Yoav Di-Capua, No Exit: Arab Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre and Decolonization (Chicago: University Press of Chicago, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Yoav Di-Capua (YDC): I was initially interested in writing about something else related to the aftermath of the 1967 war. I wanted to understand the cultural subject of this defeat and dig through the ruins. For that end, I started combing through the intellectual record of the previous three decades. Much to my surprise, I found multiple references to existentialism. It soon became clear that there is such a thing as Arab existentialism, and that it is the largest existentialist scene outside Europe. The Arab interest in existentialism makes perfect sense. Since existentialism is part of a phenomenological tradition that prioritizes experience over essence, it allowed intellectuals a fresh look at their situation under colonialism. Rather than being locked into a hopeless essentialist position as Muslims who, for instance, are incompatible with reason, existentialism proposed a situational explanation of their cultural position and suggested ways in which the post-colonial generation could connect to this experience, take responsibility for it, and shape a new future for themselves. It sounds vague and complicated, until we are reminded that Simone de Beauvoir used existentialism in the exact same way to mediate about the condition of women in bourgeoise society. To paraphrase, just as “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” so does people who were subjected to slavery or colonization. There is a process that has nothing to do with fixed character or essence (hence the existentialist battle cry “existence precedes essence”). That was the major insight that allowed Senghor, Fanon, and their generation to think about colonialism from “outside” as a relational process and to develop its critique, thus laying the foundations for post-colonial freedom. Intrigued by the discovery of Arab existentialism, I realized that I can use it as a platform for the exploration of Arab decolonization as such. As for the original book I set out to write, I will start working on it soon.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
YDC: On the most basic level, No Exit examines the question of being after colonialism. That is, what does it mean to be a person in the wake of decades of colonial modernity. Taking post-colonial Arab ontology seriously, I was interested in the inside story of decolonization, in the internal dynamics of this process. We tend to think of decolonization in terms of physical liberation and only as something that happens within the confines of the nation-state. It turns out that Arab decolonization was a transnational business par-excellence and that via a two-way relationship with Sartre it developed global ethics of liberation and a clear expectation for true emancipation.
Juxtaposing the history of Arab decolonization with the history of Sartre’s politics of liberation led me to Palestine and to the early 1950s and 1960s texts that young Arab thinkers wrote about it. For many, the home-grown tradition of Arab existentialism and its validity and utility as a tool for a collective exit from the colonial situation hinged on Sartre’s position of Palestine. Arabs followed and supported Sartre’s ethics of liberation in the cases of Algeria, Congo, Cuba, Rhodesia and Vietnam. But what about Palestine, they asked? Viewed from the perspective of the Arab intellectual record, No Exit aspires to conjoin several conversations and fields that to my taste are still somewhat disjointed. This fragmentation brought scholars to reduce Arab decolonization to the narrow cause of Pan-Arab unity through which an entire course of history was approached.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
YDC: In terms of method, I am not sure it does. This time there are more historical actors, both in the region and outside it. There are also more historiographical fields to reckon with, such as Francophone and French studies, decolonization studies, and global intellectual history to cite a few. However, the basic method remains the same and that is to read extensively the Arab intellectual tradition and to get to know Arab intellectuals as intimately as possible.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
YDC: My hope is that Arab intellectuals of the 1960s and the fruit of their mind and political actions will make sense for historians of empire and decolonization. There is much talk about the Global 1960s, with Chinese, Mexicans, Indians and Indonesians, to name a few, playing a coordinated role. Almost everybody is there except the Arabs. So, my hope is that the future reader of this book will be able to integrate the history of the region into the larger picture of the 1960s. Needless to say, we write exclusively to fellow academics and that trickles down via the classroom to a larger audience. I just hope that as many colleagues from outside the field of Middle East Studies will give this story a chance. That is the practical expectation I have. On the level of fantasy, I hope that some general readers will pick up the book and hopefully take time to re-think the Arab world of the 1960s. I say fantasy because it is really not a realist expectation. However, every now and then, I do get mail from such a reader. Last week, for instance, I corresponded with a Palestinian man who grew up in Saudi Arabia and who never had a chance before to read about Arab thought in the 1960s and its drive toward universalism.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
YDC: I am still interested in the decade after 1967 but finishing this book will take many years. Until then, I am currently writing a series of articles about the sacred nature of Arab liberation under Nasserism and Ba`thism. It is an effort to theorize these two movements in terms of political theology and begin a conversation about the so-called secular nature of the 1960s. My argument is that in ontological terms, both movements established sacrificial cultures that offered an experience of sacredness that, later, Islamic fundamentalists such as Qutb mimicked. In that sense, the transition from the so-called secular experience of the 1960s to the fundamentalism of the 1970s was not as dramatic as it appears to be, but rather a variation on the post-colonial theme of sacred liberation.
J: If this is a book about how Arabs used existentialism for the sake of advancing their own cause of self-liberation and find an exit from the colonial condition, how come there is so little pure philosophy in it?
