The Arab Sartre, Existentialism and Decolonization. A Conversation

Following Yoav di-Capua’s (EUME-AvH Fellow 2017-18) EUME Berliner Seminar presentation in March 2018 on his new book No Exit: Arab Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre and Decolonization, he sat down with Margaret Litvin (EUME-AvH Fellow 2016-18) to discuss the project. Here is an edited transcript:

Cover of the book “No Exit: Arab Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre and Decolonization,” University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Margaret Litvin: Your book is, among other things, a study of The Arabic Sartre. Lately there have been several projects that explore “Reading X in Arabic”: an Arabic Darwin, an Arabic Freud, an Arab Hamlet, an Arabic Arendt, an article and a separate book on the Arabic Kafka, and now I’ve found myself working on “Tolstoy and his Arab Readers.” What do you think is going on here? Why are we all sifting through these histories? Are we all having some kind of Walter Benjamin Moment in Arab Thought? I certainly don’t believe we’re doing conventional reception studies.

Yoav Di-Capua: I think this is an optical illusion. There is certainly no committee work behind these different projects, and they are not at all alike except in some general and vague sense. Yes, there is an interest – maybe even a paradigmatic interest – to explore transnational intellectual bonds. Our field still abides by the historiographical parameters of the nation-state, and many of us are working to transcend that. In all other respects the works and ongoing projects you mentioned are very different from each other. Some of the European intellectuals were already dead and never interacted with their Arab counterparts. Others never really bothered. These differences matter. I cannot talk on behalf of other colleagues, but to the best of my understanding none of them is doing what we used to call “reception studies.” The focus is on the internal reproduction of ideas and the creation of local traditions, not on fidelity to provenance. Personally, I set out to write a story about the Arab world, but the material pointed also to new unexplored domains. I decided to take the journey. Twenty years ago, I might have taken a different decision. Nonetheless, my goal is to elucidate a certain Arab reality, and I found existentialism to be an apt tool for that.

Granted, existentialism is not the most important thing that happened in the 1950s and 60s. That’s not why we’re talking about it. We’re talking about it because it’s a very sensitive isotope. It has traveled through so many places in the system that it measures, shows us various things in various places and allows us to tell, I hope, a rich story about decolonization. Not because it is important in and of itself. It is, quite simply, a small platform that can carry a bigger story – just like a book I recently read about Hamlet’s Arab Journey.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Les mots” (The Words) in an Arabic translation by Muhammad Mandur.

I totally agree! So what is Arab Existentialism, and why should we care?

I didn’t start writing a book about one thing called “Arab Existentialism.” What happened was that I read extensively about the 1950s and 60s, and I found out that something related to existentialism relates to many different contexts, and I lumped it together as a tradition of Arab Existentialism, as something that moved transnationally. In fact, the term “Arab Existentialism” is not mine. It was coined by Egyptian philosopher Abd al-Rahman Badawi. We know that existentialism arrived from Europe, but it was not practiced the same way. Arab intellectuals used it differently to address the specific needs of the Arab world at a specific time, decolonization.

They used Arab Existentialism in four or five different ways: as a philosophical tradition, as a tool to hasten generational change in culture and re-organize the literary field, as a tool of opposition to the state, as a tool to capture the plight of women and of Palestinians, as a political tool to explain an ethical framework of decolonization and connect themselves to the emerging front of the global south, and they hope to use it to clarify the Arab-Israeli conflict, to clarify it in a way that shows that ethically, the Arab world is right. So it’s being used in various different ways. What binds it together is that the same people are involved in producing and arguing about these ideas, and that Sartre is involved in a two-way relationship with the Arab world. He comes here, they go there. He needs something from them; they need something from him, meaning from the French left. So there is a story that is larger than the Arab world here, that is bound by this tradition.

What does focusing on existentialism get you?

