“Reflections on Exile” by Edward Said — Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. 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 achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever. But if true exile is a condition of terminal loss, why has it been transformed so easily into a potent, even enriching, motif of modern culture? We have become accustomed to thinking of the modern period itself as spiritually orphaned and alienated, the age of anxiety and estrangement. Nietzsche taught us to feel uncomfortable with tradition, and Freud to regard domestic intimacy as the polite face painted on patricidal and incestuous rage. Modern Western culture is in large part the work of exiles, émigrés, refugees. In the United States, academic, intellectual and aesthetic thought is what it is today because of refugees from fascism, communism, and other regimes given to the oppression and expulsion of dissidents. The critic George Steiner has even proposed the perceptive thesis that a whole genre of twentiethcentury Western literature is “extraterritorial,” a literature by and about exiles, symbolizing the age of the refugee. Thus Steiner suggests: It seems proper that those who create art in a civilization of quasi-barbarism, which has made so many homeless, should themselves be poets unhoused and wanderers across language. Eccentric, aloof, nostalgic, deliberately untimely … In other ages, exiles had similar cross-cultural and transnational visions, suffered the same frustrations and miseries, performed the same elucidating and critical tasks—brilliantly affirmed, for instance, in E. H. Carr’s classic study of the nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals clustered around Herzen, The Romantic Exiles. But the difference between earlier exiles and those of our own time is, it bears stressing, scale: our age—with its modern warfare, imperialism, and the quasi-theological ambitions of totalitarian rulers—is indeed the age of the refugee, the displaced person, mass immigration. Against this large, impersonal setting, exile cannot be made to serve notions of humanism. On the twentieth-century scale, exile is neither aesthetically nor humanistically comprehensible: at most the literature about exile objectifies an anguish and a predicament most people rarely experience first hand; but to think of the exile informing this literature as beneficially humanistic is to banalize its mutilations, the losses it inflicts on those who suffer them, the muteness with which it responds to any attempt to understand it as “good for us.” Is it not true that the views of exile in literature and, moreover, in religion obscure what is truly horrendous: that exile is irremediably secular and unbearably historical; that it is produced by human beings for other human beings; and that, like death but without death’s ultimate mercy, it has torn millions of people from the nourishment of tradition, family, and geography? To see a poet in exile—as opposed to reading the poetry of exile—is to see exile’s antinomies embodied and endured with a unique intensity. Several years ago I spent some time with Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the greatest of contemporary Urdu poets. He was exiled from his native Pakistan by Zia’s military regime, and found a welcome of sorts in strife-torn Beirut. Naturally his closest friends were Palestinian, but I sensed that, although there was an affinity of spirit between them, nothing quite matched—language, poetic convention, or life-history. Only once, when Eqbal Ahmad, a Pakistani friend and a fellow-exile, came to Beirut, did Faiz seem to overcome his sense of constant estrangement. The three of us sat in a dingy Beirut restaurant late one night, while Faiz recited poems. After a time, he and Eqbal stopped translating his verses for my benefit, but as the night wore on it did not matter. What I watched required no translation: it was an enactment of a homecoming expressed through defiance and loss, as if to say, “Zia, we are here.” Of course Zia was the one who was really at home and who would not hear their exultant voices. Rashid Hussein was a Palestinian. He translated Bialik, one of the great modern Hebrew poets, into Arabic, and Hussein’s eloquence established him in the post-1948 period as an orator and nationalist without peer. He first worked as a Hebrew language journalist in Tel Aviv, and succeeded in establishing a dialogue between Jewish and Arab writers, even as he espoused the cause of Nasserism and Arab nationalism. In time, he could no longer endure the pressure, and he left for New York. He married a Jewish woman and began working in the PLO office at the United Nations, but regularly outraged his superiors with unconventional ideas and utopian rhetoric. In 1972 he left for the Arab world, but a few months later he was back in the United States: he had felt out of place in Syria and Lebanon, unhappy in Cairo. New York sheltered him anew, but so did endless bouts of drinking and idleness. His life was in ruins, but he remained the most hospitable of men. He died after a night of heavy drinking when, smoking in bed, his cigarette started a fire that spread to a small library of audio cassettes, consisting mostly of poets reading their verse. The fumes from the tapes asphyxiated him. His body was repatriated for burial in Musmus, the small village in Israel where his family still resided. These and so many other exiled poets and writers lend dignity to a condition legislated to deny dignity—to deny an identity to people. From them, it is apparent that, to concentrate on exile as a contemporary political punishment, you must therefore map territories of experience beyond those mapped by the literature of exile itself. You must first set aside Joyce and Nabokov and think instead of the uncountable masses for whom UN agencies have been created. You must think of the refugee-peasants with no prospect of ever returning home, armed only with a ration card and an agency number. Paris may be a capital famous for cosmopolitan exiles, but it is also a city where unknown men and women have spent years of miserable loneliness: Vietnamese, Algerians, Cambodians, Lebanese, Senegalese, Peruvians. You must think also of Cairo, Beirut, Madagascar, Bangkok, Mexico City. As you move further from the Atlantic world, the awful forlorn waste increases: the hopelessly large numbers, the compounded misery of “undocumented” people suddenly lost, without a tellable history. To reflect on exiled Muslims from India, or Haitians in America, or Bikinians in Oceania, or Palestinians throughout the Arab world means that you must leave the modest refuge provided by subjectivity and resort instead to the abstractions of mass politics. Negotiations, wars of national liberation, people bundled out