The distant imagination of the Middle East’s exiled writers

As bloody conflict continues to devastate the region, driving countless people from their homes, Shirine Saad examines the profound influence migration and exile have had on Middle Eastern literature.

Women and children refugees evacuate the village of Zenin during the 1948 Palestinian Nakba. John Phillips / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images
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Since early Islamic days, Arabic literature has been engaged with hijrah, or migration – a theme that became particularly potent after 1948 and, more recently, with the bloody conflicts in Iraq and Syria. To illustrate the importance and urgency of the problem of displacement, a recent conference at Columbia University explored its various manifestations in classical and contemporary Arabic literature.

“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience,” Edward Said wrote in his essay Reflections on Exile. “It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement.”

The anxiety and alienation described by Said have been central to the work of many Arab poets’ work, particularly since the postcolonial era and the 1948 Palestinian Nakba. As changing borders and threatened nation-states continue to destabilise the region and drive countless Arabs from their homes, the problems of migration, exile and lost homelands is now more urgent than ever, says the literary scholar Muhsin Al Musawi, who organised a major conference, Arabic Literature: Migration, Diaspora, Exile, Estrangement, at Columbia University last autumn.

“Exile and migration have only been gaining more attention lately,” explains Al Musawi, who presented a paper on the Palestinian poet Darwish during the conference. “The question has become a subgenre in the humanities and in the next 20 years it will be one of the main topics in academia – in sociology, political science and history.”

These massive changes make a deep mark on a region’s literary work, and poetry in particular has played a central role in the region. “Poets feel the huge burdens that are endangering human life,” the scholar explains. “These changes are as enormous as the world wars. We are talking about billions of people who are getting dislocated or killed. The poet cannot stand aside and claim that he has nothing to reflect on.”

Subjects at the Columbia University conference ranged from the question of translation to the poetry of Adonis and Darwish; the Nakba; Arab Jews; Moroccan fiction writers and Abbasid poets.

Indeed, themes of migration and estrangement have been present since the beginning of Arabic culture. Since pre-Islamic times, the Arab poet was actively involved in society, speaking for his tribe, fighting injustice and oppression. “Historically, there is a sense of exile in Arab writing,” explains Al Musawi. “The idea of the stranger is very old in Arabic literature. The idea of deportation and migration is always there. However, with the postcolonial stage, you find a different scale of massive deportations and migrations.”

Reflecting on these crises, the poet’s work expresses the angst and questioning that mark the Middle East after the colonial era. The “free verse” movement that began in the 1940s sought a new revolutionary language and form to reflect the changes that were shaking up postcolonial Arab societies. The poets of the movement struggled to speak out for social and political change, in Sartre’s tradition of engagement (iltizam). But while these poets held an important role in society and politics, artistic protest was perilous. Poets – including the Iraqi modernist Abdel Wahab Al Bayati, the Egyptian Muhammad Afifi Matar and Moroccan-born Abdellatif Laâbi – were often persecuted, tortured and jailed.

Poetry can be seen as threatening because words are a fierce weapon to combat injustice and fight for social changes. “Poets try to deal with exile and displacement, either as a nation-bound problem or a personal problem,” explains Al Musawi. “The amount of nostalgia and anxiety involved after major thresholds such as 1948, 1961 and 1991, the politicisation of the region and the larger migrations from Iraq, Syria and Sudan were always new phenomena and writers dealt with them not as a mere personal plight but as a personal perspective in a larger narrative. The writer expresses anxiety, fears and a sense of loss through style, images and narrative.”


The poet or intellectual often feels alienated in his or her own land. Exile, while traumatic, can offer freedom from censorship, oppression and dogma, and a renewed look at the homeland. Edward Said believed that the critical distance enforced by exile allowed the intellectual to better grasp the realities of their culture. “For Said, exile means a critical distance from all cultural identities, a restless opposition to all orthodoxies – both those of the coloniser and those of the colonised,” wrote philosopher Martha Nussbaum in The New York Times in 2001. “Understood in this way, Said believes, exile, though painful, is also a morally valuable condition.”

Poetry allows readers to experience the trauma, anxiety, pain and mourning that come with displacement, forced migrations and occupations – the “open wound”, as the Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail puts it. It confers to the poem a tension that, free from political propaganda or clichés of sentimentalism or nostalgia, makes its form and content particularly powerful.

“The poet in exile lives between two territories,” explains Al Musawi. “The past and the present. The homeland and the present location. Poetry needs a tension, a paradox. The poet stands at an intersection, which means opening too many windows at the same time, listening to a number of concepts and navigating among them to say something. That is the power of poetry. A poem in exile is usually a poem loaded with meaning.”

Such poetry is not only potent because it helps express the suffering of individuals and nations and builds alternative histories of the region, but, mostly, because it delivers a universal message. “Every audience will be reading the poem as their own,” explains Al Musawi, “because it deals with agonies, dislocations, something universal related to loss, and it will develop an emotive link with mass audiences that is very important, very much like the effect of social media.”