Two things happen a lot of the time when we deal with Arab intellectuals, men and women. The first is that we don’t know anything about their lives. They’re not acting human beings. Whereas with European intellectuals we know all the details – we know who they were with, in this café or that café, when they switched partners, we know them as human beings, we obsess over them as fully formed subjects. We also know a lot about their intellectual careers, the politics of knowledge and the publishing world. We don’t do that for Arab intellectuals. We take a few quotes, we reduce them to some ideological position. In a lot of the books that do Arab intellectual history, from our classics to others, the protagonists are not fully formed human beings. Literature people and anthropologists do it better, but historians not. That’s the first problem I wanted to address.

The second problem is that the thinkers are often brought out of context. It’s also a function of the first problem. It’s a ghetto, as if it doesn’t matter whether the one who says the important thing about some idea is Muhammad or Ahmad or Suheil, it doesn’t matter, it’s some Arab. So this is something that I wanted to transcend. The story of existentialism allows us to do so, because there are a lot of things being written but it’s also being acted out, as a type of behavior.

Sartre, Beauvoir, Ali al-Samman and Shainda Maklad in Kamshish, Egypt. Courtesy of Ali al-Samman.

Who are the main Arab characters in your book? You present vivid portraits of several different men and women who each take something different from the existentialist repertoire.

We meet most of the actors already as high-school or university students, that is before they become recognized intellectual actors. Fayiz Sayigh and Hisham Sharabi tell the story of the Nakba generation. Both lost their homes in Palestine and found refuge in Beirut. Both became philosophers specializing in existentialism. They used it for activism but also as a tool for elucidating the post-colonial Arab condition. Suheil Idris in Beirut is another major figure of the era without whom no intellectual history of the 1960s will be complete. He was a student in Paris during the heyday of Left Bank Existentialism and decided to establish similar intellectual institutions and practices in Beirut. Together with his wife, Aida Matraji, they presided over the Arab existentialist tradition by setting trends and translating new work. Then, there are people like Abd al-Rahman Badawi, who makes the first philosophical experiments, as well as communist literary critic Mahmud Amin al-Alim who weaponized aspects of existentialism for the sake of revolutionizing culture. Lastly, some members of the retired generation of the udaba’, literary intellectuals such as Taha Husayn, also make an appearance in the book.

What resources did Sartre’s thought offer to Arab intellectuals trying to decolonize their minds? Why did Sartre’s ideas travel better than, say, Camus’? Was it about Sartre’s persona on the world scene, his literary production, his philosophical categories?

Sartre did not offer a series of ideas from which one can pick and choose. This was not like shopping in a supermarket, taking ready-made products off the shelf. Sartre established a laboratory and he was not the only scientist in it. I don’t mean to simply say that Simone de Beauvoir was there as well. Of course she was. What I mean is that there were dozens of writers, including many from former French colonies, who associated their thought with phenomenology and, specifically, with existentialism. Sartre led the way by opening the possibility for conceptualizing other forms of being: being a slave, being black, being colonized and so on. He opened the possibility of imagining different subjectivities and tied to it a specific politics of recognition as well as an ethical framework of freedom and liberation. Everything was open-source, editable code. Fanon, Senghor and many others could easily connect and start working on their own concerns. From the philosophy to street politics, everything was done “in house,” so to speak. Most importantly, there was a lubricated machine working behind the scenes, something between a publishing house and a mobile Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The French government did not call Sartre “the anti-ambassador” for nothing.  Camus, in contrast, did not have such an organization and did not reach out for people in the colonies. He had other advantages, such as being very clear about Stalinism – something that eluded Sartre and most Arab thinkers of the time as well.

Jean-Paul Sartre in Egypt. From right to left: Sartre, Nasser, Simone de Beauvoir and Claude Lanzmann at the president’s residence, in: Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue No. 477, 13-19 April 2000.

Your opening and closing chapters tell the dramatic story of Sartre’s trip to Egypt and Israel/Palestine in 1967, on eve of the June War. So what happened when this traveling circus arrived in the Middle East: Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Claude Lanzmann, Lotfi and Liliane al-Kholi, Ali Samman, and Simha Flapan?

