So, recently there were a couple of quotes and references to me in the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and the Kansas City Star, and now a short essay of mine (reproduced below) has just appeared in the current issue of Witness Magazine, a prestigious literary endeavor supported in part by the International Institute for Modern Letters with which I am affiliated as a fellow. But I do encourage everyone to support this important endeavor and actually buy the whole issue which contains more than 40 wonderful essays, short stories and poetry collections, written by a group of exiles, or “exilians” to borrow the term of Wole Soyinka unearthed by Chris Amani. Other contributors include suc fitrures as Hasanthika Sirisena, Er Tai Gao, Joan I. Siegel, and Fernando Garavito.
Of Exile, Guilt and Messianic Aspirations
Guilt is a would-be messiah’s constant companion, so, naturally, as a man mired in messianic expectations, - and how could a liberal heretic working within the context of a traditional Arab-Muslim society not be so afflicted? – I am riddled with guilt.
Now guilt is quite the interesting emotion. One can feel it both for acting and for refraining from action. But things can get a little more complex when one examines the motives involved.
In my case, my basic motivation was my constant obsession in remaining true to myself. But in doing this, and in following the dictates of my conscience and taking them to their logical conclusions, a process that took me on a long journey through different modes of religiosity and heresy, I ended up turning my back on the very foundations of my culture. I have made myself irrelevant to the very people that I sought, and seek still, to change. Somehow, and in being true to who I am, I stopped being true to my people and to my calling. But then, can I really be true to my people on their own terms? How can be a messiah then? How can I save the world?
For yes, even a secular heretic like me can still speak of a calling, of salvation and of messianic expectations and aspirations, of a deep-seated desire to be the awaited messiah, the savior of all, the fountain of undying hope that our humanity might still amount to something good. When one’s guilt stems from such a predicament as mine, the predicament of having a living and kicking conscience and a burning spirit of free and critical inquiry, messianism cannot lag far behind. Indeed, messianism is indeed intrinsic to the whole affair.
As such, if I am, at some instance, riddled with guilt, I am simultaneously buoyed with messianism. Yes, you can actually take faith out of the Arab. His Messiah Complex, however, is a completely different matter, especially in these desperate times for the Arabs when both the religious and nationalist radicals and the sociopolitical liberals seek to make themselves relevant, the first by force of arms and archaic laws and customs, the others by force of reason, that all too neglected and abused commodity.
So, is it any surprise really that my messianic aspirations should get me where I am today?
Trying to be relevant – when everything about you is so alien, and hence irrelevant, and when you are guided by a principle that prevents you from betraying yourself, a principle that puts your individuality above what most, if not all, people around you perceive as representing the common good, while you have a different understanding altogether of what this common good actually is – might as well be an exercise in futility, a desperate attempt at seeding the darkside of the Moon. So be it. I have been working against my own inborn and growing cynicism for all my life it seems. And look where that got me!
Internal exile, alienation, external exile, more alienation. Some people are not born to belong anywhere it seems. Yet the whole point of messianic aspirations is to be able to belong somewhere, at some point in time, somehow, to something that you can believe in, because you have built it yourself.
In this respect, both the sociopolitical liberals and the religious and nationalist radicals are the same. A certain messianic ethos unites us both. But our methods tend to differ, and so does the quality and scope of our respective visions. Indeed, and while there will never be a room for us, the liberals, in a radical’s world, there will always be a room in our liberal world for all the radicals, barring those who crossed over to terrorism, of course.
For the world everywhere seems devoid of a soul until you breathe your own soul into it; only then can you actually belong to it. And belonging is too precious a gift to be denied to anyone no matter how different he/she happens to be. Both the radicals and we are indeed entitled to belong, to seek to belong, to try to build the world that we can belong to. In the interim, we can only belong to the community of family and friends that we built around ourselves, or that we accepted. Everything else is exile.
Exile, then, is both a choice and an imposition.
When I gazed for that solitary moment deep into my interrogator’s eyes, the eyes of that allegedly dashing 50-something general clad in civilian attire and sporting a Saddam-like moustache and a stern smile, stern enough to befit the brother-in-law of the President, the head of his military security apparatus and the number two man in the country, I realized the limitations of my messianism: I cannot save the world, at least not at that point, but I can save my family, not to mention myself. I could have settled for silence or cooptation, I guess – a death threat having already been hinted at as a possible third alternative, - but I managed to subtly maneuver my way into exile, planting it as a fourth alternative into my interrogator’s sympathetic mind.
I can live with exile. Indeed, I can be true to myself in exile. I have always been in exile anyway, even whilst in my all too warm and loving motherly womb, I swear. My adopted family has as well. Indeed, it is our sense of exile that united us all at one hapless point: the exile in Khawla’s eyes, in Oula’s smile, in Mouhanad’s tears. We will carry our sense of exile wherever we go, after all, we are a family of messianic heretics, and our heresy(ies) might be just be the only home we can ever really have. But the guilt emanating from the various difficulties, no matter how little and mundane they happen to be at times, that my precious threesome is now facing in external exile as a result of my own actions, choices and maneuvers in life, is quite burdensome at times. So is the guilt of having made it out, of having had the luxury of choosing exile, rather than settling for what has been laid out in front of me, as was the fate of so many of my colleagues.
But there is also a little envy at play here, an envy of their ability to continue to maneuver from within and to, occasionally, prick the system, perhaps until it bleeds, one day.
All dictatorships are hemophilic, once you prick them they bleed to death. If only I can still help prick mine.
This thought continues to haunt me here, in my external exile as I am still yearning to achieve some relevance there, in my internal exile. Yet, to be able to accomplish this, I now have to become relevant here first. I have to learn how to maneuver here as well, so that, here too, I wouldn’t have to settle for what it is laid out in front of me and could still remain true to who I am. I have managed to achieve this before here. I am as much a product of the good old U.S.A, as I am of Syria. I am of the East and the West, proportions notwithstanding. If my exile is ever to know an end, I have to be relevant to both worlds, I have to belong to both, I have to breathe my soul into both, and I have to save both, save me from both and save both from me. I have to be a multi-faceted messiah, it seems, to make all this work.
This seems like a losing battle, I know. But, what better battle is there, these days, for someone so riddled with guilt, so buoyed with messianic aspirations, so obsessed with being on the right side of his own personal history, and so envious of all those who can still make a difference in life so as to dwarf us all?
But I want to walk among the giants, so I can put an end to my guilt, and my exile, if only for a little solitary moment before the parting.