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Modern Arabic Exilic Literature: Fractured Subjectivities and Belonging

Panel XIII-14, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
The theme of exile is not new to contemporary Arab authors as the topic was discussed as early as sixth century Jāhili poetry. Similarly, in modern times, separation from one’s home-country has been explored by various writers as early as the turn of the twentieth century. Whereas Arabic Mahjar (diaspora/migratory) literature evolved at the turn of the twentieth century when Levantine writers voluntarily emigrated to North and South America escaping Ottoman rule. In the second half of the twentieth century continuous wars in the region such as the Algerian struggle for Independence, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Lebanese Civil War, the Gulf War, the American invasion of Iraq, and the Syrian Civil War have forced many writers into involuntary exile. Nationalist struggles coupled with merciless regimes, fear of imprisonment and torture, and political oppression have forced many into exile. Arab diaspora has instigated many writers to produce a plethora of exilic literature expressing their exilic dilemmas in Arabic as well as in English, French, and other languages. Hence, our panel examines refugee writers in the diaspora, looking at how these writers deal with topics such as longing for the homeland, collective suffering, distress, the effects of dislocation from home, and social alienation in a society that dramatically differs from his homeland shapes their sense of identity. First paper “Aesthetics of Violence and Political Potential for Democratic Change in Hassan Blasim's Writing” identifies the kind of relationship that exists between the mere act of stylizing violence in Blasim’s narratives and the dynamics of his calls for democratic change for refugees and migrants. Second paper entitled “Fragmentation and Narration in Muhsin al-Ramli’s Short Fiction,” examines Muhsin al-Ramli’s personal experiences as an exile living in Spain through his short stories. “Syrian Women and Polyphonic Testimonies in Exile” looks at the negative stigma associated with exile, illustrating how the voices of exiled women is a hopeful polyphony of adapting to life in new countries leading to transition and personal growth despite the turmoil that they have experienced. “Trauma as an Adversarial Strategy in Abulhawa’s the Blue Between Sky and Water,” explores the aesthetics of trauma in the Palestinian American Susan Abulhawa’s novel The Blue Between Sky and Water. Final paper entitled “Syrian Refugee poets in Sweden and the United States: Fractured Subjectivities and Belonging” explores how the atrocities these poets have faced, coupled with their lives in exile, have shaped their subjectivities.
  • My paper focuses on a community of Syrian poets who currently live in the United States and Sweden. It specifically discusses exilic literary production and how Syrian refugees turn to poetry to address the question of refuge, loss, marginalization, grief, and suffering. Poetry is a culturally valorized art form in the Arab world, one that is used to express love and longing, anguish and despair, hope and aspiration—sentiments that are sometimes difficult to express through any other medium. Far from being purely personal, such literary production has described as “central to the revolutionary process, and the key achievement of the revolution” (al-Haj Saleh 2017: xvii). I examine the trajectories of these poets and their texts, with a focus on how longing for the homeland, collective suffering, distress, the effects of dislocation from home, and social alienation in a society that dramatically differs from their homeland—and, at times, vilifies them because of their religious and cultural backgrounds—shape their sense of identity and their cultural production. In particular, I seek to identify how war, loss, displacement, and grief, among other, have inevitably affected the subjectivities of these Syrian refugee writers and the ways these changes have been conceptualized in their artistic productions. Thus, I examine how exile has shaped and continues to shape these poets’ sense of identity and artistry. This paper also explores how artistic production mirrors the social conditions, suffering, marginalized lives in exile, and changing subjectivities of these poets. Finally, this work aims to chronicle these poets’ lives in the diaspora, with its endless paradoxical seesawing between their mounting anguish and the joy they experience through poetic accomplishment.
  • Many studies deal with the representation of migrants and refugees in literature and on screen; however, only few are dedicated to the works of Arab writers from Iraq. This paper examines violence and its aesthetic figuration in Hassan Blasim’s short stories "The Truck to Berlin" and "Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes." Situating both narratives at the intersection of migrant diaspora literature and Arab studies, I examine how Blasim's short stories use stylized forms of violence to represent the figure of the refugee and migrant as a potential agent of change, defying national binary distinctions and representations of victimhood. While “The Truck to Berlin” contextualizes illegal immigration in terms of language, religion, race and ethnicity, “Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes” centers on the crisis of identity that is often part of the immigrant experience. However, in each story, Blasim includes violence into the narrative in ways that shed light on the hardship encountered by migrants and refugees across borders. By combining art and terror and by depicting grotesque acts of violence that he incorporates aesthetically into his narratives, the author displaces the refugees' real day-to-day encounters with violence into aesthetic form in order to press governments for social and political change. My paper draws on Hannah Arendt's and Theodor Adorno's writings which probe the link between the aesthetics of violence and politics, in order to explore the democratic potential of Blasim's writings. Using these theoretical discourses, the paper will identify the kind of relationship that exists between the mere act of stylizing violence in Blasim’s narratives and the dynamics of his calls for democratic change and a human rights framework that secures more protection for refugees and migrants.
