages have passed, writers have known that where there is power there will be exile. The idea of exile is bound to our first father Adam and first mother Eve. All of the prophets and messengers were exiled, and all great literature came from exiles, though not necessarily written about lives in (geographic) exile. And the situation is not specific to literature but extends to other forms of artistic expression, so that the list includes musicians, artists—even Hollywood triumphs are based on the work of artists in exile . . . just as the artists who left Syria because of Ottoman oppression were the basis of theater and music and printing in Cairo at the beginning of the century. And need I still mention the American writers of the “lost generation” who chose of their own free will to go to Paris during the 1920s?
Many writers did not choose their banishment willingly, but were chased out of “their countries.” I wonder if they would have added anything to humanity if they had sat down and written nothing but laments. Many of them felt that it was precisely their distance from their countries that broadened their outlook. For do we see the lofty towers, the lighthouses, the minarets, the mosque domes and church steeples, when we are sitting under them? Even a person who is not a specialist in literature will answer “Of course not—on the contrary, if we sit far away, we will see them much better and they will look more beautiful!”
In every situation it is preferable for a person to refuse to stay in the shadow of a government which does not allow him to express himself. That is what Euripides was talking about in The Phoenician Women, which I quoted at the opening of this article. On this basis, “exile”—in the sense meant by those more concerned about politics more than literature—is not necessarily a negative thing for an artist. On the contrary, it gives him more—purer—air, which keeps him from being a slave to both official and social prohibition (which includes self-denial as well). I say “artist” because not every writer in exile is necessarily a great artist, but every great artist is necessarily an exile, and therefore “beautiful writing is revolutionary writing,” as García Marquez said (he who writes about exile, and who wrote his enduring work One Hundred Years of Solitude while in exile, who in fact wrote his first novel ever—No One Writes to the Colonel—in exile in Paris.)
García Marquez’s novel and others like it are the works of great young artists who began their creative work on the “inside,” then left when they felt a need to breathe fresher air, and finished their paths in “exile.” I say in exile, because maybe that is the reason they were able to create out of their pain and suffering what they wanted to do when they were in the geographic homeland. In this way exile becomes the completion of the experience which the writer began “over there,” for the artist is the one who feels at bottom that his experience is not complete and will never be complete, as the horizons of creativity are always open. Added to that are his feelings of being estranged from the “homeland” whether he is here or there. This temporal and spatial “here” and “there” are interchangeable according to the power of the artist’s passion and perseverance in making his art, as well as his eternal alliance with the higher power that he recognizes and his refusal to bow down to temporary authority. Only those who leave their countries not to escape persecution or to rebel but for other reasons—the number of expatriates, for example, who maintain allegiances to a dictatorship or regime, who live outside their countries but write within the official sense of power—will be unable to accomplish any truly creative work. This is because they won’t have thought about doing this work in the first place, even when they were there, due to the chauvinistic partisan upbringing which they received and according to whose deadly principles they developed—principles that don’t allow for variety or newness in life. Those who don’t experience injustice and oppression “over there” will find it difficult to escape their shadow and write with freedom “here,” and they will occupy themselves with superficial issues that have no relationship to creativity. It is impossible for writing to have this background without getting embroiled in ridiculing the present, and it is only natural that the writer won’t be bold enough to take on this adventure without a decent amount of freedom at his disposal—internal freedom before all else, which is a condition of creativity, and which knows no specific location: it knows no “inside” or “outside” or “homeland” or “exile,” and any restriction on this freedom from outside the writer or within him will hinder his imagination and divert his creativity.
It is strange that most well-known writers who are celebrated worldwide were rejected and attacked in their own countries. I don’t say this out of self-pity. Rather, what I want to say is that for a writer, thinking about an “inside” and an “outside” has no importance. What is more important is thinking about the necessary conditions for creativity. In the end, the artist is an exile even when he is in his own country, and writers in exile who write in Arabic (especially those from Iraq) are able to present their “homelands” through their creative accomplishments. It follows that the most beautiful homelands are not those determined by an ideological regime (as happened in Iraq, where the regime persisted in imposing itself through death and bullets and destruction and chemical weapons both inside and outside the country). Rather it is what we find in every beautiful novel and every beautiful poem and every beautiful song. And this applies to creative works from every place and time.
This is what the Gypsies learned, they tell me, for ever since they stole the nails intended to nail Christ to the cross—ever since that day when they were attacked and chased out, they have paid the price for keeping the nails and refusing to give them to anyone by wandering from one place to the next. One time, at a convention in Bucharest, I asked the president of the World Romany Congress the following question: “All minority groups, when they talk about their rights, aspire to belong to a bigger national group which speaks its own language in a neighboring country. What do the Gypsies aspire to?” He looked at me, smiled, and thumped his heart: “This is the nation we belong to.” An answer not lacking in romanticism, but this is nothing strange, for there is no connotation of homeland or exile to the words “homeland” and “exile” in the gypsy language. Maybe this outlook is one of the sources of creativity; and maybe this enriches the arteries through which the blood of writing flows.