Jean-Paul Sartre and Arab Existentialism: Ships that Passed in the Night

Yoav Di-Capua teaches history at Princeton University. At the end of 2018 he published No Exit: Arab Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre and Decolonization in which he describes the little-known history of Arab existentialism. He shows how the philosopher’s pro-Israeli stance during the war of June 1967 spelled the end of this intellectual movement.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Claude Lanzmann welcomed at Tel Aviv Lod Airport on March 14, 1967
Milner Moshe/Government Press Office (GPO) Israel

For many years, Sartre’s relationship with the Arab world was synonymous with his commitment in favour of the Algeria, revolution. Gallimard’s republication at the end of last year of Situations V, containing all the philosopher’s writings on Algeria, provides a precious reminder of this political and anti-colonial commitment. But Yoav Di-Capua’s book takes us further East to discover a forgotten period of the intellectual history of the Arab world, ” when existentialism’s most fertile ground outside of Europe was in the Middle East, and Jean-Paul Sartre was the Arab intelligentsia’s uncontested champion.” Our collective memory mostly retains the final page of that history, the break-up, when Sartre came out in favour of Israel in June 1967. No Exit undertakes to turn the clock back, to tell of nearly two decades of readings, interpretations and translations of Sartre’s work and thought in order to explain why that belated stand was seen by Arab intellectuals as a betrayal and what political reality was reflected in that divorce.

1967, “annus horribilis”

The visit to Egypt in February 1967, made by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Claude Lanzmann, and the events that followed in that annus horibilis (as the author terms it) form a framing device for Di-Capua’s narrative and historical analysis and provide his book’s tonality. For the history of Arab existentialism is that of an encounter between the social and political realities of the Middle East and existentialist writings, those of Martin Heidegger during a first phase, and above all the philosophical and literary writings of Sartre.

First, there was the political context of the period: whereas Sartre’s thinking—philosophical, on the one hand, with Being and Nothingness, literary and political on the other with What is Literature? and the creation of his journal Les Temps modernes—bloomed immediately following the end of WW2, a certain effervescence could also be detected to the east of the Mediterranean. Indeed, the process of decolonisation began in the Middle East a good ten years before it did in the Maghreb: Lebanon gained its independence in 1943, and in 1946 British troops in Egypt withdrew from the cities (though not yet from the Suez Canal zone).

It was in this context that in May 1944, the first and most famous Arab existentialist, Abdurrahman Badawi defended his doctoral thesis in Cairo, an event which marked the beginning of modern Arab philosophy. Badawi’s ambition was “to fuse together Heidegger’s phenomenological existentialism” and Muslim philosophy. In his view, the point of tangency was in the matter of subjectivity and individual freedom, between the concepts of necessity and possibility (al wujub wal imkan) on the one hand, and a situational freedom on the other. His move from the German philosopher to the French one—and from existentialism to littérature engagée—took place when he wrote his preface to an Arabic translation of Sartre’s fiction, in which he saw a possibility for “the individual to actualise their possibilities through radical liberty.

However the context of liberation, bearing as it did new aspirations, was not without its share of anxieties for the younger generation, traumatised by colonialism. Thus Badawi wrote: “We are a generation of youth who was cast down [alqa bina] into the unknown of a foreign world.” That generation entered into a new world bearing a heavy legacy: “an overwhelming sense of loss, humiliation (. . .), shame, desperation, powerlessness,” while, on the other side of the Red Sea, the Palestinians were suffering the Nakba, “the catastrophe,” in response to which some embraced existentialism. One of these was Fayiz Sayigh, later to become a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and a Palestinian refugee in Beirut:

We have become a generation at odds with its world. We no longer belong to our immediate world: We are no longer at home.

Inevitably, a response to this anxiety was to be found in Sartre’s introduction to the first issue of Les Temps modernes:

We do not want to miss any part of our time: there have perhaps been more attractive periods, but this is ours; we have only this life to live, in the midst of this war, this revolution perhaps.