of their homes and prodded, bussed or walked to enclaves in other regions: what do these experiences add up to? Are they not manifestly and almost by design irrecoverable? We come to nationalism and its essential association with exile. Nationalism is an assertion of belonging in and to a place, a people, a heritage. It affirms the home created by a community of language, culture, and customs; and, by so doing, it fends off exile, fights to prevent its ravages. Indeed, the interplay between nationalism and exile is like Hegel’s dialectic of servant and master, opposites informing and constituting each other. All nationalisms in their early stages develop from a condition of estrangement. The struggles to win American independence, to unify Germany or Italy, to liberate Algeria were those of national groups separated—exiled—from what was construed to be their rightful way of life. Triumphant, achieved nationalism then justifies, retrospectively as well as prospectively, a history selectively strung together in a narrative form: thus all nationalisms have their founding fathers, their basic, quasi-religious texts, their rhetoric of belonging, their historical and geographical landmarks, their official enemies and heroes. This collective ethos forms what Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, calls the habitus, the coherent amalgam of practices linking habit with inhabitance. In time, successful nationalisms consign truth exclusively to themselves and relegate falsehood and inferiority to outsiders (as in the rhetoric of capitalist versus communist, or the European versus the Asiatic). And just beyond the frontier between “us” and the “outsiders” is the perilous territory of not-belonging: this is to where in a primitive time peoples were banished, and where in the modern era immense aggregates of humanity loiter as refugees and displaced persons. Nationalisms are about groups, but in a very acute sense exile is a solitude experienced outside the group: the deprivations felt at not being with others in the communal habitation. How, then, does one surmount the loneliness of exile without falling into the encompassing and thumping language of national pride, collective sentiments, group passions? What is there worth saving and holding on to between the extremes of exile on the one hand, and the often bloody-minded affirmations of nationalism on the other? Do nationalism and exile have any intrinsic attributes? Are they simply two conflicting varieties of paranoia? These are questions that cannot ever be fully answered because each assumes that exile and nationalism can be discussed neutrally, without reference to each other. They cannot be. Because both terms include everything from the most collective of collective sentiments to the most private of private emotions, there is hardly language adequate for both. But there is certainly nothing about nationalism’s public and all-inclusive ambitions that touches the core of the exile’s predicament. Because exile, unlike nationalism, is fundamentally a discontinuous state of being. Exiles are cut off from their roots, their land, their past. They generally do not have armies or states, although they are often in search of them. Exiles feel, therefore, an urgent need to reconstitute their broken lives, usually by choosing to see themselves as part of a triumphant ideology or a restored people. The crucial thing is that a state of exile free from this triumphant ideology—designed to reassemble an exile’s broken history into a new whole—is virtually unbearable, and virtually impossible in today’s world. Look at the fate of the Jews, the Palestinians, and the Armenians. Noubar is a solitary Armenian, and a friend. His parents had to leave Eastern Turkey in 1915, after their families were massacred: his maternal grandfather was beheaded. Noubar’s mother and father went to Aleppo, then to Cairo. In the middle-sixties, life in Egypt became difficult for nonEgyptians, and his parents, along with four children, were taken to Beirut by an international relief organization. In Beirut, they lived briefly in a pension and then were bundled into two rooms of a little house outside the city. In Lebanon, they had no money and they waited: eight months later, a relief agency got them a flight to Glasgow. And then to Gander. And then to New York. They rode by Greyhound bus from New York to Seattle: Seattle was the city designated by the agency for their American residence. When I asked, “Seattle?,” Noubar smiled resignedly, as if to say, better Seattle than Armenia —which he never knew, or Turkey, where so many were slaughtered, or Lebanon, where he and his family would certainly have risked their lives. Exile is sometimes better than staying behind or not getting out: but only sometimes. Because nothing is secure. Exile is a jealous state. What you achieve is precisely what you have no wish to share, and it is in the drawing of lines around you and your compatriots that the least attractive aspects of being in exile emerge: an exaggerated sense of group solidarity, and a passionate hostility to outsiders, even those who may in fact be in the same predicament as you. What could be more intransigent than the conflict between Zionist Jews and Arab Palestinians? Palestinians feel that they have been turned into exiles by the proverbial people of exile, the Jews. But the Palestinians also know that their own sense of national identity has been nourished in the exile milieu, where everyone not a blood-brother or sister is an enemy, where every sympathizer is an agent of some unfriendly power, and where the slightest deviation from the accepted group line is an act of the rankest treachery and disloyalty. Perhaps this is the most extraordinary of exile’s fates: to have been exiled by exiles—to relive the actual process of up-rooting at the hands of exiles. All Palestinians during the summer of 1982 asked themselves what inarticulate urge drove Israel, having displaced Palestinians in 1948, to expel them continuously from their refugee homes and camps in Lebanon. It is as if the reconstructed Jewish collective experience, as represented by Israel and modern Zionism, could not tolerate another story of dispossession and loss to exist alongside it—an intolerance constantly reinforced by the Israeli hostility to the nationalism of the Palestinians, who for forty-six years have been painfully reassembling a national identity in exile. This need to reassemble an identity out of the refractions and discontinuities of exile is found in the earlier poems of Mahmoud Darwish, whose considerable work amounts to an epic effort to transform the lyrics of loss into the indefinitely postponed drama of return. Thus he depicts his sense of homelessness in the form of a list of unfinished and incomplete things

