According to ancient Roman laws, homo sacer is an outlaw “who may be killed and yet not sacrificed.” Italian philosopher, Georgio Agamben, contemporized this concept so as to refer to a person deprived of the universal human and political rights enjoyed by citizens of a modern sovereign state – and thus protection of law such as provided by Habeas corpus – yet subject to these same laws. Classical examples of homo sacer include Golden Age pirates, and Jews, gypsies and other Holocaust victims. In the post-9/11 era some have advocated the inclusion of those suspected of terrorism in this category. In authoritarian states – in which basic human rights are nonexistent – anyone is a potential homo sacer.
In addition to these legally defined or articulated cases, I submit, there is a class of self-designated homo sacer. A typical member epitomizes a self-exiled political refugee who identifies himself not with where he permanently lives, but with a place and time he believes he has never left. He is an outcast whose lingering state of mind has been primarily shaped by the traumas he had previously suffered in his home country. His symptoms were best described by the late Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi in his seminal article published in 1982 in the second issue of Alefba Magazine (Paris) titled, “Rahayi va Degardisi-e Avareha”,
“For a long time he hangs on to his past, to his physical and mental awareness. This is his defense mechanism against a definite death in barzakh [purgatory]. Hanging on to the memory of the homeland, to the memory of his comrades and friends, of fellow fighters and a few verses from Hafiz, or of a few quotations from the agnostics. Once in a while he uses a proverb in his conversations, makes witty comments and brings his audience to laughter. But the avareh [vagrant] is constantly in a state of metamorphosis. He changes radically, not like a bud which changes into a flower, but like a flower which has been cut and is now wilting and dying. Impatient, sensitive, moody, tearful while laughing, generous and stingy, disinterested in the outside world, wandering about and shedding tears in empty alleys, calling his loved ones by name. Constantly thinking about the homeland and taking refuge in oneself will eventually lead the avarehs to hate each other. They lose sight of the fact that they have all been expelled from their homes and escaped the jaws of the sharp-teethed wolves. On the surface, it is issues of belief and ideology that cause the tension. They may even reach a point where one of them wishes the other had never succeeded in his escape since ‘it would have served him right to pay for what he did.’ This is the kind of grave that avarehs dig for one another. Accusations are one of the major symptoms and one of the first outcomes of the cancer of avaregi [vagrancy]. The avareh thinks that only those who share his beliefs have the right to survive. To the dogmatic, prejudiced avareh, the large world appears very small. Shortly after arriving at a secure place, many of those who had similar beliefs will separate from one another – now because their evaluation and analysis of poignant social issues are different from those of yesterday, later because they have yet a newer analysis. These splits have another effect, too; leaving one’s circle of friends and joining the opposition. Out of everyone’s sight, they repent for the past; yet they keep new relationships a secret. To maintain ties with old friends, they keep criticizing their then-enemies and now-allies. They accuse others of compromising with the enemy, but are themselves extremely afraid of being accused of having done the same. Though old beliefs are gradually sifted out, nothing else is at their disposal.”
The Metamorphosis and Emancipation of the Avareh. Translated by H. Shahidian, JRS 7(4): 411-7,1994.
Sa’edi distinguished between a mohajer [emigrant] and an avareh: “An émigré is like a migrant bird” free to move and look for a temperate climate, while an avareh has no choice, “forced to take refuge in the only place offered to him.” They both suffer from being away from home. However, “The émigré is taken by the superficial aspects of life; the avareh, on the other hand, is taken by the depth of his loneliness. The émigré adores the [traditional Iranian New Year’s] haft seen table and ghormeh sabzi [vegetable and lamb stew]. But the avareh does not care much for any of these. The émigré awaits a day when his homeland is swept and dusted so that he can go back, take off his shoes and relax. The avareh, however, wants to get into the country any way he can and sweep the entire country with his tears and eyebrows, and throw out to the Sea of the Dead all the lunatics who rule over his country.” While acknowledging some similarities between the two, Sa’edi emphasized that, “The more delicate point is that an émigré can always become an avareh but not the vice versa.” The fate of an exile is irreversibly sealed in his homeland.
* * *
Sa’edi’s avareh is an AWOL who refuses to admit that he is no longer on the frontline of the struggle. His seeking refuge in patriotism is escapism driven by avareh’s sense of guilt. He is imprisoned by the memory of his own painful past, which prevents him from opening a window to his new vicinage - A world that can provide him with the opportunity to project himself into the future he had dreamed of for his homeland. Outside his inner circle of friends and comrades, he has difficulty proving his worthiness other than by presenting himself as a ‘canary in the coalmine’ of his native land. Rather than seeing life in exile as a laboratory to validate the social model he had fought for all his adult life, or to test his own fortitude in surviving and flourishing in a free society he had revered for so long, Sa’edi’s avareh hides in his self-made purgatory, from which the only emancipating act is to fall into perdition. A forward metamorphosis might be too much to ask from one whose deep wounds and irreparable scars are not only daily reminders of the ordeal he has gone through, but also the evidence of his newly acquired identity – a nonconformist; however, expecting otherwise is tantamount to acquiescing to the loss of some of the best and bravest among us.
Twenty-eight years after the publication of his article, it has become clear that Sa’edi’s pessimism was unwarranted. There are quite a few exiles that have assimilated to their new environ and have become productive members of their community of immigrants. A whole new genre of post-exilic art and literature produced by Iranian Diaspora, many of them dealing with issues related to life in the adopted countries rather than reminiscing about the homeland, is a testimony to the adaptability of human nature and exiles’ ability to leave behind painful memories of the past, in order to build a brighter future. These gradual shifts in narrative, along with the success of Iranian émigrés in their professional lives in their adopted homes, promise a progressive transformation of our culture which without any doubt will influence the future of not only our own children but also that of Iranians living in Iran.
It is time to close the book on exiledom – sacred or otherwise.
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