This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
This month, Words Without Borders has focused on “Writing Exile.” As you might expect, many of the featured authors write in Arabic:
The special section features interviews (with novelists Samar Yazbek, Rosa Yassin Hassan, and Inaam Kachachi), poetry and short fiction (by Mahmoud Saeed, Osama Alomar, and Mohammad Ali Diriye) and an essay on exile in Arabic literature.
There is also work translated from the French, Spanish, and Uzbek, but Arabic — understandably — occupies a large part of the section. Indeed, it was only four days ago that the UN announced that there were now more than three million Syrian refugees.
Syrian novelist Samar Yazbek, one of the interviewees, told Olivia Snaije in Paris that “Before the revolution I wanted to come here, it was the only way I could imagine developing my art . . . now I think exactly the opposite. The only place I can go is Syria. It is my one destiny, but of course I cannot go.”
But the nature of exile, Yazbek says, has changed in the recent period. It is no longer the same as it was in 1948, when Palestinians were forced to flee their villages, or when authors were forced to flee dictatorships over the successive decades. “Exile in the sense of nostalgia is no longer. You are in a place where the smells and noises are not the ones of your country, but you can communicate constantly and this makes it worse, you can’t simply disconnect.”
Syrian novelist Rosa Yassin Hassan told Snaije there were some positive aspects of exile. It has, she said, “brought me a form of hybridity, which is always enriching. My conviction in the importance of writing has grown even greater during my exile.”
Iraqi novelist Inaam Kachachi has a somewhat different experience of exile, as she told Snaije. The author of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted novels An American Granddaughter and Tashaari, both of which deal with exile, has spent a long time in Paris. Over the years, her relationship to Iraq has changed:
To be exact, it’s not me that still lives in Iraq. Iraq still lives in me. The Iraq that lives in me is the real and civilized Iraq. The Iraq that we see on TV today is not the one I was raised in and lived in. It’s like Noah’s Ark. The millions who left, not only for political reasons but in order to have freedom, took a little bit of Iraq with them and preserved it.
From the issue:
“Chicago: Present-Day Paradise, Future Magic,” by Mahmoud Saeed, trans. William Hutchins:
Chicago awarded me its love, the way beauties do, because she is a playful, mercurial, liberated, enchanting maiden. From icy weather of twenty degrees below zero to heat over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, from wind gusts strong enough to uproot trees to a gentle breeze that refreshes the spirit, Chicago is a city of contrasts with a beguiling lake, skyscrapers, endless woods, wealthy people who amass huge treasures of gold, and groveling vagrants who bed down on the earth and cover themselves with the sky. Keep reading.
“Exile is Born at This Moment,” by Osama Alomar, trans. Osama Esber:
It is the snow
in your heart, stranger!
while you descend the stair toward an idea in your depths,
lighting candles with what you remember,
swings that rise and descend nowhere
but in the closed horizon of the Mediterranean.
You continue down the stair
You believe your life is trapped
where snow accumulates
and where dreams melt or flake in the gray sky,
along a line of frozen wings.
“The Curse of the South,” by Mohammad Ali Diriye, trans. Xavier Luffin:
The curse of the South caught up with him the day after. A strong fever and the sweat, increasing as the dawn approached. The delirium didn’t expose him to the others, because he was raving in his mother tongue, which has nothing to do with Arabic, except for the names. Keep reading.
“The Poet Cannot Stand Aside: Arabic Literature and Exile,” by M. Lynx Qualey:
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.
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