Reflections on Exile in The Digital Age

Lujain Ibrahim | Aug 18, 2020

Growing up, I was not exposed to much literature or films on the Palestinian experience; my understanding of it — culturally, politically, and personally — was limited. But, attending a diverse educational institution for my undergraduate degree propelled me towards Palestinian literature, cinema, and poetry in a desperate attempt to make sense of my Palestinianess. Of course, that process was not exempt from Edward Said’s seminal thoughts and essays.

Edward Said was a Palestinian-American intellectual and a professor at Columbia University who was one of the pioneers of the field of postcolonial studies. Said wrote extensively on his experience being exiled, on culture and imperialism, on orientalism, and on the question of Palestine. Unlike Said, I did not experience exilethe state of being barred from one's native country first hand but was instead born into it. I also grew up with the internet and on the internet, thus, at times, was negotiating barriers and accessabilities of a different kind. Yet, it struck me how relevant and personal Said’s writing felt; even though it was highly specific at times, it was still applicable now, decades later, when my generation’s experience of exile is largely shaped and mediated by a different “world”: the internet.

Of course, this applicability is in large part due to the still ongoing Palestinian struggle, but is also due to the reality that the internet is not as different a world as we think or would like it to be.

While it is true that many of the challenges exiles experience have eased due to the internet’s facilitation, Said’s articulation of these challenges still deeply resonate with my understanding and observations — as an exile and technologist myself — of the ways the internet is and is not allowed to work. Ultimately, the internet is just another human invention, enabled and flawed by the same humans and systems which create and support it. In an attempt to reconcile how the ideas Said reflects on in his writing — including mobility, language, and solitude — manifest, rather than disappear, on the internet, both algorithmically and socially, I present in this article a brief “internet“ reading of Said’s essay “Reflections on Exile.” In this article, I will be responding to excerpts from his essay with, as in the original essay, a personal reflection that is ripe with facts, opinions, and questions in place of answers.

