Writing in Exile

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At first, you lose family, friends, places, memories, and after a while, you face the big question: Who am I? From here, searching for the dismantling of difficult questions begins. The journey usually ends without obtaining answers, either about the question of identity or about the biggest question of existence itself. Whether exile is voluntary or involuntary, the resulting sense of loss makes one feel that he is outside the intimate circle of human belonging.

Exile is strangely compelling but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift between a human and his native place, between self and one’s true self. It is ‘the saddest fate’ as Edward Said described it, because it is not easy to reconcile with exile, no matter how comfortable a person is, not even upon returning to his homeland. It is almost impossible to revive all the previous memories that faded by time. From here the exiled person becomes tense, schizophrenic, suspicious about identity.

The term exile is extremely vexing and confusing. Like so many others, when I left my homeland, I believed that alienation would be for a limited number of years, but my residency has lasted for decades, and exile has become a semi-permanent place of residence. In the past, the phenomenon of alienation was temporary, but now it has become an almost permanent migration.

If exile is defined idiomatically as a place to seek refuge in, then there are different types of exile. This concept is not restricted to spatial aspects, but rather includes numerous phases of life. A writer might not be subjected to physical exile, but rather experience the struggle of creativity of exile. When only a thread separates between life and death, the re-birth comes from the womb of death itself. This is an experience that has a powerful effect on the soul and makes a person look at things in a different way. Existing in itself becomes the biggest motivation for writing.

Who is the exiled writer? It is not necessarily the person who is wandering in other countries, but rather the one who hangs around in his homeland, unable to get rid of the feeling of alienation as he wanders between the corners of his homeland. The exiled writer is the one who searches for a form that accommodates the anxiety of belonging in his life. He is the eternal searcher for peace who realizes that peace might be impossible and that homelands may turn into mere national commodities, defined by security borders or national parties, all for the sake of the illusion that man is the son of a certain spot. The exiled writer is the one who refuses to see the homeland merely as a piece of land in which souls become constricted, or as merely a demand for loyalty to the values invented by the authorities in order to exercise its coercive power over its so-called citizens.

There is also confusion between the concepts of exile and asylum, and this is, in my opinion, a recent matter. Historically there has been a separation between the two ideas. The former relates to personal exile that usually happens to individual intellectuals for political reasons, whilst the latter happens to groups collectively for security reasons or because of wars. There has been an intellectual separation between the two concepts, and what we see now is the use of the two words interchangeably. This is remarkable and raises questions about the similarity between exile and asylum and their relationship to the themes of loss and writing.

Writing in exile is a form of protest and resistance against the realities of diaspora and loss, a state of confrontation, a re-formation of the present according to the writer’s vision of the world. Exile provides a person with space for self-contemplation. It is a mirror exposing the past, present and future. Exile necessarily instigates nostalgia and longing for memories and past days, but it may also create opportunities for change and for approaching reality from a new perspective, especially since wandering is often described as an ‘invasion of the world’. An exiled traveler may be an invader in his own way.

In exile, a person is always in a state of constant anxiety. Metaphorically, I call it ‘benign anxiety’ because it sets off a spark of creativity. When the road to homeland narrowed for me, I found in writing much more than a homeland.

Writing in exile derives its substance from alienation and estrangement, and the conflict between two distinct identities, yet it is a revealing form of writing, based on the premise of disassembling one’s original identity and proposing a grey identity composed of many elements. It is writing produced by human beings for human beings. This type of writing crosses cultural, geographical, historical and religious boundaries and transcends triviality, explaining the conditions of exile crudely and frankly, whether for the displaced group or for the host people, but on the other hand it is a writing that distances itself from hatred, detestation, and intolerance.

Exile is an important ingredient in many renowned literary experiences and great poetic works. It has inspired writers who live with many paradoxes to live on the dangerous edge, the edge of longing, the edge of madness, the edge of death, the edge of life. The relationship of exile to writing has formed a backbone for many writers who have tasted the bitterness of exile, whether enforced or voluntary, both of which have their rituals and manifestations. The history of literature is full of texts about exile. Writers and thinkers have worked hard to analyze what exile is and to dissect the reality of exile, diaspora and alienation, and how exile remains a renewed punishment, perhaps at times harsher than imprisonment, because the exiled finds himself a stranger pulled away from his land and from his social surroundings so that nothing can compensate for what he has lost, and any consolation from the beauty of nature or the goodness of people is nothing but a kind of sedative motive for perseverance and a necessity for forwarding motion.

