[Book review] Yoav Di-Capua, No Exit: Arab Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre & Decolonization | Reviewed by Harald Viersen

[Book review] Yoav Di-Capua, No Exit: Arab Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre & Decolonization. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018. 336 pages.$35.00.

Reviewed by Harald Viersen

 Published as a monograph, Yoav Di Capua’s study of the stormy rise and abrupt demise of Arab existentialism really tells two different stories. His book is, in the first place, a chronicle of existentialism in the Arab world. Starting with the reception of French existentialism among the Egyptian intelligentsia, Di-Capua hops around the eastern part of the Arab world, tracking the development of existentialism as modern philosophy, as a political ideology of liberation, and as a lifestyle for the generation of Arabs that came of age in the two decades following the Second World War.

This intricate story of existentialism’s rise is bookended by the more compact and detailed tale of its demise in the wake of Jean-Paul Sartre’s visit to the Middle East in 1967. Di-Capua gives a detailed yet vivid account of the run-up to this visit. Describing the hurdles that had to be overcome to make this visit possible, he conveys how Sartre’s conflicting allegiances – his genuine sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians as well as his commitment to Israel – cause his ethics of engagement to break down. Approaching his subject not as biography but as “a drama with multiple actors on both sides of the Mediterranean” (29), Di-Capua weaves together different strands of a fascinating story of misunderstandings, disappointments, and occasional dissimulation, that led to Sartre reluctantly signing a public statement in which the who’s who of the Parisian intellectual scene sided with Israel right before the Six Day War. This fateful step was perceived by many in the Arab world as an unforgivable betrayal of Sartre’s most loyal followers and it brought to a sudden end the role of existentialism in Arab thought.

The post-colonial generation

Although ostensibly about the fate of an intellectual trend, No Exit’s scope and objectives are both broader and more profound. Di-Capua presents Arab existentialism as a prism through which we may perceive the struggles of a generation for decolonization. The project of decolonization, Di-Capua explains, faced three tasks. First, the Arab states would need to be physically liberated from the colonial yoke. Second, these newly liberated states needed to set up socio-economic structures to replace the colonial ones. Third, the post-colonial generation faced the elusive task of forging a new, independent identity.

Di-Capua’s focus is on the last of these tasks. He describes the various ways in which Arab intellectuals wrestled with the question of Arab identity, following a long period of colonial rule.  For the post-colonial Arab to be self-determining he would need to be free, authentic, and sovereign. Given that all three of these aspects of intellectual decolonization are also central to Sartrean existentialism, it is not hard to see why existentialism appealed to an Arab readership. The existentialist defense of individual freedom, the fact that it refused to see anyone as necessarily bound to his tradition or his past, implied a freedom to forge an authentic and personal future, detached from any colonial ties. This kind of freedom was precisely what young Arab intellectuals were looking for. 

While he does not neglect existentialism’s European provenance entirely, Di-Capua stresses that Arab existentialism should not be regarded as merely derivative of European thought. To underscore his point No Exit is almost entirely based on Arab sources – personal correspondence as well as books and individual articles.

While he does not neglect existentialism’s European provenance entirely, Di-Capua stresses that Arab existentialism should not be regarded as merely derivative of European thought. To underscore his point No Exit is almost entirely based on Arab sources – personal correspondence as well as books and individual articles.This not only allows the author to give an intimate description of the lives and interactions of various Arab intellectuals in the decades leading up to the war of 1967, but it also shows how the incorporation of existentialist ideas was a rather pell-mell affair. Recording the disorderly fashion in which existentialism found its way to the Arab world to a fault means that No Exit does not always present a well-organized, easy-to-grasp narrative. However, the reader does come away with an intimate sense of the practical complexity of intellectual history – a dimension that is often plastered over for the sake of presenting a clear, linear perspective.

The adoption of this inside perspective hangs together with a fundamental theoretical, perhaps even ideological point. Di-Capua approaches Arab thought as a narrative. He writes from an inside perspective that intends to reveal the characters of the intellectuals involved. By presenting Arab thinkers as individuals, with their personal quirks and predilections, Di-Capua opts for a particular way of doing history. Story-telling, he argues, does not present Arab thought in terms of neat ideas associated with particular individuals, nor as a structural discourse, but as a complicated web of relations through which ideas echo and get transformed in myriad ways. Such narrative history is able to give a voice to a culture, a tradition, and most importantly to the individuals who are often treated only in idealized, abstract, partial terms typical of contemporary studies written under the spell of “a certain bald French philosopher” (21).

