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"Exile Is So Strong Within Me, I May Bring It To The Land"

- by Zi Hui Idelle Yee, Singapore -

In response to the final question posed to him in a 1996 interview with Israeli poet Helit Yeshurun — “Has exile become a mask?" — Darwish had this poignant response to give: “No. I am now being tested: I can choose between an external exile or an internal one, an external or internal homeland—I don’t know what I want. Exile is so strong within me, I may bring it to the land”. The exile lives ever in struggle with their exile— in the words of Edward Said, “clutching difference like a weapon to be used with stiffened will, the exile jealously insists on his or her right to refuse to belong”. There is no space within the exile even for the land itself, because the exile’s entire identity is built around their self-recognition of their difference, of their own unshakeable knowing of rejection from any and all places.

And so, for the Jewish or Palestinian exile, perhaps even returning to Jerusalem is not sufficient. Jerusalem is a place of dreams perhaps too joyous and triumphant to be lived out in the quotidian post-return state, or a dream too saturated in fleeting images of myth to find grounding in mundane everyday memory. Even if the exiled individual returns to the presumed homeland, exile may yet follow them in dogged pursuit to the land.

In his essay “Reflections on Exile”, Said cites the 12th century Augustinian mystic Hugo of St. Victor on the ideas of travel and transcendence of boundaries of homeland and home: “... The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his”. So, then, we may say that the perfect man recognises that the longing within him cannot be fulfilled by returning to one particular land in this world.

It is perhaps fitting at this juncture to enter into a brief meditation on the concept of embrace. In Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace, Volf positions embrace as diametrically opposed to exclusion in all of human relation to one another, and positions the human being as intrinsically needing to move from exclusion to embrace. He identifies four stages via which the human being transitions from exclusion to embrace: “repentance”, “forgiveness”, “making space in oneself for one another,” and the “healing of memory”. This aforementioned third stage of “making space in oneself for one another” is particularly resonant when one considers Jerusalem, exile, as well as the Jewish and Palestinian desire to return to it. The rhetoric is often about the land itself, the city of Jerusalem, whose exilic longing or history or religious right supersedes the other’s.

But perhaps what the exile truly needs — and what they perhaps do not know to desire — is not a land or a space or a city, even one so beautiful and broken as Jerusalem. If the perfect man perhaps recognises that the longing within him cannot be fulfilled by returning to one particular space — one particular city, one particular Jerusalem — in this world, he may perhaps find that the deep longing within him to belong can only be filled by another, by belonging to his perceived Other, even as this Other also belongs to him. A longing, yearning exile is thus filled by another in embrace, finding in each other such compassion and joy in communion as hitherto unlooked for.

To the yearning exile, be he of Palestinian or Jewish descent, Jerusalem is his fixation. In a way, it is also his delusion — a dream too beautiful and fantastical to reach. So perhaps the perfect man, the perfect exile, recognises that the longing within him cannot be fulfilled by returning to one city in the world — one Jerusalem. Instead, he reaches out to another to find him to be likewise an exile, and a brother with whom he may find communion enough to fill both their gaping hearts — even if these hearts be Jewish and Palestinian.


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