It is indeed a traveling circus or an entire machine, but we should also be attentive to the philosophical difficulty that accompanied it. Specifically, the inability to create an ethical hierarchy between the Jewish Other of Europe and the Palestinian Other of Zionism. In the 60s this dilemma of stacking their ethical claims like Russian dolls was a major problem. Which of them has more rights than the other, how can you create an ethical hierarchy? That’s something that Sartre absolutely could not do. Later, Lyotard maintained that some conflicts are unresolvable.

But for Beauvoir there is no dilemma. She stacks them. For her it is obvious, as she tells Liliane el-Kholy, You don’t even begin to understand the Jewish problem. You have no idea. That was her solution to the question of hierarchy. It was also that of Lanzmann. Sartre, in contrast, thinks that you cannot present an ethical solution. That is, that from an ethical standpoint, the conflict is irresolvable. That is the background of the visit.

In the book I go behind the scenes and trace the “making of” this visit. It took more than two years to produce – and not because they had a hard time buying airplane tickets and reserving hotel rooms. It was an immense consensus-building effort that involved dozens of people from all over the region. What characterized this group was the profound level of mistrust within camps as well as between them. Sartre, Beauvoir and Lanzmann made it very clear that the point of the visit was to learn and understand but not to decide who is right. They wanted to make sure that no ethical expectation would emerge. They repeated it time and again, but no one believed them. Everyone wanted a clear-cut ethical statement about the so-called Arab-Israeli conflict. Sartre avoids this, but then a month after his return home the countdown for the war begins. Influenced by the general sense of anxiety over the impending destruction of Israel, he signs a petition on its behalf, thus violating his promise of being a mere witness. He is now an actor. In fact, a traitor to the Arab cause. The story ends with this political betrayal. I understand the philosophical problems he had in establishing an ethical hierarchy of Otherness (judging which victim is more right), but the political betrayal is astonishing and quite unprecedented.

No Exit actually reads like two books, glued together in a sandwich shape. The story of the Egyptian, Iraqi and Lebanese discoveries of existentialism, bookended by this psychodrama of Sartre’s personal engagement and betrayal. Why glue these two stories together?

That’s a good question. Why not just publish two books? There was enough material. But of course that would be a bad mistake. It would take a complex story and put it in the ghetto of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Then you’d tell the story of the Palestinian disappointment with Sartre, of the betrayal, without context. And without context, that’s exactly what happens in a situation of trauma. The context falls away. Everybody’s against us, everybody betrayed us. It’s always the same. And here you do have a context.

What’s the most relevant context?

The fact that Arab intellectuals had used a version of the intellectual apparatus that Sartre authored in order to decolonize their societies. His ideas were constitutive of the Arab project of decolonization. When the person who has given you the DNA of your liberation project flips on you, or appears to flip on you, it’s very different from some random superstar intellectual who lands in the Middle East and cannot say that you are right. There is a personal level here that is the context. But also – the betrayal is not everything. I also want to say, there was something else in the Arab world. There was an intellectual project that was looking forward, that was hopeful, and that was working in many ways. If we only focus on the betrayal we forget this. And this is a story that is forgotten today in the Arab world. All people remember is the betrayal, for the most part.

The Egyptian Writer Taha Husayn (1889–1973). Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

You have some very vivid characters in your book. Even Taha Husayn! Even though there’s so much written about him, I found myself seeing him from a perspective I hadn’t before. Prefiguring Sartre’s betrayal, you trace a series of betrayals that turn into intellectual hijackings or Oedipal generational reversals. Poor Taha Husayn! I found myself almost rooting for him to win that fight with the young multazim whippersnappers.

Decolonization is actually not only something that goes on with the outside. It actually involves purging your own, through a lot of violence directed against elements of society. We know it, for instance, by looking at Algeria: how much violence is directed inwards. But it’s interesting to register it intellectually. Let’s call it aggression: intellectual aggression.

