Arab exiles: Fleeing nightmares or chasing dreams

By Khaled Diab

When revolutionary dreams turn into anti-revolutionary nightmares, the fortunate ones find safety abroad. But with comes unprocessed trauma, guilt, fear, dealing with xenophobia and painful yearnings for home.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Sunday 20 October 2019

Imagine knowing that your government has arrested disappeared hundreds of people over the past few weeks.

Imagine knowing that your government has, in the recent past, not balked at the prospect of killing 1,000 protesters… in a single day.

Imagine how much courage it would take to swallow your fear and take to the streets or to continue to protest loudly on social media. And yet this is exactly what brave Egyptians up and down the country have been attempting.

The numbers are a far cry from the millions who broke through the fear barrier and came out, in 2011, to topple the former dictator Hosni Mubarak's three decades of rule. But then the regime of the current strongman and Donald Trump's “favourite dictator”, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, has been doing its utmost to prevent a repeat of the mass uprisings in 2011 and 2013.

The Sisi regime's determination to bury Egyptian aspirations of bread, freedom, social justice and dignity in the graveyard of ruthless, murderous repression has spurred an untold number of Egyptians to pack up their shattered dreams of liberty and try to piece together their lives in (self-imposed) exile.

Refuge from the storm

Some have headed to safe havens in the region, such as democratic , while others with the means or opportunity have moved to Europe or . While the media image of is of desperate people crossing the Mediterranean on leaky boats or traipsing through the desert, many exiles are actually not officially refugees. They move to the West ostensibly to take up job openings or to pursue postgraduate studies, but they are fleeing a nightmare rather than pursuing a dream.

For many, it takes time to come to terms with the reality that they are exiles, stranded in a foreign land. “After five years of being away from home, it's kind of crystal clear at this point,” admits Ganzeer, who is currently based in Houston.

This Egyptian street artist who became famous for his revolutionary murals, which were later physically and figuratively whitewashed, had to flee his homeland after pro-regime TV started to spread conspiracy theories that he was, in a case of life outdoing black comedy, both the leader of a sinisterly decadent international alliance of artists out to ruin the image of 's military and a member of the sinisterly pious Muslim Brotherhood.

Like grief, the first phase of exile is often denial. “I rejected the fact that I couldn't go back home… For almost a year, I moved from one temporary accommodation to another. Eight flat shares in less than a year,” A1, an exile whose name, identity and country of residence I am withholding because (s)he fears for their life.

“I really don't enjoy living here, but I'm staying here for the safety and welfare of my children,” an anti-Assad Syrian dissident of Alawite descent told me recently in Potsdam, near Berlin. “I miss every day. Being here makes me feel bad for the family and friends I left behind.”

Stolen lives

Wherever they end up, many find that though they are physically elsewhere, their minds, consciousnesses and hearts are firmly back home. “It feels like someone has stolen my life. The life I know of. The life that I have invested many years, a lot of money and a lot of hard work to build. If feels like someone has taken my family from me,” describes A1.

Not everyone feels pangs of longing for their country in and of itself but they do long for that part of it they call their own. “I don't miss living in Egypt. I do miss my friends and family there. I miss Sinai and the sea, my favourite place,” the Egyptian novelist and writer Ahmed Naji told me from his new home in Las Vegas, where he is a resident writer at the University of Nevada.

For political exiles, it is tormenting to watch what is going on back home and not feel saddened for the millions still imprisoned in the nightmare. “It drives me crazy. I find myself glued to the screen,” confesses Ganzeer, who has designed a number of biting caricatures of Sisi to protest the Egyptian dictator's latest crackdown.

Gaining escape velocity

In Arabic we have an expression which roughly translates as “What has passed has passed away,” and some exiles, fearing the power of the distant (geographical) past to trap and entrap them, try to focus their energies on their here and now.

“I don't want to live in the condition of the exiled writer who resides in one country but his heart and mind are in another country,” says Ahmed Naji.

I grew up with just such an exiled writer. Although we lived in London, my father lived in a bubble: he ran an Arabic-language opposition newspaper, wrote political polemics in Arabic and hung out almost exclusively with fellow Arab dissidents, usually leftists and pan-Arabists.

My late mother, on the other hand, preferred to mix it up. In addition to spending time with Arabs, she had an “everyone welcome” attitude and loved to spend time with immigrants from other diverse backgrounds, not to mention native Brits from all walks of life.

As a multiculturalist, I prefer a broad church of friends and acquaintances wherever I find myself.

“I want to understand the new place and be part of its cultural and literary scene,” Naji elaborates. And for Naji, this may be easier than for many exiles. Although acquiring a sufficient command of English to express himself eloquently and to develop his own voice remains a challenge, the themes he deals with in his literature, such as sex and emotional turmoil, are universal ones.

In fact, it was Naji's breaking of sexual, rather than political, taboos which unexpectedly landed him in hot water. Although contemporary Egyptian literature has become increasingly open about sex and drugs, an explicit scene in a novel of Naji's, which was being serialised in a literary magazine, prompted a legal complaint from a reader who claimed rather ridiculously reading it had harmed his health. This mushroomed into a Kafkaesque-Orwellian trial by a brutal regime desperate to virtue signal to religious and social conservatives.

Whimsical whippers

The arbitrary, whimsical, oft random nature of state repression, as well as authoritarian regimes' vicious brutality are meant to instil terror, and it does – as last year's chilling, cold-blooded murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi succeeded in doing, and not only for Saudi dissidents.

