EXILES – The Unesco Courier

UNESCO, October 1996


  1. INTERVIEW – Werner Arber reflects on biodiversity and the place of science in society
  2. The darkness and light of exile – Bahgat Elnadi & Adel Rifaat
  3. A land of no return – Abdelmalek Sayad
  4. The coolie’s odyssey – Khaleel Torabully
  5. Travellers from a far country – Bujor Nedelcovici
  6. The roots of the banyan tree – René Depestre
  7. The brain drain – Carmen García Gaudilla
  8. Refugees: the rising tide – Rony Brauman
  9. Restricted entry
  10. Fact file
  11. Commentary – Federico Mayor
  12. HERITAGE – The medina of Fez – Crafting a future for the past – Geneviève Darles & Nicolas Lagrange
  13. GREENWATCH – Palawan, the Philippines’s last frontier – France Bequette
  14. UNESCO IN ACTION – Who are we? – Géraldine Schimmel
  15. REFLECTIONS – Cultures first – Claude Fabrizio
  16. LISTENING – Isabelle Leymarie talks to Juan Carlos Cáceres
  17. As it was… The Unesco Courier (1957)

The Darkness and Light of Exile

Bahgat Elnadi & Adel Rifaat

Is the state of exile, which was for so long the exception, now becoming the rule?

To be expelled from a community in the far-off times when communities regulated every detail of their members’ lives was tantamount to receiving a death sentence. Not only did exiles face the future alone, bereft of the protection of the group, they also forfeited all contact with their ancestors and with their gods, as well as the possibility of setting up hearth and home. An individual banished from a community was a lost soul.

For communities themselves, exile was a collective disaster when, after being defeated in an unequal struggle, their survivors were reduced to slavery. The victors severed the ties of continuity that bound the defeated peoples to their past, keeping them alive for callous exploitation as beasts of burden with no identity as human beings.

It is true that there were more tolerable forms of exile. Exceptional people – princes, doctors, engineers or artists – who were constrained to leave their homeland, usually for political reasons, might sometimes live comfortable lives and even enjoy privileges and positions of influence in prosperous states. But they never ceased to be foreigners. An essential part of them remained anchored in a homeland that became mythologized by time, nostalgia and regret.

With the colonial conquests of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the notion of exile changed. The great voyages of discovery, advances in navigational instruments and techniques, and the growth of a permanent network of exchange across the oceans paved the way for a global market. In the course of time, large numbers of people emigrated in search of regions more politically clement or more economically promising. For these migrants uprooting was not punishment or a calamity. It might be an adventure, at one with the spirit of change that was the hallmark of the new era. They were embarking n another life, but one whose hazardous nature would have preferred to stay or to which they they freely accepted. They saw the country of their birth as a distant, stable landmark in a shifting world, a haven of certainty amidst the vicissitudes of life.

Until the second half of this century, however, exiles everywhere belonged to a very small minority. Demographic stability was the rule; population movements were the exception. Today things have changed. The international market, which formerly encompassed national markets whilst respecting their frontiers, is now in the process of abolishing those frontiers. The major economic, financial, technological and information flows criss-cross the planet.

A demarcation line now runs through all countries, dividing those who participate in the age of globalization from those who cannot adjust to it and seek imaginary escape-routes from it by withdrawing into hermetic nationalist, denominational or tribal worlds of their own. Not that all those affected by the high tide of economic globalization are privileged. Far from it. A minority holding the levers of economic power and the cultural values that open the doors to success are obtaining unprecedented power, freedom and outlets for expression. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of men and women are gradually being driven from the rural areas, regions and countries where they were born – as a result of economic impoverishment, political terror or war – and involuntarily thrust into nearby or distant centres of growth.

Their tragedy is that, although they have no future in their own land, they have little chance of prospering elsewhere. If the winners of globalization feel at home wherever they are, the losers feel excluded both from a homeland where they would have preferred to stay or to which they dream of returning one day, and from the countries to which they have emigrated, where they are generally looked down upon and do not “fit in”. For the happy few, exile is freely chosen and creative; for the vast majority it is enforced and alienating.