Many would agree that writing in and of itself is a state of alienation and a departure from the ordinary and the familiar. A voyage in distant worlds is no less noisy and turbulent than the glitches of reality. It is not surprising to see writers writing from their homelands and expressing exile in their work. This confirms that the estrangement is spiritual and not only spatial. The exile of the writer is therefore spatial as much as it is spiritual and emotional.

Writing in general often raises questions but does not have to answer them. No one can claim that his literary work is complete. I would like to believe that there is no complete literary work, as deficiencies are an accepted human reality and perfection remains an impossible requirement from an unattainable paradise.

A big question arises spontaneously: Why do we write in the first place? To escape from the dystopian and miserable reality? Or to take refuge in distant worlds less blaring and hectic than our own? To defeat death? Or to ease the burden of life and scream at it as the newborn screams for the first time? I do not know if fear and death are the biggest motivations for writing. I have always asked myself what literature can say in the face of the destruction and chaos that humanity lives in. On the other hand, if writers do not express this pain, then who can? There is no doubt that writing in itself is generally not a pleasure or a luxury, but rather an obligation that appears easy yet reluctant.

Exile is also volatile, a time bomb that may kill the exiled. Writers strive to determine the timing and extent of the explosion, but often fail to capture its joints or control its parts, which makes exile a risky position in the dangerous game of life. Constant anxiety and nervousness are elevated according to time and place.

The writing of exile is a type of self-analysis, although it is characterized by existential anxiety, widespread discontent, and rebellious dissent. The exiled is neither fully integrated into the new society, nor able to severe the connection with his original society.

Some writers choose exile as a way to breathe, a place to create their work. They find it more merciful than their homeland that could not embrace them or accept their opinion, as rulers sought to imprison them, fight them, or restrict them, pushing them into a chosen exile. The threat imposed on them sometimes reaches the serious danger of liquidation or assassination. History, near and far, has witnessed cases of writers paying for their position with their lives and perhaps for their “good faith” in their killer.

Arab revolutions, for instance, exposed writing and writers and showed that true exile is measured by the distance that authors take from their people and how far they are supportive of the killer. Moving away from people’s fears, pain, hopes, dreams, and delusions, constitutes the cruelest paradox of exile, an exile that tightens writing until it suffocates it and strips it of its anticipated aura and values. Any writing which is not close to what is happening in terms of devastation and tragedy becomes marginalized and suspicious. Fictional work is no longer sought in the Arab World in the current devastating circumstances. Art in general can be the conscience and honest mirror to society. Writers are expected to reflect the ordeals they witness. It is inconceivable to write about flowers and love, while scenes of blood dominate everywhere.

From my humble perspective, exile has allowed me to open more than one door, to produce my best writing because it stems from the magic of the depths. I have been able to reach thousands of readers in Arab countries and around the world because I can pass through the sieve of translation without any passport or visa, and enter the most beautiful capitals of the world.

Exile has allowed me to see cities made of life and to dream hundreds of dreams in which nightmares were nothing but fleeting troubles. Exile has taught me that there is nothing like sitting on a balcony in any city in the world, drinking a cup of coffee without the slightest thought of what surrounds you,  contemplating a sunset vanishing in the indigo sea, reminding you of your linguistic world which never dies. Happiness does not require much, only love, generosity, and a little freedom. It is true that I lost land that badly wounded my memory, but I won a great homeland, which is the homeland of writing. My only and final land.


Walid Nabhan was born in Amman, Jordan in 1966. His family originated in Hebron in Palestine. He graduated in Biomedical Sciences from Bristol University, and in 2003, he earned an MA in Human Rights and Democratization from the University of Malta. He works in life sciences and is a published author of novels and collections of short stories and poetry. In 2014, he won the Malta National Book Prize, and in 2017, he won the European Union Prize for Literature (EUPL) for his novel ‘Exodus of Storks.’



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