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Edward Said's Concept of Exile: Identity and Cultural Migration in the Middle East

October 31, 2017 at 11:39 am

  • Book Author(s): Rehnuma Sazzad
  • Published Date: July 2017
  • Publisher: I.B. Tauris
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1784536879

Unravelling the definition of exile presents one immediate question as to whether the concept is a burden, a transcendent state or a sliver of fate that opens up a new dimension of thought. Rehnuma Sazzad’s book “Edward Said and the concept of exile. Identity and cultural migration in the Middle East” explores the ramifications of exile juxtaposed against the notion of belonging, showing that a thought process beyond the immediate imagination shapes the exile’s intellectual expression.

Departing from Edward Said’s life and works, in which exile is described as “a predominant narration”, Sazzad goes beyond what is termed the “cloistered intellectual view” to present an array of independent thought. To accomplish this, she applies Said’s views on exile to the works of Mahmoud Darwish, Naguib Mahfouz, Yousef Chahine, Leila Ahmed and Nawal El-Saadawi.

Having chosen Said as an epitome, exile from a Palestinian perspective features prominently. Indeed, Sazzad manages to impart the impact of the Palestinians’ forced exile since 1948 and how this has shaped not only the works of Palestinians writers, but also the definition of exile as a permanent experience. In addition, Said’s experience of exile as a minority in Palestine and away from his homeland adds depth to exile as a metaphor, particularly within the context of societies, culture and the “voyage” experienced by exiles, where the possibilities may seem endless while one destination remains elusive.

In discussing Said, Sazzad writes: “Exile evokes a complex phenomenon. It is cold, colourless and dismal. Paradoxically, these create an occasion for profound thoughts.” There is a duality, therefore, that can expand into a multitude of impressions. Exile, while reflecting estrangement, can also defy the comfort zones. In Said’s words, “Borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prison and are often defended beyond reason or necessity.” The exiled intellectual, therefore, has a role, whether the individual is exiled away from the homeland or within the confines of home territory due to societal marginalisation. The intellectual exile, according to Said, is able to transcend the pain of separation without downplaying the human rights violations leading to the estrangement. Therefore, there is a constant awareness between the physical exile and the metaphor arising out of the imposition which allows the exiled intellectual to question with freedom while refusing to “minimise the turmoil of exile.”

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Sazzad identifies different strands of exilic consciousness which she applies to her chosen authors and their creative works. Drawing upon Said’s exploration of exile, the author identifies different forms of consciousness which form the foundations of her literary and political critique of writers affected by exile. The influence of Said upon Mahfouz, Darwish, Ahmed, Chahine and El-Saadawi is reflected primarily in the personal experience of exile.

For Chahine, the challenge of Egypt’s repression of ideas is paramount in his works, which Sazzad describes as “building an alternative to the demoralising situation masquerading as home.” Secular consciousness, in Chahine’s case, empowers the exilic intellectual to “examine their social systems and expose the defects embedded in them.” El-Saadawi, on the other hand, applies critical consciousness directed against powerful echelons of Egyptian society. Sazzad acknowledges El-Saadawi’s work as being particularly provoking as regards interpretation within the context of her criticism of society. As an “oppositional intellectual,” the author explains, “she cannot keep quiet about the dark practices of her culture,” despite this opening the possibility of Western oriental stereotypes of Arab society. Both Chahine and El-Saadawi have experienced a temporary exile and, the author states, both are dependent upon the exilic experience for creative expression.

Mahfouz, on the other hand, employs an anti-colonial sentiment which is subtle. His vision of society also incorporates an observation of how inaction renders people spectators. Like Ahmed, Mahfouz has not experienced exile but his observation and insights allow him access to this realm. However, Sazzad’s chosen authors share a similarity when it comes to polyphonic consciousness which is described as a proliferation of cultural awareness and the resulting imprints in the West. Here, Sazzad implies the “voyage” which is “the interconnection between the spatial and metaphorical views of exile.”

‘Mahmoud Darwish: Literature and the politics of Palestinian identity’

Palestine as an experience and a concept of exile is discussed through Said and Darwish’s literary works. In her discussion of Palestinian exile and non-surrender as a result of dispossession from Said’s viewpoint, Sazzad states, “Palestine thus retains its formative influence through providing him with an ungrounded position on identity formation.” Through his writings, Said advocates for a “plural outlook on the cultures of the colonised and the coloniser,” thus avoiding the compartmentalisation, or dissociation, that occurs when evaluating without a thorough context. Said is critical of simplification when it comes to discussing exile. The author asserts that, for Said, exile is “a geographical condition and a principled position.” The physical disconnection from the homeland should encourage the questioning of unjust socio-political systems.

Mahmoud Darwish

Likewise for Darwish, the disconnection from the homeland necessitates drawing attention to the question of exile as well as the land. The intellectual’s call for freedom on behalf of all the oppressed is also conscious of persistent resistance in the case of Palestine. “Darwish’s proclamation of revolt,” says Sazzad, “not only reflects his persistent and vehement resistance to the Israeli authorities but also confirms his exilic stance.” His writing resists the obliteration of Palestinian identity and imparts what Sazzad terms “the national suffering” to a global audience.

Both Said and Darwish impart humanist values; justice for Palestinians is a moral mission. Hence, the exile plays an important role in communicating the opposition to power. Here, Said and Darwish express their opposition in different philosophies. Said’s writing “involves both an attempt at reconciliation and the acceptance of its limitation. Darwish, on the other hand, “refuses to reconcile narratives forcefully.” It is the approach that differs, rather than the end result.

Sazzad’s choice of quote from Said in her conclusion is a discussion in itself. “Exile means that you are always going to be marginal, and that what you do as an intellectual has to be made up because you cannot follow a prescribed path.” The authors discussed in this volume share this affinity with Said; the burden to eliminate stagnation is always present and, in the case of the exile, a constant reminder in the cultural and political struggle. For readers with an interest in literature and critical analysis, this book opens up a multitude of trajectories and narratives, besides being an invaluable reference.