“I feel cowardly and humiliated, which is a collective feeling afflicting Egyptians at home and abroad,” observes Naji. “Those outside Egypt experience attacks and humiliation. Even here, I receive direct and indirect threats.”  Fear, nebulous or concrete, individual or collective, is a common emotion amongst exiles. On a personal level, even though I am not an exile and enjoy the relative protection of a European passport, I often feel a sense of vague anxiety upon landing in Cairo at the potential trouble my outspoken criticism of the regime and of religion may land me in.

Nevertheless, exiles are generally safer than their counterparts back home. However, this relative safety and security often provokes involuntary feelings of guilt. “I get the feeling I am talking from a privileged position, even though I was kind of forced to leave the country and was harassed, investigated and threatened all the time,” Jeje Mohamed, an Egyptian freelance journalist who is currently based in Washington, DC, told me recently.

“People sometimes call it survivor's guilt or something like that,” she elaborates.

Migrating to Mars

While recognising how fortunate it was to have found a safe haven, A1 finds the anti-refugee, anti-migrant sentiment in Europe hurtful and galling, especially the notion that people come to sponge off the state. “I never received money from their state. Economically speaking, I have brought with me my own education, which is worth at least one million euros of direct and indirect costs,” A1 counters.

As time has drifted by, A1 finds it too exhausting and fatiguing to challenge these prejudices. “I'm sometimes confronted with those Europeans who think I'm here to benefit from their system,” A1 says. “What do I do about it? Nothing. I smile and walk away. I'm too exhausted to explain or argue.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, in Trumpian America, things are far from cosy for many exiles. “You wouldn't have expected it from America, given that it's made up of people from all over,” reflects Ganzeer. “It's particularly weird to me that I get the sense that there are more people open to the idea of humans migrating to Mars than they are of humans migrating within the vicinity of our planet Earth.”

For those able to observe matters with some variety of detachment or a well-honed sense of irony, there is plenty of bleak humour to be derived from the circus of primetime bigotry. “I diligently follow right-wing news channels and radio stations, not to mention their websites,” says Ahmed Naji. “They are very entertaining and possess wild and fertile imaginations… I enjoy watching them and laugh a lot.”

To hear xenophobic rightwingers speak, you would think the influx of Arab and Muslim exiles and refugees was something new. However, it has been going on for generations, albeit the numbers have grown significantly with the current upheavals in the Middle East.

Arab cultural capitals

Paris and London (and to a lesser extent, New York) traditionally played the roles of intellectual, political and cultural centres of gravity for Arab diasporas, one for Francophones and the other for Anglophones, acting as living labs and testing grounds for ideas crushed at home.

When I was growing up in London, I witnessed this symbiosis firsthand, though I was too young and disinterested to grasp its full significance. Despite the of some, London was also a tolerant, welcoming and accommodating place well on its way to becoming possibly the most diverse city in the world.

In London, it is easy to find Arabic newspapers and books, Arab cultural centres and media outlets, Arab hangouts and restaurants, and Arabs from every walk of life. Despite this, it is still not home for some. One Cairo-based Lebanese journalist who ended up in London after being kicked out of Egypt finds the British metropolis demoralising and alienating.

The growing xenophobia in America and the are shifting the centre of Arab exile to mainland Europe, and specifically to the German capital, Berlin. “Brexit has made London, and the UK in general, deteriorate in the eyes of the world,” observes Amro Ali, a political sociologist who is currently researching Berlin's emerging status as the unofficial capital of Arab exile.

“There is something happening that many cannot put their finger on. But there are many dynamic spaces, from theaters to film screenings, to art galleries, and so on, that are thriving in the Arab spaces of Berlin, and that gives it… that positive general mood,” notes Ali.

Interestingly, Berlin has also emerged as a refuge for Israeli progressives and leftists escaping the dominant right-wing ultranationalism and constant conflict at home. “I'm not in physical exile because I can go back to Israel whenever I want,” explains Mati Shemoelof, an Israeli poet and journalist with Iraqi roots. “There is a mental exile, but I'm okay with that, I'm one with that. I miss the good parts of Israel. I don't miss the bad parts of Israel.”

While Arabs and Israeli have few opportunities to interact in the Middle East, far away from the conflict, they are finding common ground in this cosmopolitan city, despite some incidents of anti-Semitism. “There's something very beautiful here in Berlin when I can meet Arabs and do literary evenings and literary events with them,” reflects Shemoelof.

Such cultural and social interactions are promising for the future.

Unlike economic migrants, who are vilified in some parts of , refugees and exiles are generally treated with more understanding and sympathy. This is partly because of the difficulties they faced in their homelands and partly because many wish to leave once things calm down.

“The young Syrians I speak to say they want to go back to Syria, unlike their parents who want them to settle down in Germany, but the children want to return to a post-Assad Syria and build it up,” Ali says.

Older Syrian exiles also pine to return home. “I did not spend years as a political activist, go to prison twice and risk my life in Syria to end up living and working in Germany, even if the work is rewarding,” insisted the Syrian exile I met in Potsdam. “It feels like my life's work has gone down the drain. It's very depressing.”

These exiles, biding their time in anticipation of changing times, are following in the footsteps of previous waves of exiles, many of whom returned to the Middle East at promising junctures in history, such as the so-called Arab Spring, with the dream of contributing their knowledge and skills to create a better tomorrow at home.

In the meantime, their host societies would do well to make the most of these motivated newcomers.


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