Besides humanizing the writer, narrative history is central to bringing out the specificity of contemporary Arab thought. Rather than superficially celebrating existentialism as an example of global exchange, Di-Capua wants to describe Arab existentialism in terms peculiar to the Arab world. The slow dissemination of existentialist ideas via multiple agents, Di-Capua argues, gave ample freedom to Arab writers to reshape existentialism as a philosophy for post-colonial society.

In choosing to go with narrative history, then, Di-Capua does not merely uncover a crucial part of modern Arab history, he also intervenes in the field of post-colonial intellectual history by offering a different way of writing histories, one that moves away from popular (post-)structuralist accounts and forefronts the original voice of Arab intellectuals. This historiographical intervention, part of a broader trend, is interesting, well-intentioned, and skillfully executed. Leaving the question of whether Di-Capua is entirely successful in delivering on his promise aside,. I will first dive a bit deeper into the story of Arab existentialism in the following section.

The Rise

In order to understand the development of Arab existentialism, it is important to realize that this school of thought grew out of an early split. At the end of the 1940s, right before existentialism became a major intellectual obsession, two distinct versions of it had been articulated in Arabic. On the one hand there was the philosophical existentialism of the celebrated young Egyptian philosopher Abd al-Rahman Badawi, whose immersion in French phenomenology and its interpretations of Heidegger gave his humanist, individualistic existentialism a theoretical edge. On the other hand there was the more literary and politically engaged existentialism developed by the Lebanese journalist, literary critic, and novelist Suhayl Idris. Founding the magazine al-Adab as an Arabic counterpart to Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes, Idris used this platform to introduce and discuss new questions of literary critique that attacked the established cultural order. This magazine for the first time questioned the relevance of literature to the daily reality of the Arab peoples. Taking to heart the Sartrean espousal of “commitment,” or iltizam, it demanded of all Arab literature that it be used as a tool for political, social, and cultural critique. Art, in other words, should not be for art’s sake.

Iltizam posed a direct challenge to the old cultural order represented by venerable names in the Arab letters like Taha Husayn and Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad. Touting a shift in focus from form to content in appraising works of art, the iltizam movement initiated a series of consequential debates that spelled the end of an era in Arab literature. It put an end to the highbrow Arab translations and imitations of European Literature and ushered in an era in which Arab writers would write and translate “for the people.” It also effectively ended Cairo’s cultural dominance in the Arab world, which had started to wane following the Officer’s Coup of 1952.

Importantly, the politicization of the cultural scene created an opening for the state to influence cultural output. Under the aegis of Egypt’s powerful Nasserist government, many Arab writers were persuaded that it was the duty of the committed intellectuals to promote the cause of Pan-Arabism through their pens. This call did not go unheeded. Only few were ready to stand up to the nationalist tide, which used iltizam as a justification for silencing those voices it deemed insufficiently committed to the nationalist ideal. Interestingly, this dissenting minority also framed its ideas in existentialist terms, putting the free, authentic individual front and center. Voices of opposition, like the poetic Shi’r movement, feminist writers, and Palestinian authors all used existentialism to critique the status quo and write against the pan-Arab establishment. This use of existentialism on all sides, Di-Capua is eager to show, attests to the thoroughgoing influence that existentialism exerted on the Arab cultural scene at the time.

The iltizam-movement did not share Badawi’s interest in the finer points of the existentialist worldview. Because of this, Arab existentialism remained rather undefined in its character. It covered a motley of ideas, aims, and lifestyles, rather than a clear-cut philosophical-political program. Notwithstanding, it was, by the early 1960s, firmly established as a powerful ideology. In the wake of the Bandung conference Arab intellectuals started to use existentialism (and Marxism) as a basis for creating a global anti-colonial front. Basing themselves on the universalist, humanistic message contained in Sartre’s writings, they identified with other marginalized groups from the global South in demanding their rights as human beings. They, moreover, emphasized the need to act on one’s beliefs, to take sides, to be engagé.

Sartre, the traveling, global intellectual stoking up the fires of anti-colonial fervor wherever he went, became the symbolic leader for this movement. Through his writings he tried to articulate an ethical framework for the ascendant global revolutionary movement. The Arab public, therefore, expected him to put his money where his mouth was and side with the Palestinian cause. The ultimate test for Sartre’s engagement would come in 1967 as the Nasserist government felt itself forced to channel the passions of its citizens and of admirers in the wider Arab world by setting course for a war with Israel.