YDC: The purpose of the book is to tell the story of Arab decolonization. Existentialism, is a neat way of doing this. The book shows how European existentialism was transformed into Arab existentialism for the sake of articulating the notion of post-colonial freedom, to mobilize the political and intellectual elites via the call for commitment (iltizam) as well as the many ways in which feminists, Palestinians, and dissidents used it to contest state authoritarianism and challenge patriarchy. Mostly, it assists us in tracing the transnational history of anti-colonial humanism, and how its notions of race and otherness assisted the post-colonial generation to join a universal cause of emancipation. Philosophy becomes part of this story only when its impact on decolonization was significant (for instance, with the early efforts of Abd al-Rahman Badawi to reconcile Sufiism with Heideggerian existentialism as a solution to the post-colonial condition of inauthenticity and anxiety). Otherwise, this is not a book about philosophy and hence cannot do justice to this important field.
Excerpt from the Book:
As the colonial era in the Middle East drew to a close, a restless generation of young intellectuals vowed to rethink their culture and invent what they called “a new Arab man”: self-confident, authentic, reflective, worldly, independent, self-sufficient, proud, and, above all, free. Since during this era existentialism was taken to be the comprehensive philosophy of the individual, this generation’s project of radical self-fashioning led them to Jean-Paul Sartre. Taking seriously the existentialist battle cry “be yourself at all costs,” they forged a homegrown tradition of Arab existentialism, or, as it is known in Arabic, wujudiyya. By offering a wide spectrum of intellectual possibilities, Arab existentialism germinated the culture of decolonization and functioned as the intellectual foundation of an entire generational endeavor.
Indeed, by the late 1950s, the Arab world boasted of having the largest existentialist scene outside of Europe. A random walk into a bookstore, a quick glance at one of the dozens of literary journals, or an afternoon in a downtown café in Beirut, Cairo, Baghdad, or Damascus would suffice to establish the fact that Sartre had become, among Arab intellectuals, a household name. As the progressive Egyptian writer Ahmad ʿAbbas Salih put it in a public letter to Sartre, “Your influence in this region is deeper and wider than that of any other writer. We have known you for a long time, and from the first contact with your ideas . . . their appeal grew deeper until our publishing houses were working daily to translate and print your work. . . . You are the only Western writer that all Arab newspapers follow closely.” Indeed, so avidly read was Sartre in the region that at one point in 1963, upon the publication of his celebrated autobiography Les Mots (The Words), the Lebanese translator and publisher Suhayl Idris bragged of bringing the Arabic edition to the market ahead of the original French one.
The daily French newspaper Le Monde took appreciative note of the fact that Sartre and Beauvoir topped the Arab best-seller lists. This fame, it noted, was not simply due to intellectual fashion, Sartre’s support for Algeria, or his well-known declining of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Rather, it was because “twenty years later, the questions that Sartre posed in his 1947 essay Qu’est-ce que la littérature? [What Is Literature?] still resonate in the Middle East.” Echoing this enthusiasm and dedication to his work, intellectuals wrote passionately to Sartre (but curiously not to Beauvoir) about their deep love for him and recounted in great detail how the awkward-looking philosopher had changed their lives by teaching them how to become fighter-intellectuals (munadil- mufakkir). Mostly they were touched by his sincere effort to simply and meaningfully recognize who they were, and they felt validated by and through his writings.
Indeed, with the possible exception of Karl Marx, for the last two hundred years—roughly during the entire course of Arab modernity—no other foreign intellectual was more translated, read, debated, engaged with, and admired than Jean-Paul Sartre: his philosophy, lit- erature, theater, and his global politics. Furthermore, moving beyond the usual one-way relationship between metropolitan stars and peripheral thinkers, Sartre warmly reciprocated and humanely recognized his Arab interlocutors and established an ongoing rapport with a host of them. In the modern annals of the Middle East, especially its Eastern Arab lands, it would indeed be difficult to find another cross-cultural moment more intimate, intense, and hopeful than this one.
On both sides of the Mediterranean, Sartre, his intellectual circle, and their new Arab interlocutors were eager to demonstrate that, against the polarizing logic of the Cold War and the sociopolitical stag- nation of Europe, decolonization could produce revolutionary societies that were as egalitarian, free, and patriotic as they were anti-imperialist and humanistic. For Europeans of the Left and colonized people of recently liberated domains, that, in a nutshell, was the promise of Third Worldism, and, far from being a provincial African, Asian, or Arab project, it was, in a variation on the old theme of colonial universality, a promising universal counter-project of its own.
Arab existentialists, those who actually thought with existentialism in order to decolonize their world and construct a new one, were endowed with impressive peripheral vision and a taste for worldly engagements. At the same time, they were not made of one political cloth. They embraced diverse ideological orientations and held opposing political commitments. Some were sworn enemies. Yet, in order to argue about the meaning of freedom at the close of empire, about individual- ism, alienation, cultural authenticity, solidarity, and the need to invent what was known at the time as a “new Arab man”—this new citizen of the world—they used the referential grammar of existentialism.