With Taha Husayn, that was a major conflict. In a nutshell, he had a vision of culture that was seriously entangled with colonial Enlightenment. Though impressive, his vision for Egypt and the Arab world as a whole was totally blind to the dire need of decolonization. In spite of his efforts in the late 40s to produce a new cultural agenda that would be relevant to everyday life, he could not do it. He could not create ideas that could be useful in the street. And he resisted doing that. In a way, if you read his journal al-Katib al-Masri, he wants to do that. But he is conditioned by the intellectual procedures of colonial enlightenment, if you will, and he cannot betray those procedures to politicize culture to such a degree. So, in that sense he cannot have the influence that he wants on the young generation.

His students begged to differ with his francophone vision, and when the old man and his colleagues failed to listen they rebelled. Their weapon of choice was Sartre’s literary and political engagement, which Taha Husayn himself had translated as iltizam. This notion became the subject of a debate about the purpose of artistic and literary life. Do we do literature for literature’s sake, or do we have an obligation to change life itself. It is the same debate we are having today with activism and scholarship. Taha Husayn’s argument was simple: committed literature politicizes the field, diminishes our critical ability, and results in bad art. He also feared it would be used by the state to destroy freedom itself. In contrast, Suheil Idris, Mahmud Amin al-Alim and their friends argued that the cultural work of Taha Husayn and the udaba’ was completely divorced from the dire socio-economic and political realities of the people. It is not only that they don’t register the plight; their work cannot bring about a much-needed change.

Though it is not for me to say, my sense is that both sides had a valid point. Though Taha Husayn’s mode of thought was outdated, new work by Hussam Ahmed reveals his institution-building capacity, which is clearly sensitive to the social realities. The young generation had a point too. Their body of thought was politicized, but this is precisely the point of decolonization. It would have never happened without activism or with disengaged, yet intellectually penetrating, literature. However, they were blind to the danger of the state and the many ways in which the culture of iltizam would eventually suffocate freedom of opinion. If we look at it from the perspective of the 1970s, I think Taha Husayn had the last laugh in the end.

How so?

Given his extraordinary career and conflicts with power, no intellectual understood the problem of freedom better than he did. This is a fact. He feared for freedom, and he was right in that. Other intellectuals begin to notice that very slowly in the late 1950s and early 60s, and when you look at it from the perspective of the 70s and later, you would say that the first postcolonial generation, people born in the 1920s, fought for freedom and somehow paradoxically ended up giving in to the state.

This sounds like it gets into your current research, on political theology. What did those young intellectuals need from the state, and what did they give up to it?

Young intellectuals allied themselves with the state because it modeled the will to sacrifice and the positive outcome of sovereign action. This was especially true after the 1956 Suez War. Collective dignity was derivative of that. It was powerful, just, but also toxic as the state asked for more and more power and insisted on controlling all forms of public life including that cultural sphere. To be clear, we are not simply talking about Egypt. Nasserism and Ba`thism are transregional phenomena, and the state of Egypt is a transregional state. The actions of this state gave people dignity, solidarity, a certain social contract, and a collective sense of true liberation. But it gradually took their elementary political freedoms away, and most intellectuals were too late in realizing that.

Jean-Paul Sartre in Egypt: Public Lecture at Cairo University, in: Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue No. 477, 13–19 April 2000.

After the iltizam battle you describe another wave of intellectual hostile takeovers, this time over the meaning of committed literature, after the committed writers have already won their battle over the notion of “art for art’s sake.” Socialist realism comes in. Is this some kind of foreign wave washing over the intellectual scene, one that has nothing to do with Arab readings of Sartre and the history of existentialism? Or is this an extension of the same development?

I am no expert on Arab Socialist Realism, but I do try to make sense of it in the context of the story I tell. It certainly deserves a separate study on the history of literary criticism in the Arab world. It is a book we need, and I wish I had the ability to write it. Here, I am merely looking at how Socialist Realism interfaced with Arab existentialism. There are different groups using the tools of existentialism: the hegemonic forces who speak of pan-Arabism and iltizam, but also the feminists, the Palestinians, the socially wretched who use existentialist themes to form an opposition to the state and mainstream society. This creates a certain friction among whomever thinks in these categories, for instance with the Communists who try to appropriate that notion of commitment (iltizam) and to infuse it with Soviet-style commitment. It’s a very different notion from where we started. We started with Sartre and we end up with Stalin’s idea of what Gorky should do, basically. That’s a major ideological division.