On Mobility and Immobility

“Borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons, and are often defended beyond reason or necessity. Exiles cross borders, break barriers of thought and experience.”

Negotiating borders and barriers is an inevitable reality for exiles. Those include language barriers, cultural and religious barriers, country borders, and more. With time, and over generations of exile, some barriers become more prominent than others. Ideally, on the internet, lots of these barriers are meant to be broken: we can access information and connect in many forms to different points all around the world. What this means is that I can have access to my exilic homeland and the people of my exilic homeland can also have access to me via the thoughts and media we can share online. All of this can alleviate the overwhelming feeling of estrangement that is at the center of the exilic experience. However, realistically, while the internet removes many barriers, it still allows many others to exist and even thrive.

One important barrier is language as we experience the internet differently depending on the language(s) we operate in. Many diasporic communities no longer operate in their native tongues — at least not online, especially if they speak English, a lingua franca — and thus cannot afford this ease of access to the content and people of their exilic homelands, who still largely operate in their native tongues, and vice versa. Studies have shown that Twitter users largely restrict their interactions to those who speak the same online language as them. Thus, our ideas and thoughts are mostly restricted to those of us who are similarly a part of the diaspora, and how much we actually know about the experiences and thoughts of the people in our exilic homelands is quite limited.

Content moderationmonitoring user-generated social media content to make sure it complies with regulations and guidelines and recommendation systemsproviding users with personalized content are additional examples of barriers that exist in cyberspace. Whether it’s actual human beings as moderators or machine learning algorithms, social media companies seem to have repeatedly failed to appropriately moderate content, while simultaneously not violating people’s democatric rights to speak freely.

Facebook, for instance, has taken down Palestinian accounts and content numerous times. And, so has Twitter. Just a few months ago, Instagram removed supermodel Bella Hadid's post of her father’s passport, which states his birthplace as Palestine, claiming that the simple father’s day post violates their community guidelines on harassment and bullying.

Following this incident, Hadid publicly called out the platform:

Are we not allowed to be Palestinian on Instagram? This, to me, is bullying. You can’t erase history by silencing people. It doesn’t work like that.

This pushed Instagram to apologize to Hadid and explain that it was a “mistake” meant to protect the privacy of their users even though the picture she shared had the passport number blurred out. Additionally, only a few weeks ago, legal scholar and human rights attorney Noura Erakat reported that Facebook took down her post about the killing of her cousin at a checkpoint in Palestine. Facebook claimed that the post violates its community standards on “harrassment and bullying.”

While social media platforms may be working hard to tackle misinformation, credibility, and privacy concerns, it is often at the expense of already marginalized communities as well as at the expense of credible citizen journalism.the collection, dissemination, and analysis of news & information by the general public, especially by means of the internet. This selective censorship — both explicit through removing content and implicit through recommendation algorithms — limits what we are allowed to be exposed to and what we are not and forms remarkable barriers that restrict mobility in cyberspace.

On the Privileges and Benefits of Exile

“I speak of exile not as a privilege, but as an alternative to the mass institutions that dominate modern life. Exile is not, after all, a matter of choice: you are born into it, or it happens to you. But, provided that the exile refuses to sit on the sidelines nursing a wound, there are things to be learned: he or she must cultivate a scrupulous (not indulgent or sulky) subjectivity.”

One could argue that “learning” is no longer attached to physical mobility. In other words, this privilege of learning that was previously attached, at least to the one-time, physical mobility that is afforded to exiles is no longer that exclusive a privilege given the internet’s facilitation of information access. There is no denying that the internet has provided us with a never-ending bank of knowledge. However, firstly, this assumes everyone has equal access or has access at all — a naive and faulty assumption given that only approximately 59% of the global population actually have internet access.

