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Kamel Shiaa's writings

When we will be in Baghdad.
To Elias

I am writing to you this letter from the house next to yours, where I hide myself since 30 months… avoiding the Belgian rainy, cold weather and the views of the people of Leuven who are fed up with seeing the foreigners around them. From that house I go out from time to time seeking to meet you, carrying my bags pretending coming from Baghdad. After only few days, the time of my departure arrives; sad feelings fill my heart before I hide again. It is an interesting game that you surely tried when you play with your mates the blind man's buff. What excitement hiding involves? What enthusiasm evokes the emergence from hiding?
In fact this is the continuous game I'm playing with you since I made you believe that I returned to Baghdad. But this is not the only game I share with you. During my hiding I keep on watching you from a small invisible hole in the wall separating our two houses, each time I call you, I look through that hole watching you as you tell me your latest news or as you listen to my stories of madness from Baghdad.
Certainly the distance between us is too short to be measured. Five meters or four hundred kilometres are only numbers insignificant outside the world of arithmetic's. Baghdad and Leuven are just names on the map. But since each name signifies something, let me tell you about the meaning of Baghdad which was derived, according to some historians, from a Persian word which means the orchard, and was known for some times as the city of peace. Unfortunately it became nowadays, as you know, the city of war. The images coming from it fill the screens with scenes of fear and destruction which leaves no doubts that life there totters around an abyss. Each of his days heralds some end and each of its events requires the ultimate power of endurance. I think you can imagine what's going on in Baghdad from the frightening images and the news transmitted from it. But Baghdad which I promised you to write about is another world.
It's the place where I found rest after long travels and hard exile, it is the years of childhood and youth that I recognise their remains on faces, places and ways of life, it is a chemistry of fatal ties that I have no access to its secrets.
Inspired by a city concealed behind curtains of blood and fire, I recommend you to:

Walk out every morning full with joy, having no fear from what the rest of the day might bring, always remember that your day is guarded by a precious peace, Deeply inhale the fresh air particularly when you walk through the city park or pass by the Boutanique which if you enter it look carefully at the most strange and beautiful of flowers, keep in mind its names as it's written in Latin, touch the leaves of the tropical plants, and fetch a flourishing branch as you go back home,
Watch the sky when it is covered with clouds or when it is brightened with stars….
Dance under the summer rain and ask the moon about the nights secrets, Call the first cat you see in the street…. caress it before proceeding forward, Stroll around the small streets of Leuven and reach their ends to be sure there are no concrete blocks, no barbed wires, no checking points, no guards ready to fire,
Go out whenever you want for a walk, or for playing basketball or watching a movie,
Not to see blood on the streets, burned corpses and smashed cars, small holes left by street wars on the apartment buildings' facades,
Not to feel obliged to imagine what happened to the passengers of the car stopping before you, penetrated by bullets, its glass windows were broken and its doors left open by a storming death,
Not to hear the blasts of a nearby explosions, not to be captivated by an imminent danger,
Not to have your attention attracted by a far away explosions to an absurd life that feeds on its fatigued people,
Not to be haunted by fear of ghosts of what is visible or invisible, and to hide from a stray bullet, keeping distance from the windows, and abandoning the garden and the balcony,
Not to dream of shooting the last bullet, blowing up the last bomb and disappearance of the last suicide attacker,
To sit during the evenings in your room calmly, enjoying listening to the music you like, not to be disturbed by the noise of the low flying helicopters, not to see the frightened doves abandoning their nests at the trees' branches,
Not to have the power cuts depriving you from the pleasure of reading, watching television or surfing in your computer,
And not to be obliged to drink your coffee in the darkness, or to write your letter under the scanty light of a lantern, or to postpone reading the newspaper for another day,
Not to be suspicious of your neighbours and afraid from the views of the passersby. Nobody watches your movements for few dollars paid by a gang that hunts its hostages to free them later for a ransom or simply decapitate them,
Not to wear but the most beautiful clothes, not to buy but candles full of scents.

Between Bab Al-Mu'azem and Jisr Al-Shuhada'a extends on the eastern bank of the river the old city of Baghdad, under its familiar thick shadows we shall sit one day to hear the bells of the Al-Qushla clock, to watch the storks guarding their nests, and to touch the bricks of it's yellow buildings.
Under the dazzling white sun we will eventually move towards the weakened, ever glittering Tigres. At that moment we shall grasp the secret of Baghdad without pictures or stories.

