Effects of Exile on the Arab Identity

Authors, cultural historians, and academics have exchanged their idiosyncratic views on history, literature, art, and the meeting of cultures in order to assess the effect of exile and identity, whether voluntary or imposed, temporary or permanent, upon a group consciousness or upon an individual’s mind. In spite of ethnic, linguistic, and geographic differences, the essential experience is found to be somewhat similar in aspects of linguistic deprivation, uncertain future, and living apart. With regard to this argument, this paper seeks to compare the views of Edward Said with those presented in The Lamp of Umm Hashim by Hakki Yabya concerning the effects of exile on the Arab identity. The author finds that an Arab’s identity is significantly altered by the assimilation of western dispositions and cultural views.

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            Edward begins by alluding to exile as a terrible experience and unhealable rift that is often forced between a human being and a native place. According to him, true exile is state of loss, yet it seems to have been portrayed as an enriching, potent, motif of the modern culture because of the spiritually alienated and orphaned nature of the modern era. Joseph Conrad’s tale Amy Foster serves as a perfect analogical representation of his argument. In the story, Yank Goorall, the central character, is a peasant who experiences the unpromising hostility of life in exile. Out of place, he is perpetually haunted and tormented by loneliness, and endures his difficult life in England where the language is strange and misunderstood (Edward 143). His misplacement ultimately leads to a cultural confusion and a loss of identity.

`In The Lamp of Umm Hashim, Hakki represents exile in a similar fashion by using Ishmael to show the struggles and loss of identity. Ishamel’s father makes a great sacrifice and sends him to England to pursue a course in medicine. However, Ishmael finds himself in a crisis on arrival.  He falls in love with a woman who compels him to cast aside his lifelong religious belief, just to blend in and create a new world for himself, “this new self-had cast aside religious belief, it had substituted for it a stronger faith in science” (Hakki). According to Edward (144), much of one’s life in exile is taken up by compensating for the disorienting loss by creating a new world, and this becomes evidently clear in how The Lamp of Umm reveals the complex constraints and pressures that lie at the center of the exile predicament.

Edward’s essay and Hakki’s narrative expose the reader to the sheer fact of displacement and isolation that leads to a narcissistic masochism within the inner self of the exile.  The outcome is often a resistance to efforts of acculturation, amelioration, and community, where the one in exile establishes a practice that distances them from their previous commitments and connections. Hakki patently shows the sheer magnitude of this change when Ishmael returns to Egypt. He fails to identify himself with his former religious commitments and even looks down upon them. The struggle to reconnect with his family and treat his fiancée’s eye disease creates a dilemma between his old and his new self: he is torn between treating her with lamp oil from a revered mosque and using the western scientific methods he has acquired. Edward describes such a dilemma by differentiating the habits of life, activity and expression in an exile’s life. Thus, both authors attempt to show the vividness of the old and the new environments and their deleterious effects on the identity of the individual.

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