The story you tell ends up sounding so coherent, the generational changes and ideological swings almost inevitable. But what were the biggest surprises for you as you researched the book?

I wrote mostly in narrative form, free of theory, and I explain this choice in the book’s introduction. This approach has, I think, many advantages but also some side effects, one of which is the over-coherent and neat sense of how culture functioned. With this book my goal is to re-open the 1950s and 1960s for intellectual history, but this is by no means intended as a holistic story of Arab life, some kind of a post-Hourani Arab Thought in the Post-Liberal Age. Not at all. I don’t even think that in the current historiographical climate it would be possible to offer a holistic and comprehensive account of Arab thought during this era. While this, as one publisher recently told me, is a problem that results in fragmentation and lack of overall orientation, the field of Arab thought is not yet ready to be translated into a complete and total history.  On my part, instead of attempting such a book, I am offering an exploration of many things in a fashion which I hope would invite more people to research the history of Arab thought.

As far as research surprises go, there were many small ones about relations between people and about hidden meanings in texts and debates. I’ve never woven a carpet, but it does feel a little bit like that. And then, there are also simple moments of discovery, such as when I found in a kibbutz archive the unpublished Paris diaries of peace activist Simha Flapan.

I had known that Flapan was involved with this. I had read the memoirs of his Egyptian counterpart Ali al-Samman, and in our interview Lanzmann said something about this too. But Flapan himself had never published anything about the Sartre visit. To my surprise, he left quite a remarkable archive, and it turns out he kept a daily or weekly diary, only for this period in Paris in which he worked with his Arab colleagues to produce Sartre’s visit. It allows us a very unpolished look into Sartre’s global dealings which include threats, bullying, seduction and betrayals.

OK, that’s the meta-level, about the sources. What about the facts of the case itself?

One moment that completely baffled me: On the eve of Sartre’s departure for the Middle East he’s giving one interview for al-Ahram to Lotfi el-Kholy and one interview to the Israeli daily Al-Hamismar, to Flapan. So these are public engagements, interviews for the Arab and Israeli publics that are supposed to set the terms of engagement, to endear him to each side without compromising any side. It’s a finely balanced work of diplomacy. Because if he’s saying to an interviewer, “Yeah, I support the right of return for Palestinians, yeah, Israel carried out ethnic cleansing in 1948,” then that’s it, there’s no more point to going to Israel afterwards. Or if he tells the Egyptians and Palestinians, “Yes, I think that the Zionists who survived the Holocaust and then created for themselves a whole new life in Israel are an example of authentic Jewish being, and Zionism is indeed an answer to Europe’s Jewish Question,” then that’s it, he’s lost the whole Arab world.

How do you think he gave these two interviews?

I had read the interviews before. Then I came to the archive, to Simha Flapan’s diary. It turns out: the night before Flapan was to interview Sartre, there’s a knock on the door of his apartment. The guy has just arrived in Paris, he barely speaks French. He opens the door, not expecting anybody, and Simone de Beauvoir introduces herself. She’s coming to execute the deal, a businesswoman. She tells him, Here’s what you can ask, here’s what you can’t ask. That’s how it happens. Everyone’s happy, everyone’s smiling, but this is hardcore politics. Hardcore diplomacy. And it’s vicious. He was both charmed and stunned, and the next morning when he met Sartre he asked precisely what she told him he could, and obviously it was the same with Lotfi El-Kholy. So that surprised me.

Citation: Margaret Litvin, Yoav Di-Capua, A Conversation on the Arab Sartre, Existentialism and Decolonization, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 15.05.2018

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Editorial Board (2018, 15. Mai). The Arab Sartre, Existentialism and Decolonization. A Conversation. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 14. Juni 2024, von

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