April 2006

Exile unfolded
Kamel Shiaa

When I left my country for the last time, some eighteen years ago, I felt like many inexperienced Iraqi exiles, that I am fleeing it temporarily. I thought that exile is a short respite between two moments of the war which is called politics. But as the time passed I became convinced that things went out of hand and exile set for me the time and the map. In fact why not, since exile is simultaneously a fortunate and unfortunate event. It is fortunate in so far as it extracted me from what might be called cultural and political provincialism. Yet it is unfortunate because of the "privilege" it allows witnessing the fragmentation of the originary bond between the self and it's other: family, friends and eventually the cause. It is in exile that I came to realize the irreparable gap between my fate and the common fate of the people to whom I ultimately belong. In these divergent trajectories those who chose to stay away from the turbulent years of war and repression can not avoid the feeling of loss and misfortune. The heroic temptation of exile constitutes the most alienating narrative; no return is in the waiting and no end lies at the end.

The aim of this paper however is not to describe exile from a personal perspective which is probably the best to capture its meaning Instead , we will deal with its idea in relation to two other ideas viz those of country and utopia By doing that we try to make room for exile as an existential experience that needs to be reckoned with Obviously , exile , as a forced banishment , is unimaginable without a country , but the latter does not necessitate the former unless it is understood in terms of political ideals and community that appear in a given moment as utopian . Exile, in a sense, is the effect of a utopian commitment and, at the same time, its possible fulfillment .It is the condition of the utopia realized in history and against it. That is why it manifests itself in a contradictory way; as disillusionment from the country and as an acute longing for it. What needs to be mentioned here is that exile coincides with a country in a state of flux expressed in the lacking of political consensus and unity. The more it surpasses this state of uncertainty the more exile retains poetic and artistic dimensions; it becomes a voluntary shelter. But we will not deal with this possibility here for what really interests us is exile as an unhappy awareness of the divergence in the fates of the individuals exiled and the exiling country. We suppose that such awareness has its own value which can not be trivialized by simply appealing to metaphysical or cosmopolitan arguments. In other words, by revealing the contingency of the human experience, exile remains irreducible to the realms of abstract reason or of practical action. If any language tempts to catch this real experience, it is the ordinary, passing language of the daily conversations.

The first sort of arguments will be discussed are those expressed by Plutarch the Greek biographer and philosopher who lived between 42-120 A.D and who is one of the first writers to deal explicitly with the question of exile . He wrote an essay entitled "On Exile "(circa 96 A.D) addressed to his exiled friend Menemachus of Sardis. He tried to convince him that exile is a matter of opinion, not of truth. The feelings of exile such as "...banishment, loss of fame, and loss of honour ..." are of subjective nature. Plutarch continues "opinion "...makes "the same event useful for the one (....) but useless and harmful to the other ". Without denying the misfortunes of exile he recommends blending them with " whatever is useful and comforting in your present circumstances; wealth, friends, freedom from politics and lack of none of the necessities of life ". Reasonable attitude can lead, therefore, to overcome the estrangement of exile. Plutarch second main argument goes further; it denies the existence of a native land which is called so "with reference to the occupant and user ". In the end man is a "celestial" being; his head is rooted in heaven. Hence no one is in exile or alien on this earth. And he goes on to conclude that nature " leaves us free and untrammeled; it is we who bind ourselves, confine ourselves, immune ourselves, herd ourselves into cramped and sordid quarters ". One can learn from this naturalistic, anti-cultural approach that the real stranger is that who remains imprisoned in a single place or time. Plutarch recommends migration in so far as it is based on choosing "for the best and the most pleasant city ". This position is reminiscent of the call of the Islamic medieval philosopher Al-Farabi upon the virtuous men to leave for the less evil city. Remaining tied to a corrupt city will have grave consequences on the integrity of those who find their aspiration in the ideals of the perfect state.

In any case the idealistic, spiritualistic pursuit for the "true" country which is, paradoxically, the true exile is questionable. The withdrawal from the world of shadows, which includes in the Platonic view everything sensible and changeable, implies that the true experience is of contemplating the ultimate good and of merging spiritually into the first and the last origin. Accordingly, taking one's lived experience seriously amounts to surrender to passions and illusions emanating from an attachment to reified entities like country or history or culture. To argue against this line of thinking does not mean overlooking the elements of fixation and reification that pertain to exile's attitude. The Chilean poet P.Neruda described this attitude by saying" when we are far from our country , we never picture it in its winter " . However contemplation alone can never compensate for what one losses in exile namely recognizing oneself as an agent in a particular community . The suffering of exile is not about restituting an original status but about the lack of attachment to anyone in particular . This is probably behind Plutarch friend complains and also behind Plutarch pragmatic suggestion to benefit , as much as possible, from the leisure and the peace of mind that are made possible in exile . Taking distance from the native land , according to this suggestion , will enable the exile to freely migrate in the ecstasy of theory . Thus , in order to live eternally in the world of ideas one should not give way to the "idols" of his native land . He should be completely detached from his emotions in order to enjoy happiness in its highest form . Voluntary forgetfulness of the concrete world is the cure of exile .