  • The Syrian Civil War that broke in 2011 is an ongoing multi-sided struggle that led to the displacement of thousands of Syrian internally and internationally. Ozlem Ezer’s Syrian Women Refugees: Personal Accounts of Transition (2019) is based on the stories of nine exiled Syrian women who were forced to leave their homeland due to civil war. These nine interviewees are living now across three continents. Even though these women are not writers-per se, their stories as oral narrators impact how we can understand exile in the last few years. Syrian Women Refugees is a narrative artefact that depicts how women can collaborate with each other recording their stories of displacement. These stories show how displaced women can support each other in making their contrapuntal stories heard. Ezer herself is a Turkish scholar who has travelled extensively teaching and doing research in different parts of the globe. Thus, the exilic experience of Syrian women is the point of interest of this paper. Muslim women-especially if they are wearing the headscarf- and learning to learn a new language and speak it with an accent is definitely very challenging as they tend to be even more marginalized and liminal. These nine testimonies record the experiences of displacement of these liminal “abject” women. Taking Julia Kristeva’s theories of the abject as well as her concept of the “pleasures of exile,” I problematize the negative stigma associated with exile. I illustrate how the voices of these nine exiled women is a hopeful polyphony of adapting to life in new countries which eventually lead to transition and personal growth despite the turmoil the exiled person would have experienced.
  • Fragmented subjectivities and alienation are frequent and persistent themes in contemporary Arabic literature of migration. These tropes stem from their authors personal experience with exile and border crossing. Iraqi writer Muhsin Al-Ramli’s personal experiences as an exile living in Spain informs his writings. His 1998 collection “Awraq Ba’idah ‘an Dijla” (Papers Far From the Tigris) repeatedly employs a first-person narrator residing in Spain and writing about his homeland of Iraq. The geographical distance from which these narratives are written, infuses each text with nostalgia and also fragments it, highlighting the divided self. Physically residing in Spain but dwelling psychologically in Iraq, Al-Ramli’s characters exist in a constant state of in-betweenness and liminality. They are neither fully here, nor there living instead a shadow existence defined by feelings of alienation and displacement. This divide produces a psychological crisis that alienates Al-Ramli’s characters from both their surroundings and the texts themselves. Inhabiting a constant state of liminality, imprints itself on the body and psyche of the refugee character creating fractured subjectivities. Alienation is manifested through highly experimental narratives, stream of consciousness, dreams, nightmares and shifts between realist, hyperrealist and surrealist styles. In this paper I will argue that it is only in the constant traveling between Iraq and Spain, between past and present and between the here and there that Al-Ramli and his narrators can imagine home creating a coherent narrative for themselves. Hence, the imaginative space of narrative, a liminal space where past and present, fact and fiction find a meeting point, can transform real life fragmentation into a meaningful literary dialogue.
  • Trauma as an Adversarial Strategy in Abulhawa’s the Blue Between Sky and Water This paper explores the aesthetics of trauma in the Palestinian American Susan Abulhawa’s novel The Blue Between Sky and Water. Abulhawa fictionalizes the durability of trauma, haunting Palestinian refugees in Gaza Strip as a ghost, reminding them of their cataclysmic past. The novel relates the saga of forced evacuation of the Baraka family, who is originally from Beit Daras, a small farming village located 32 kilometers in the northeastern side of Gaza. The advent of the Nakba or the 1948 Palestinian Catastrophe renders this family homeless, shifting locations before they end up in a refugee camp in Gaza or as exiles in the United States. Abulhawa’s novel shows that while Palestinians are inflicted with indelible memories of expulsion and flight, these memories serve as resistant strategies against erasure and forgetfulness. Therefore, though classical trauma theory, spearheaded by Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman, Dori Laub and Geoffrey Hartman, centers on the amnesic aspect of trauma on individuals, this paper argues that the Palestinian trauma often is not amnesic and goes beyond the individual’s psychodynamics of trauma. It is collective and functions as a reminder of what the Palestinians have been through. Collective remembering hence lies at the core of the Palestinian struggle for the right of existence, resistance and return. Finally, reading Palestinian predicament of flight and displacement through the lens of classical trauma theory extends the analysis of trauma to cases in the global South and renders the theory cross-cultural and inclusive of postcolonial traumas. Keywords: collective trauma, classical trauma theory, immigrant narrative, Palestinian collective remembering