Reconfiguring the European tradition, Arab existentialism yielded an effusive stream of political tracts, manifestos, op-eds, novels, poems, short stories, plays, philosophy books, and works of literary and cultural criticism. Numbering in the thousands, these original formula- tions of existentialism were penned and read by countless pundits, artists, philosophers, students, revolutionaries, politicians, political prisoners, state officials, refugees, feminists, social reformers, peacemakers, would-be martyrs, and universal justice seekers. The intelligentsia of the Eastern Arab lands (and to some degree that of Iran) wholeheartedly embraced wujudiyya and, in the course of doing so, turned Sartre into its mentor. But a mentor for what, exactly? As it turned out, find- ing a way out of colonialism was no easy task. One of the first thinkers to grasp this complexity was the Algerian thinker Malek Bennabi, who imagined decolonization as “an exit from the colonial situation” with all of its related racial, psychological, social, political, and economic implications. In search of such an exit, Arab thinkers began trusting Sartre to intellectually mark a way out, or an exit, from the colonial condition. Yet, unfortunately, for all the optimism, enthusiasm, and hope that this movement engendered, the story of Arab existentialism, and of Sartre’s Arab celebrity, did not have a happy ending, nor did it provide an easy exit from the colonial condition. It is, quite sadly, a postcolonial story of no exit.
In more than one way, the eventual collapse of the Arab world’s personal relationship with Sartre was a foreshadowing of things to come. While at the beginning of 1967 Sartre was still an uncontested Arab hero, whose impact, reputation, and legacy seemed as enduring and long lasting as the Algerian independence he staunchly supported, by the end of that same year, in the wake of the devastating Six-Day War, he was branded a traitor and a Zionist in disguise. Accused of signing a pro-Zionist manifesto (which indeed he did sign), Sartre’s Arabic books were banned, burned, or voluntarily boycotted, and an entire course of thought was quietly disowned. Suppressed and virtually forgotten, the legacy of Arab existentialism and its association with Sartre was replaced with a sense of colossal betrayal and an argument against the suitability of existentialism to Arab liberation.
Decades later, the memory of an iconic betrayal still lingers: “Nearly everything he [Sartre] wrote,” reflected Edward Said in 2000, “is interesting for its sheer audacity, its freedom (even its freedom to be verbose) and its generosity of spirit.” Once an admirer of Sartre indebted to his advocacy on behalf of any just cause around the globe, eventually even Said saw in him “a bitter disappointment to every (non- Algerian) Arab who admired him.” It is hard to argue with this emotional judgment, but what was the intellectual basis for this pervasive sense of betrayal? Was Sartre a Zionist in disguise all along? Did he and Beauvoir share the same opinions of Israelis and Arabs? What role did other intellectuals in Sartre’s circle play in the drama of Zionism versus the Arab Cause? What positions did Arab and Israeli intellectuals take vis-à-vis Sartre’s 1965 decision to engage the Arab-Israeli conflict? And, of course, how did the still-unprocessed trauma of the Holocaust and the legacy of anti-Semitism affect those who were part of this trans-Mediterranean intellectual and political network? As we shall see, on a remarkably narrow evidentiary base, some of these questions have, at least in theory, already been addressed. But here No Exit: Arab Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Decolonization draws on a plethora of recently discovered and previously unconsulted Arabic and Hebrew sources to finally draw a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the accusation that Sartre, Beauvoir, and the entire French Left were traitors to the Arab Cause. Of equal importance, we can begin to recognize—as well as to make sense of—the Arabs’ deep sense of betrayal.
Yet, important as these aspects are, aside from the drama of Sartre, the French Left, and Zionism, there is the story of Arab existentialism itself: its makers and its believers. Though largely forgotten even in the region, the rich legacy of Arab existentialism elucidates a moment when the emancipating promise of global citizenship for recently colonized people became a real possibility. Moving from the vast landscape of economic and political decolonization to consider the specific architecture of intellectual decolonization at its narrowest scope, No Exit uses Arab existentialism as a prism that reveals how this process looked from within. Though primarily an intellectual and political affair of the Eastern Arab lands rather than of North Africa, it nonetheless raises important questions about the intellectual specificity of Arab decolonization: What was Arab existentialism, and why did it achieve such a grip on the thought and practice of the postcolonial generation? To what degree was Arab existentialism, and decolonization more broadly, distinctively Arab rather than simply a standard transnational project with a global imaginary and a superstar philosopher—Sartre—as its ultimate symbol?
Obviously, there is much to consider in relation to these questions, but—except in passing—this is not a study of Arab intellectual history in the so-called postliberal era. Rather, by tracing Arab existentialism, No Exit provides a snapshot of the beginning and end of a hegemonic project for decolonization, one that was worlds away from the current dark domains of fundamentalism. In addition to the scholarly arguments this study seeks to make about freedom, authenticity, sovereignty, and Sartre’s global ethics of engagement, at the most basic level, this is a story about people who tried to change their world for the bet- ter. That is, it is an account of the intellectual hopes, struggles, imperfections, setbacks, and small victories that shaped the Arab experience of decolonization.