The Demise

One of the qualities that render No Exit an incredibly interesting and entertaining work of intellectual history, one that goes beyond merely chronicling ideas, is Di-Capua’s acute sense for mistranslations and misunderstandings. A fine example is his intriguing discussion of the curious tendency among Arab intellectuals to “blur the differences between Sartre and Camus and see both of them as committed existentialists in search of revolution”(165). Di-Capua is also keenly aware of how ideas require both translation and a public willing to engage with them and he masterfully draws the two together in a symbiotic development of Arab existentialism. He is attentive to who translated what, when, as well as to how these translations were taken up in the Arab discussion. All the while, he switches rapidly from minute discussions on the translation of a particular term, to major cultural shifts, giving a dynamic inside perspective on the development of Arab thought in the middle of the twentieth century.

This constant theme of interpretations, reworkings and misunderstandings is brought to a close in the last two chapters, which describe Sartre’s visit to the Middle East together with his life-long partner Simone de Beauvoir and their companion Claude Lanzmann. Given the near identification of Sartre with the iltizam-movement (at least in Arab eyes), his earlier support for the liberation of Algeria and other former colonies, and the clear applicability of existentialist ideas to what was perceived as a clear case of colonial oppression, it is understandable why the Arabs took for granted Sartre’s support for the liberation of Palestine.

What they did not sufficiently appreciate was how the Palestinian question threw up a complex set of allegiances for Sartre. The French left, including Lanzmann and De Beauvoir sided with Israel and though Sartre was clearly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, his moral debt to Israel in the wake of the Holocaust (and France’s collaboration with the Nazis) ran deep. Palestinians may be oppressed by Jews, but the Jewish people had come to symbolize the cause of the oppressed in its purest form. Sartre’s intellectual framework for universal liberation, it seemed, worked fine as long as the oppressor and the oppressed were easily identifiable. When this was not the case, it quickly broke down.

These complexities were papered over, not only by Sartre’s own ambiguity on the subject, but also by the wishful thinking of those admirers in the Middle East who helped make his trip possible. Constant attempts were made by both the Israeli and the Arab side to interpret Sartre in their favor and discredit the other’s claims to that extent. This finale to No Exit makes for an interesting read. More importantly, Di-Capua’s detailed depiction of the tug-of-war over the blessings of the venerable oracle of the Left Bank shows us an almost forgotten chapter in the constant media war in the Middle East that continues to this day. The issue was finally resolved to the detriment of Arab existentialism when Sartre, at Lanzmann’s urging, signed a statement supporting the state of Israel. This essentially pulled the rug out from under his Arab supporters. It was seen in the Arab world as a betrayal by Sartre, by the French Left, and perhaps even by Europe as a whole.

Some Critical Remarks

There is much to be admired in Di-Capua’s study. This kind of comprehensive study of Arab thought and culture during the middle of the twentieth century is timely. As Di-Capua notes at one point, “somewhat curiously, most studies conclude at the beginning of World War II while others resume the history after the 1967 war”(16). What makes this oversight all the more curious is the fact that this revolutionary, post-war era was probably the most momentous and creative period in Arab society of the twentieth century. No Exit ought only to signal the beginning of a further excavation of this crucial period in Arab history.

Being fluent in Hebrew, Arabic, and French, Di-Capua is particularly well placed to tell all sides of the story of Sartre’s trip to Egypt and Israel and the different reactions and misunderstandings to which it gave rise. One cannot imagine anyone having done as good a job at telling this fascinating tale.

Furthermore, the scope and intricacy of this book is truly astounding. This is obviously the work of many years of scholarship – an article outlining its main ideas was published in 2012. Di-Capua has managed to introduce his Western readers to a trove of Arabic sources, concentrating not only on monographs but also on the discussions that occurred in the magazines that were the beating heart of the Arab intellectual community. He has a thorough knowledge of both Arab thought and its place in Arab culture and politics of the twentieth century and he uses it masterfully to portray the context that enabled the rise of existentialism.

Being fluent in Hebrew, Arabic, and French, Di-Capua is particularly well placed to tell all sides of the story of Sartre’s trip to Egypt and Israel and the different reactions and misunderstandings to which it gave rise. One cannot imagine anyone having done as good a job at telling this fascinating tale. His personal, narrative style, moreover, does much to draw the reader into this complex story and keep his attention. Di-Capua’s history also opens a space for writing other histories of the Middle East. Its interdisciplinary approach ties together several “historiographical ghettos” and ought to serve as an example for future research.