Even if one does have access, not all “accesses” are created equal. Wherever we are in the world, we cannot ignore the role of the privately, governmentally, or publicly owned organizations through which we access the internet, also known as internet service providers (ISPs), in mediating our access to information by censoring and blocking different sites and to different extents when convenient.

Additionally, the undeniable digital language divide means that depending on the language you operate in, your access to information through Google searches or social media searches is a very different experience compared to others who operate in a different language. Different is not always good — especially if you do not speak English.

An Oxford study by Mark Graham and Matthew Zook on Google searches in the West Bank showed that searches in Arabic usually result in only 20% to 25% of the number of results the same search term brings in English. At a time when most of our information has migrated to the digital realm, the privilege of speaking a Western language online, which many, but of course not all, exiles do, is quite notable.

While it helps to separate what is online from what is offline, the line between the two is as blurry as ever as we use the internet to guide even the smallest of our daily activities. The same study I reference above also shows that a search for the word restaurant on Google Maps using three different languages (Arabic, English, and Hebrew) leads users to different parts of the same city for dining options.

These examples of oppression embedded in the economy and infrastructure of the internet show how imperialist structures are allowed to thrive online, and consequently in real life, unchecked and targeting communities in a reinvented colonialism: cyber colonialism. Some of these infringements on internet and information access, which the UN deems a “fundamental human right,” are a serious concern.

On Nationalisms and Solitudes

“Nationalisms are about groups, but in a very acute sense exile is a solitude experienced outside the group: the deprivations felt at not being with others in the communal habituation… The exile is offered a new set of affiliations and develops new loyalties. But there is also a loss of critical perspective, of intellectual reserve, of moral courage… Exiles look at non-exiles with resentment. They belong in their surroundings, you feel, whereas an exile is always out of place. What is it like to be born in a place, to stay and live there, to know that you are of it, more or less, forever?”

These new sets of “affiliations” and “loyalties,” based on experiences that transcend nationalisms, can be understood through “structures of feelingthe idea that we ‘feel’ things before we ‘think’ things ” rather than the solidity of nationalisms. They also eventually create groups of their own. A simple manifestation of this is the concept of allyship and solidarity that has grown in popularity and impact with the growth of the internet and globalization. For instance, a loyalty to justice can be a shared loyalty among different peoples from all around the world. The internet, like social media, allows us to better realize these shared values among exilic, refugee, and marginalized communities globally. The African American struggle in the United States is undoubtedly tied to the Palestinian struggle and the internet makes it easier to see that, participate in it, and form a new sense of belonging to something that, unlike nationalisms, is not as strictly territorially bound.

Another example is the literal creation of "groups," like Facebook meme groups, based on shared cultural and lived experiences, that once again the internet allows us to discover and participate in. Some of these groups, like Subtle Asian Traits1,892,698 members as of July 2020 and Subtle Curry Traits817,999 members as of July 2020, create a sense of belonging centered on the diasporic experience. As human nature has us continually searching for some kind of feeling of belonging that, as Said describes it, fulfils this “deprivation” of not physically being with others who share “similar” experiences, the internet allows us to creatively and at a much larger scale explore and form new “affiliations.”

On New Worlds

“Much of the exile’s life is taken up with compensating for disorienting loss by creating a new world to rule… Seeing “the entire world as a foreign land” makes possible originality of vision.”

While there’s a long way to go in creating an open and inclusive internet, I cannot deny what this new world has given me and many others: the ability to see photos of my homeland literally taken today within a few clicks, the ability to call family I’m separated from with a single link, and the ability to participate in what aspires to be a campaign of constant global communication and education. But, as we experience the extremes of the benefits and injustices of the internet, perhaps this “originality of vision” we might have acquired can help us create a new, healthy internet to rule.

We believe in furthering the conversation on digital exile beyond this article. Here are a few resources from Lujain to get that started:

1. Intellectual Exiles: Expatriates and Marginals | Edward Said

2. The Mozilla Manifesto Addendum: Pledge for a Healthy Internet | The Mozilla Foundation

3. The Digital Language Divide | The Guardian

4. Intifada 3.0? Cyber Colonialism and Palestinian Resistance | Helga Tawil-Souri

5. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism | Safiya Noble


Ticker is playing Edward Said's original essay Reflections on Exile