The temptation to break the bond between the individual and his country became explicit in the modern political thinking where the emphasis is laid on freedom and citizenship in comparison to culture and nation . Here , country is seen in terms of the republican values which found their early formulation in Cicero (106-43 BC) the Roman politician and orator . There is nothing natural or binding in one's relation to his country . It is rather a reciprocal relation in which loyalty presupposes the existence of political institutions entrusted with respecting the citizen's basic rights and interests . The absence of such institutions justifies exile not so much as a search for a virtuous state but as an option to preserve the individual's integrity and freedom The country, in this case, is inseparable from its political regime , and as such does not requires unconditional loyalty from its members . But we are not facing here an easy case for generalization . If J.J. Rousseau , who was a strong republican and contractual theorist , abandoned without regret his city Geneva because it failed to correspond to his ideals , G. Mazzini , who remained deeply committed to these ideals , could never silenced his lamentation for his beloved Italy . "Exile !" he exclaims " (He) who first devised this punishment had neither father, mother, friend, nor love " . For Mazzini those who are banished from their country " may wander like Cain throughout the universe,...." inflicted with feelings of void and estrangement till the end of their lives . Breaking with a corrupt regime may not compensate for the emotional suffering of the exile towards his/her native land and its people . No political ideal can replace the pure love to one's country or exhaust the imaginary identification with its destiny .

In fact , the hardships of exile , although caused by politics , reflect some deeper narrative structure in which the meaning of human experience is summarized in two movements : departure and return . Such narrative presupposes a relation between two places (familiar and unfamiliar) and a subjective dimension of language and time . With the prevalence of the discourse of modernity this structure became obsolete and relegated to mythological consciousness . Instead , it emphasized the universality of the truth, and that led to confine the human experience to self-awareness and pragmatic/purposive action that is manifested in production as well as in geographical explorations and territorial expansions . The modern world appeared as an open arena for the free spirit of explorers , colonialists and utopians . One important consequence of this new mentality consists in neglecting the value of local cultures which are considered as archaic remnants of a past that deserves to be surpassed or even destroyed.

If the discourse of modernity , based on exaggerating the importance of time over space , has replaced the pure Platonic contemplation with the transcendental ego , it nevertheless found itself close to it in expanding country or exile to a chosen condition or in reducing it to a pure illusion . Their ideals require no special commitment to a particular land and they are inclined to consider the world as a whole as a desirable home . Distance , according to them , is an insignificant factor in man's relation to the world . Yet we all know that exile is simply about distance which appears to re-impose its relevance in the contemporary thought in two different ways . On the one hand , we witness today the return of the 'repressed' in the forms of nationalism and other calls for collective identities . This return is expressed in the non-western world as well as in the western world which is confronted by communitarians and minority rights movements . As a result , the cosmopolitan, difference blind context for the individual freedom maintained by the Liberal ideology , became increasingly questionable . Distance, symbolic as it were in our increasingly globalized world , is nothing but a continuation of the idea of pluralism which is traditionally conceived in terms of individual interests rather than collective interests . The same idea i.e. the insurmountable distance, is echoed in the postmodern critique of metaphysics. Through a new approach to philosophical texts, the method of deconstruction revealed the myth of privileging the principle of identity whether manifested as a fixed subject or as an ultimate reference or as a founding origin . The aim of this method consists in showing the undesirability of signs and the multiplicity of meaning . Instead of condensing phenomena into totalities, it sought for what is particular , local and heterogeneous in them . Its favorite metaphor , namely that of difference and indeterminacy , allows to abandon the hierarchical classification of cultures in order to be seen in terms of their synchronic relations .

These two trends, whether one agrees with them or not , indicate that there is an element of ambivalence characterizes the way we relate to ourselves and to the other . In other words , there are varieties of ways to realize and to understand our being in the world . The universal context can not stand anymore as a desirable home ; it needs to be re-enchanted by restituting the role of culture and tradition . We belief that such recovery or invention of the past validates the meaning of country and consequently of exile without turning them into idealized niches . To privilege a certain home should not preclude acknowledging what might be called the experience of transcendental homelessness which joins those who are at home and those who are away from it . Here , one is not after something missing belongs to the de ja vu but after an aesthetic or an intellectual fulfillment that goes beyond particular space or time . When listening to a piece of music , reading a poem or looking at a work of art one finds himself simultaneously at nowhere and at everywhere . In this case , the distance resulting from looking forward or backward and thus making exile possible collapses before a new horizon that opens for a present that is universally shared . This transcendental possibility is yet another unfoldment of exile .