Notwithstanding its many merits, No Exit exhibits a few caveats, some more serious than others. An obvious one is that the story of Arab existentialism as told by Di-Capua leaves out the Western part of the Arab world, the Maghrib. It is highly likely that Maghribi existentialism followed a course quite different from that of the Mashriq, given its close relationship to the French cultural and intellectual scene and the bare fact that Moroccan, Algerian, or Tunisian intellectuals, by and large, would have been able to read Sartre’s writings in the original French.
It is perhaps understandable why the Maghrib has not been included. The book is already very broad in scope. Moreover, the kind of dissemination and rearrangement through selective translation that Di-Capua is interested in is not likely to have taken place in a francophone environment. On the other hand, precisely this contrast between the two parts of the Arab world would provide for an interesting frame, particularly given the growing rivalry between Mashriqi and Maghribi intellectuals in the 1970s and 1980s. In any case, the Maghrib’s absence from No Exit leaves a worthwhile task for future scholarship.

Secondly, it bears mention that No Exit is written by a historian, rather than by a philosopher. This background is betrayed as much by the book’s great attention to historical detail, as by its relative lack of philosophical depth. Quite apart from more narrow, exegetical concerns that may arise from Di-Capua’s off-the-cuff characterization of Sartrean existentialism as being anti-Cartesian or his occasional conflation of it with Heideggerian existentialism, No Exit lacks any thorough discussion of the philosophical foundations of what is, at root, a philosophical outlook. Without a clear exposition of what existentialism entails, what it grew out of, the kinds of questions that it sought to answer, it is not entirely clear to the reader familiar with existentialism (let alone to the neophyte) what exactly existentialism is supposed to mean and why it appealed so much to Arab intellectuals. A general appeal to the universal humanist message contained in Sartre’s writings is too meager. At times, it almost turns the philosophical content into an afterthought.

Of course, one could deflect this criticism by arguing that Arab intellectuals really did not care too much about the philosophical side of existentialism and mostly used existentialism as a vehicle for their own anti-colonial project. This would render acquaintance with the finer points of existentialism superfluous. While Di-Capua at times tends towards this line of reasoning, he does not do so consistently. Moreover, he explicitly presents his book as relevant not only for post-colonial or Cold War studies, but also for French studies. It is hard to see how he can claim this without discussing in more detail the link between Arab existentialism and its French roots.

More importantly, lack of philosophical insight easily leads to overly general and therefore uninformative comparisons. Take for instance the central existentialist notion of authenticity. “The project of authenticity was always, and still is, on the minds of Arab intellectuals” (251), Di-Capua notes in the epilogue. This loose statement not merely assumes that discussions of authenticity, which in the Arab world proliferated from the 1950s onwards, have always been concerned with a similar concept of what authenticity means, but also that they are meaningfully linked to the Sartrean notion of authenticity.

Yet, that is not obviously the case. Roughly, existentialists view authenticity as a personal ideal of finding the mean between acting wholly in accordance with or independent of what others expect of you. This idea must not, Di-Capua emphasizes quoting T. Storm Heter, “be confused with the popular notion of authenticity as ‘as (sic) being true to one’s roots and heritage’” (10). Yet, the latter is precisely the meaning that attaches to most discussions of authenticity (asala) in Arabic – e.g. in the writings of Zaki Najib Mahmud or Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri. There may very well be a connection between the two notions, but if there is, it is not elucidated by Di-Capua. Throughout he gratuitously refers to concepts like authenticity as existentialist tropes. Yet without a thorough discussion of what these concepts entail, how they fit with Arab discourse, and how they are interpreted differently in different contexts, such references obscure rather than answer questions about Arab existentialism.

In a way, this lack of attention to the philosophical side of the story hangs together with a further caveat in Di-Capua’s story, namely the lack of historical contextualization within the broader development of Arab thought in the twentieth century. Di-Capua’s study focuses on the period between roughly the 1940s and 1967 that, as mentioned, has been neglected by intellectual historians in favor of the “liberal age” that came before and the debates on the Arab-Islamic heritage that followed in its wake. No Exit perhaps overcompensates, however, by focusing almost exclusively on this neglected period in Arab intellectual history and not linking this story more overtly to what came before and what followed after.

In a way, this lack of attention to the philosophical side of the story hangs together with a further caveat in Di-Capua’s story, namely the lack of historical contextualization within the broader development of Arab thought in the twentieth century.