Sartre versus Gide or Idris versus Hussein

The dissemination of existentialism was accomplished through an enormous effort of translation, criticism and publishing. At the heart of this undertaking were two emblematic couples: Aïda and Suhayl Idris in Beirut, and Liliane and Lofti Al-Khouli in Cairo, all of whom necessarily spent time in Paris, a sejourn which inspired Suhayl Idris’s famous novel, Al Hayy al-Latini (Le Quartier latin).1

One of the principal advantages of Yoav Di-Capua’s research is the impressive number of archives he consulted and a very rich bibliography which takes us back to the literary and intellectual world of the period, through a survey of the main publications of the fifties and sixties. In this context, it was Suhayl Idris who inherited the mantle of “high priest of commitment,” a phrase once used in referring to one Jean-Paul Sartre. Like his model, Idris never separated existentialism from commitment. Like him, he founded a literary, philosophical and political journal, Al-Adab, which in turn gave birth to a famous Beirut publishing house of the same name in. Like Sartre as well, his work and reputation are inseparable from that of his companion, Aida Matraji who translated many of Sartre’s books, often to very short deadlines.

From Saint-Germain-des-Prés to avenue Al-Rashid in Baghdad

Nor was the parallel confined to intellectual activities, it was also a matter of lifestyles. While Sartre, Beauvoir and their entourage patronised the cafés of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in Baghdad, the capital of Arab existentialism, the café terraces on avenue Al-Rashid became the meeting places of the movement. Like their Parisian counterparts, the intellectuals met to discuss every aspect of life in the Arab countries, for existentialism had also become a household concept. “And so”, Di-Capua writes, just as in postwar Paris, existentialism became “a word that everybody seemed to understand, a presumed philosophical movement that everybody seemed to know, a vague and nebulous daily behaviour that everybody seemed to adopt”.

However, Di-Capua’s recension of existentialist intellectuals is sometimes problematic insofar as he seems to include under this rubric a whole swathe of modern Arab literature without bothering to demonstrate whether or not it was influenced by existentialism. Take for example his references to the Iraqi counter-cultural movement and the “free verse” (in the formal sense of the term) composed by Nazek Al-Malaika and Badr Chaker Al-Sayyab. The work of these two immense figures of Iraqi poetry is undoubtedly innovative and politically committed, but can we really speak of their being influenced by existentialism?

Modernity and renewal imply a break with the past. Sartre begins his manifesto What is literature? on an ironic note:

An ageing critic complains gently: ’You want the death of literature: the contempt for Belles-Lettres is flaunted insolently throughout your journal.’

Further along he takes it out on André Gide and his Fruits of the Earth which he perceives as the perfect example of the bourgeois novel.

As to polemics, the Middle East was not to be outdone. And if Suhayl Idris played Sartre’s role, defending a committed Arab literature, free of the colonial yoke, it was to criticise writers like Taha Hussein, a friend of Gide and impassioned champion of art for art’s sake and the European cultural model.

Committent or subservience

And yet it is often the most “apolitical” existentialists who meet with Di-Capua’s approval. And while our scholar greets effervescence and the quest for novelty with enthusiasm, his disappointment is obvious when these ultimately lead to the espousal of a political ideology, be it Arab nationalism or communism.

When he comes to the Third Congress of Arab Writers in December 1957, he dwells at length on the contribution of Mahmud Al-Messaadi, a Tunisian writer who campaigned in favour of his country’s independence, and whom Di-Capua describes as a “free spirit” (i.e. unlike his fellow writers). In a speech entitled “The Protection of the Writer and Pan-Arab Nationalism”, Al-Messadi warned his Egyptian comrades against any and every form of subordination of writers and culture to politics. What Di-Capua fails to note is that this same Messaadi, six months after this intervention, became Tunisian Minister of National Education, thus embarking, like André Malraux under de Gaulle, on a long political career which will make him Minister of Cultural Affairs and finally Chairman of the Chamber of Deputies at the end of Habib Bourguiba’s presidency.

Di-Capua takes a dim view of Arab intellectuals who celebrated “submission to the Pan-Arab state as the right kind of iltizam (committent)” neglecting the anti-imperialist dimension of this ideology which might have shed light on such an option.

Further on, the author describes—rightly enough—the Nasser regime’s repression of left-wing intellectuals but alludes only fleetingly to one of its greatest accomplishments, the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, again without stressing the anti-colonial dimension of this move.

The road to universality?