The estranged activist: Mahmoud Darwish

Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) is praised for his groundbreaking work on language and poetry and has become iconic of the Palestinian struggle and people. He saw Palestine as a metaphor for the loss of Eden, for the tragedy of dispossession and exile and the declining power of the Arab world.

Darwish was born in the village of Birweh, which was razed by the Israelis in 1948, temporarily sending his family to Lebanon, then, illegally, back to Israel, a moment that deeply wounded him – he was an exile in his own land. He became politically active at a young age, joining the communist party of Israel in the 1960s and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in the 1970s and 80s. Throughout his lifetime, he was repeatedly punished for his activism; he lived in exile for 26 years, travelling between Beirut, Moscow, Cairo and Paris.

Darwish’s incisive engagement and forceful imagery was evident in his first major collection of poems, Leaves of Olives, published when he was 22. His early poem Identity Card became a hymn for the resistance and led to the poet’s arrest when it was turned into a protest song. Darwish became “the poet of the Palestinian Resistance”, fighting for the liberation of his nation from a critical distance:

“Write down!/ I am an Arab/ You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors/ And the land which I cultivated/ Along with my children/ And you left nothing for us/ Except for these rocks/ So will the State take them/ As it has been said?!”

Muhsin Al Musawi argues that literary production emerges as the voice of a minority in an oppressive culture, as a form of resistance. “Poetry in particular is a voice of freedom,” he says. “The poet has no other weapon than poetry.”

But Darwish’s work was far from mere political propaganda. Over the course of his life, he continued to celebrate Palestine in his poems, slowly moving from the romantic tone of his early work towards a more universal, contemplative voice as he became more concerned with the pure aesthetics of poetry.

His poem State of Siege, written in 2002, is scarred with tragedy and despair:

“Here on the slopes before sunset and at the gun-mouth of time,/ Near orchards deprived of their shadows,/ We do what prisoners do,/ We do what the unemployed do:/ We nurture hope.”

As Darwish revisited memories of his hometown, liberated his poetry from political activism and created a poetry of topographies, the power of exile blossomed. “In the 1990s, as Darwish’s work becomes interested with mythology and the reconstruction of his own village and his own life, he allows the sense of exile to emerge,” explains Al Musawi. “He reproduces spaces in which you can read the land which was lost, a map for reading where everything is punctuated with emotion and longing – and that is typical of poetry in exile. Exile needs a myth of its own. It should transcend the communicative language, whereas the political is full with itself. What remains is the feeling of loss.”

The restless revolutionary: Adonis

Ali Ahmad Said Esber – born 1930 and known as Adonis, after the Greek name of Tammuz, an ancient deity worshipped in the region until the advent of Islam – is equally known as a public intellectual and as a groundbreaking modernist poet.

After being jailed for his membership of the National Socialist Party in Syria as a young man, he moved to Lebanon and began working at Shi’r, the influential avant-garde poetry publication, leading the evolution of free verse in Arabic and the neo-Sufi movement. He has since lived in Paris and the US, translating great books, writing innumerable works of poetry, analysis and fiction and collecting prizes and honours, including several nominations for the Nobel Prize.

Exile has deeply marked Adonis’s work from his earliest days, allowing him to take a distance from his homeland and from politics, which he abandoned after resigning from the National Socialist Party. Throughout his life, he has refused to participate in propaganda efforts, arguing that poetry must be divorced from mundane imperatives.

“Adonis attached a certain privilege to exile, insofar as it allowed him to take a certain distance from the reigning practice of politics in Damascus and the Arab world,” explains Robyn Creswell, an Arab poetry scholar who teaches comparative literature at Brown University, Rhode Island, US. “Exile, to him, meant apolitical freedom, a method of disengaging. Whereas poets in the Arab world were being engagé à la Sartre, Adonis and other poets took an opposing stand. To be a modernist poet was the opposite of engagé poetry.”

Drawing on Arabic and Sufi poetry and on modern masters such as T S Elliott and Stéphane Mallarmé, Adonis’s writing bore a sense of sadness and loss from its nascent days. In 1965, the poet reacted to the turbulent events shaking up the Arab world in Season of Tears, both fulfilling poetry’s sociopolitical role and the need for a “language of absence” that allowed for aesthetic purity:

“And I said, No, you’ll remain in longing, Damascus/ In my blood,/ And I said, let Damascus burn/ And my murdered depths arose/ Calling out to Damascus,/ Their frightened cries.”

These verses expressed both Adonis’s personal anguish and his desolation with the developments in the region. “Adonis made a reflection on exile one of his primary concerns from the beginning of his career,” explains Creswell. “It was an intertwined history: a personal and political history of exile. But the longer he lived in exile, the more it became a metaphysical theme, a productive experience which provided an estrangement effect from the Arabic language and the Arabic traditions.”

As his work matured, Adonis became more and more absorbed with liberating the poetic form from rigid traditions, building in a rich and diverse literary repertoire that includes Abu Tammam, Saint John of the Cross, Baudelaire or Rumi, reinterpreting Arabic history and culture particularly through the work of marginalised artists.