I have already mentioned how the continuities between pre- and post-1967 discourse on authenticity remain somewhat neglected in No Exit. But what about Di-Capua’s claim that Sartre’s work was “constitutive of the new Arab self” (251)? Did the new Arab self come to an abrupt end in June of 1967? It is easy enough to establish that overt references to Sartre became rare after 1967, but what about his individualism? His humanism? Thinkers like Fu’ad Zakariyya and Jurj Tarabishi kept on writing for decades. Did they entirely forsake their earlier convictions?

Perhaps more serious is the lack of context at the beginning of Di-Capua’s narrative. Although some references are made to the old order that would soon be overwhelmed by the engaged fervor of the “new generation” (al-jil al-jadid), the real substance of their modern, liberal, often Europhile views is left undiscussed. Anti-colonialism is presented as the all-consuming concern of this generation. From the outset, it is taken for granted that the new generation had an ingrained longing to be “free, authentic, and sovereign.”

Yet, surely such notions are not innate. They are acquired. These are modern concepts, articulated in a modern discourse that forefronts the individual, agentive, autonomous self. As Di-Capua presents it, existentialism was a natural fit with the preoccupations of Arab intellectuals at the time. Indeed, it may very well have looked like it to young writers at the time. However, presumably that was only after their background had sensitized them to the kinds of problems with which existentialism deals

It is at this point that the questions of historical and philosophical context link up. Just as a philosophical system like existentialism was not ready for consumption by an eager freedom-loving Arab public, its earlier development did not take place in a vacuum. Rather, existentialism developed in Europe in response to a particular set of social, political, and cultural circumstances that may be referred to collectively as ‘modernity.’ With its realization of the meaninglessness of this world, of man’s alienation due to his confinement in modern institutions, and its finding an antidote in the form of the authentic individual will, existentialism is recognizably the twentieth century offspring of Romanticism. One may further add that the spiritual disillusionment characteristic of existentialism was fostered by the changing attitudes towards religion – a topic inexplicably absent from Di-Capua’s story – and, more directly, by the terrible memories of the Great War. Although the precise admixture of these elements may have been different in the Arab world, the fact remains that existentialism is a quintessentially modern philosophy. It provides answers to modern questions that include, but also go beyond the narrow focus on decolonization employed by Di-Capua.

An exploration of these broader concerns of existentialism and the extent to which they animated Arab intellectuals and their public would presumably not only give a more complex picture of the environment in which Arab existentialism developed, but it would also point to interesting new connections. For example, if we look at the first important existentialist publication in Arabic, Abd al-Rahman Badawi’s al-zaman al-wujudi, we do not immediately recognize an anti-colonial tract, but rather a meditation on ‘Being’ animated by a concern for the moral emptiness left by the deterministic logic employed by modern science. Interestingly, this concern with the disenchantment is picked up on by later Arab thinkers, especially by more religiously oriented anti-colonialist scholars, the early Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb among them. Approaching Arab existentialism myopically as an ideology of colonial liberation effectively cuts it off from such broader concerns of a modern Arab public.

“An exploration of these broader concerns of existentialism and the extent to which they animated Arab intellectuals and their public would presumably not only give a more complex picture of the environment in which Arab existentialism developed, but it would also point to interesting new connections.”

Di-Capua’s lack of attention to these issues owes much to his theoretical and methodological preoccupations. His focus is on the local. The aim of his narrative history is to bring out the particular, to make Arab intellectuals visible, not to cover them in celebrations of a global exchange of ideas or (post-) structuralist analyses. This is important work and we need more of it. A sincere interest in the individual, undiscovered, post-colonial intellectual, however, should not blind us to the deeper point that the “certain bald French philosopher” wanted to make. Foucault’s insight was that discourses form the basis for what one can and cannot think, that they both enable and constrain the formation of a certain kind of subject, and that these possibilities and constraints are enmeshed ways of exercising power. If this is so, then one cannot take for granted the discursive context in which a local perspective is developed. This, in my opinion, does not exclude the kind of narrative history championed by Di-Capua – a misunderstanding that relies on a popular superficial reading of Foucault’s view of intentionality. However, it does suggest a way of writing narrative history that is more sensitive to how ways of viewing the world are not merely the products of creative individuals, but also the outcome of the broader modern discursive context in which they operate. The task at hand would then be to write narrative history in conversation with the Foucauldian crowd, not against them.