This gap is even more intolerable because while it is widening the world looks on through universal eye of television. It is a potential time-bomb. The frustrations it causes and the tensions and violence it provokes are bound to get worse if nothing is done to counterbalance the chaotic, inegalitarian tendencies of the market.

For the time being, however, the privileged inhabitants of the planet are more inclined to defend their vested interests than to share the fruits of their prosperity. They cordon off their territory with illusory barricades and in so doing respond to the outsiders knocking on their door with some of the most retrograde arguments of the fundamentalist canon.

They forget that their own power is indissociable from the globalizing process that manufactures these outsiders. Above all, they forget that the revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality, law, justice and solidarity have played just as powerful a role in the drive to world unification as market forces. It is these ideas which sustain human creativity, advances in science and productivity, and the security of intellectual and material exchange. They have long been the prerogative of a small group of nations. They can no longer remain so. In today’s open world, if their benefits do not go to all, they will be lost for everyone.


In the Métro, one evening, I looked closely around me: everyone had come from somewhere else . . . Among us, though, two or three faces from here, embarrassed silhouettes that seemed to be apologizing for their presence. The same spectacle in London.

Today’s migrations are no longer made by compact displacements but by successive infiltrations: little by little, individuals insinuate themselves among the “natives,” too anemic and too distinguished to stoop to the notion of a “territory.” After a thousand years of vigilance, we open the gates . . . When one thinks of the long rivalries between the French and the English, then between the French and the Germans, it seems as if each nation, by weakening one another, had as its task to speed the hour of the common downfall so that other specimens of humanity may relay them. Like its predecessor, the new Völkerwanderung will provoke an ethnic confusion whose phases cannot be distinctly foreseen. Confronted with these disparate profiles, the notion of a community homogeneous to whatever degree is inconceivable. The very possibility of so heteroclite a crowd suggests that in the space it occupies there no longer existed, among the indigenous, any desire to safeguard even the shadow of an identity. At Rome, in the third century of our era, out of a million inhabitants, only sixty thousand were of Latin stock. Once a people has fulfilled the historical idea which was its mission to incarnate, it no longer has any excuse to preserve its difference, to cherish its singularity, to safeguard its features amid a chaos of faces.

Having governed two hemispheres, the West is now becoming their laughingstock: subtle specters, end of the line in the literal sense, doomed to the status of pariahs, of flabby and faltering slaves, a status which perhaps the Russians will escape, those last White Men. Because they still have some pride, that motor, no, that cause of history. When a nation runs out of pride, when it ceases to regard itself as the reason or excuse for the universe, it excludes itself from becoming. It has understood—for its well-being or woe, depending on each one’s perspective. If it now constitutes the despair of the ambitious, on the other hand it fascinates the meditative who happen to be a touch depraved. Dangerously advanced nations are the only ones that deserve interest, especially when we sustain ambiguous relations with Time and court Clio out of a need to punish ourselves. Moreover it is this need that incites us to undertake . . . anything, great or insignificant. Each of us labors against his interests: we are not conscious of this so long as we work, but examine any period and we see that action and sacrifice are almost always undertaken for a virtual or a declared enemy: the men of the Revolution for Bonaparte, Bonaparte for the Bourbons, the Bourbons for the Orleanists . . . Can history inspire only sneers—has it no goal? Yes, more than one, many in fact, but it achieves them in reverse. The phenomenon is universally verifiable. We realize the opposite of what we have pursued, we advance counter to the splendid lie we have made to ourselves; whence the interest of biographies, least boring of the suspect genres. The will has never served anyone: the most arguable of our productions is what we cling to most tenaciously, the motive for inflicting our worst privations on ourselves. This is true of a writer as well as of a conqueror, of any man in the street. The end of “anyone” suggests as many reflexions as the end of an empire, or of man himself, so proud of having acceded to the vertical position and so apprehensive of losing it, of returning to his earliest aspect, of concluding his career, in short, as he had begun it: stooping and shaggy. Over each being hangs the threat of regressing to his point of departure (as though to illustrate the uselessness of his trajectory, of any trajectory), and he who succeeds in evading it gives the impression of scamping a duty, of refusing to play the game by inventing an overly paradoxical mode of failure.

CIORAN, “The two truths”, Drawn & Quartered. Transl. by Richard Howard. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2012.


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