In 2003, in Celebrating Childhood, he looked back to his early days in his village of Al Qassabin, reminiscing about the place he left behind as a child:

“I was born in a village/ Small and secretive like a womb/ I never left it./ I love the ocean not the shores.”

While the poem avoids the traps of nostalgia and sentimentalism, it carries a sense of loss, solitude and alienation. “Being in exile is painful in part because of the agency you’ve given up,” explains Creswell.

Adonis is now based in Paris and continues his active work in the literary field. He has been vocal about his disillusionment with contemporary Arabic culture, provoking strong reactions within communities and political spheres. Recently, with the Syrian war, he has expressed particular grief, claiming that poetry could not change society positively.

“These moments of military conflict really make that point very clear: the powerlessness of intellectuals,” explains Creswell.

Meditations on violence: Dunya Mikhail

As a literature student in 1980s Baghdad, Dunya Mikhail (born 1965) was surrounded with everyday violence – explosions, arrests, constant terror. She began writing poetry in an attempt to make sense of the surreal spectacle that surrounded her.

Inspired first by childhood folk tales and by romantic poets such as Khalil Gebran, Nawal El Saadawi and Mustafa Lutfi Al-Manfaluti, she began giving shape to her feelings, hiding her impressions under layers of metaphors to avoid censorship. After the first Gulf War, she wrote a series of raw poems expressing the horror and tragedy.

In Bag of Bones, she described the chilling scene of Saddam’s mass graves:

“What good luck!/ She has found his bones./ The skull is also in the bag/ The bag in her hand/ Like all other bags/ In all other trembling hands./ His bones, like thousands of bones/ In the mass graveyard,/ His skull, not like any other skull.”

After moving to the US in the mid-1990s following pressure from the government, she published these poems in the book The War Works Hard in 1995, which won the PEN translation awards and was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. In 2001, she was awarded the UN Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing.

Filled with intricate memories and tenderness, her poems reflect the alienation of being a foreigner in one’s own land, of exile and loss.

“War is a mess and we try to give it shape through poetry,” explains Mikhail, who currently lives in Michigan. “All this violence makes us feel alienated and, in order not to go crazy, we resort to poetry, turning the catastrophe into an aesthetic moment.”

Mikhail says that she felt a relief and liberation after leaving Iraq, rediscovering her affection for her country and culture from a distance and freeing her poems from overbearing metaphors, making it more direct. Yet her anxiety and torment will never fade away; she says that poetry keeps her suffering alive.

“I believe that poetry does not heal a wound; on the contrary, it keeps it open forever,” she says. “It’s not medicine, but it’s an X-ray that helps you see the wound and understand it. I don’t intend to write about certain things like exile or displacement, but it’s strange how your memories survive with you, live with you in the new place and interfere with almost everything you do – even with your writing.”

The restless wanderer: Iman Mersal

Iman Mersal (born 1966) was never exiled, but experienced alienation at an early stage, as a young poet in Egypt. She pursued a modern form of poetry and looked at the work of Adonis and Sargon Boulos to develop avant-garde prose poetry that mirrored the broken-up identities and realities of contemporary Arab societies, offering an alternative narrative to all-powerful ­propaganda.

“In that historical moment of the early 1990s,” she says, “in the desolate urban landscape of Cairo, the group of hopeless young poets I belonged to witnessed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the allying of Arab states with America in destroying Iraq, the continuing Palestinian struggle for freedom, the injustice and poverty …”

Her generation of artists and poets, unlike the protest movements of the idealistic 1960s and 1970s, were filled with bitterness and disillusionment.

“We experienced doubts about Arab nationalism, about western democracy and enlightenment as well. This alienation … created a desire to escape the grand rhetoric and historical ideology of Arabic culture in general and poetry in ­particular.”

When Mersal moved to North America, she stopped writing for five years after experiencing the shock of being far from home. “During the first few years in Boston and then in Edmonton, Canada,” she says, “I went through what I think many people feel in displacement: nostalgia, homesickness, anger, comparing the two places. I even had some surreal dreams that combined places, people, languages.”

Mersal moved to Canada, where she teaches Arabic literature at the University of Alberta, and continued to look at the rapidly changing realities of her homeland. She has become one of the leading poets and intellectuals of her generation.

In 2007, she wrote about her lost home in Things Elude Me:

“I will not try short cuts/ To avoid the pain./ I will not stop myself from loitering/ As I train my teeth to chew on hate/ That leaps from within./ And to forgive/ The cold hands that pushed me toward it,/ I will remember/ That I did not smudge the bathroom’s whiteness/ With my own darkness.”

While she insists that great art must be divorced from political content, Mersal is a firm believer in the social and political power of poetry. “Genuine art can be an indirect political force in its pedagogical role, as described by Alain Badiou: ‘Art is pedagogical because it produces truths and because education (save in its oppressive or perverted expressions) has never meant anything but this: to arrange the forms of knowledge in such a way that some truth may come to pierce a hole in them.’”

Shirine Saad is a New York-based editor and writer.