More and more translations appeared and at the beginning of the sixties, Sartre published his Critique of Dialectical Reason, the first chapter of which constitutes an attempt to reconcile existentialism and Marxism. Here again, Di-Capua is critical of an ideologically oriented exegesis from Sartre’s translators. He refers to a new translation of Materialism and Revolution (a work that dates from 1946) by the Syrian intellectual Georges Tarabashi, under the “misleading title” Marxism and Revolution which “gave the impression that Marxism, socialism and Sartre’s existentialism formed a seamless revolutionary cloth.”

Now, not only is there no trace of such a translation, nor does Di-Capua provide any reference for it, but the same Tarabashi discusses that text in his book Sartre and Marxism using the correct title. Besides which it is not Tarabashi who links the two philosophies but Sartre himself, in a reply to the criticisms of György Lukács2:

It is comical that Lukács, in the work I have quoted, felt he was defining what separates us by invoking this Marxist definition of materialism: ‘the primacy of being over consciousness’ whereas existentialism—as its name suffices to indicate—takes that primacy as the object of a statement of principle.

Discovering in Sartre’s writings on Algeria—especially his preface to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth—when it became available in Arabic, a theory corresponding to their reality, Arab intellectuals aspired henceforth to a “universal ethical subject of the Left” by which “they would be existentially liberated from their colonial burden. Sartre’s commitment vis-à-vis various Third World countries made that ideal more feasible, especially in the Third World countries where struggles for liberation were under way, be it Algeria, the Congo, Vietnam . . . or Palestine, where reality was now being interpreted through the prism of Sartre’s writings, and with intellectuals like Fayiz Sayigh stressing its universal symbolism in the neo-colonial context.

In the light of Sartre’s analyses of colonial reality, it was now expected of Arab intellectuals that they should champion the Palestinian cause. But at this point Di-Capua rightly raises a question: “Is Sartre sartrean?”

Betrayal of the Intellectual

At the beginning of that crucial year, 1967, each camp was trying to win Sartre over. The Israeli themselves were giving lip service to the socialist rhetoric of national liberation. Drawing on hitherto unknown sources and archives Di-Capua provides a very precise, illuminating account of the push and pull around Sartre, his hesitations and the way his position was influenced by those around him (Beauvoir, Claude Lanzmann, and his adopted daughter Arlette Elkaïm).

When Sartre arrived in Israel with Beauvoir and Lanzmann, the local authorities ignored the visit completely. Sartre cancelled all the scheduled meetings with members of the armed forces, in particular with Yitzhak Rabin. He also turned down an invitation from David Ben Gurion. However he was reluctant to take a firm stand (and this was unusual for him) and insisted on separating the issue of Zionism from that of the existence of Israel; while at the same time proclaiming the right-of-return for the Palestinian refugees in Gaza but never broaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of colonialism. In the end, two factors will prove decisive: first of all, his encounter with survivors of the genocide in a kibbutz and secondly, just before the six-day war, the street demonstrations in France by Jews who “relived the traumatic moment in which the French government handed over French Jews to the Nazis.”

Sartre justified his support for Israel in the issue of Les Temps Modernes which appeared just before the outbreak of the war in June 1967, as if there was a common measure between 1940 and 1967.

I merely wished to recall that for many of us, this emotional determination, which is not, for all that, an unimportant characteristic of our subjectivity but a general effect of historical and quite objective circumstances which we are not about to forget. Thus are we allergic to whatever may resemble, in one way or another, anti-Semitism. Many Arabs will reply: ‘We are not anti-Semitic but anti-Israeli.’ And they are no doubt correct: but they cannot keep us from thinking that those Israelis are also Jews.3

For someone who had theorised oppression in terms of alterity, the conflict between these two alterities, Israeli and Palestinian, ended up as a hierarchisation in which the reference to European history and not universal ethics prevailed, making suddenly null and void any possibility of choice.

Sartre was well aware of what the Palestinians were suffering and repeatedly expressed his sympathy for them. But the stand he took gave new meaning to what Aimé Césaire had written, in his Discourse on Colonialism, about the genocide of the Jews and the indignation it had aroused:

[it] is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man.

And the idea of the suffering of “white men oppressed by other white men” as David Ben Gourion phrased it, ultimately took precedent in Sartre’s mind over the immediate reality of what was happening in Palestine.

1EDITOR’S NOTE: None of this author’s works have been translated into English.

2Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason.

3Quoted by Alain Gresh who writes of a “reluctance bordering on self-deception” when Sartre cast the Israeli in the role of historical victim at a time when they had the military support of the United States.