Johanna Sellman, Arabic Exile Literature in Europe: Defamiliarising Forced Migration (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Johanna Sellman (JS): As a graduate student in comparative literature, I happened upon a few literary texts by Iraqi authors living in Sweden, some circulating online and some in print. I became curious about how these texts were both building on and departing from the modern “canon” of Arabic travel and migration literature. More exploration led me to understand that there was a relatively large and recent corpus of Arabic texts on different forms of forced and precarious migration to Europe.

I have for a long time been interested in literary expression born of mobility, border crossings, and the navigation of multiple forms of belonging (and often multiple languages). I think academic books, like other kinds of writing, spring from the persistent queries of our own lives. I grew up on the move across three continents, many countries, and multilingual, not quite at home in any single space. I think I have, in some way or another, been paying attention to frameworks that destabilize the assumptions about belonging (one home, one nation, and in the United States, one language) that are still so dominant. That said, this book is about Arabic literature of forced migration and about the unanswered questions that arise from forced and precarious migration, which is simultaneously ubiquitous and often described as “irregular.” As a white woman with a Swedish and US passport, I have not experienced the violence of border policing and the racialization of migrant populations that is so pervasive in Europe and the United States. I suppose my own queries brought me to the project and I have since then found myself in a place to learn from texts that are exploring outside spaces of citizenship, using literary means to defamiliarize belonging and migration literature.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JS: Arabic Exile Literature in Europe analyzes the aesthetic and political transformations of Arabic exile literature in Europe. Since the 1990s, Arabic exile literature in Europe has increasingly become a literature written from the perspective of refugees, asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, and others who are situated outside of normatively defined citizenship. The majority of the works that I discuss in the book are written by writers from Iraq, Syria, Algeria, and Morocco and set in recently established diasporic communities and migratory routes in Europe, such as Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Balkans.

Arabic Exile Literature in Europe demonstrates how frameworks such as east-west cultural encounters, political commitment, and modernist understandings of exile, which were dominant in twentieth-century Arabic exile literature, have been giving way to writing that explores the dynamics and mass media representations of large-scale migration and the liminal spaces of borders and borderlands. The book identifies defamiliarization as a widely variable but shared literary tool of resistance to the material and discursive realities of contemporary forced migration. The heightened defamiliarization in the narratives analyzed in the book include speculative modes of writing (such as science fiction and fantasy) and other narrative strategies that destabilize discourses on forced migration. In doing so, the literature both supports a project of undoing received understandings of borders and migration and points to the necessity of imagining mobility and belonging in new ways.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

JS: There are at least two aspects of my previous work that connect to this book. One is my previous work on Maghrebi writers who, in the context of longstanding and postcolonial linguistic multiplicity in the region, were refashioning language in ways that navigate and creatively subvert colonial legacies of the French language and the homogenizing impulses of postcolonial nationalism. The other is my previous work on Moroccan testimonial and fictionalized prison writing and the ways that it intervened in an unfolding state-driven process of reconciliation. Both of these previous projects shaped my understanding of literature as a space where creativity in language and narrative generates openings for both complexity and resistance. This current book’s focus is on how literary narratives of migration use defamiliarizing modes of writing in the service of resisting expectations put on the genre itself (to offer testimonies and documentary style narratives of forced mobility, for example) and to de-naturalize taken-for-granted understandings of borders, nation, and citizenship.

What was new for me was delving into the many different forms that defamiliarization takes, everything from speculative modes of writing that draw on sci-fi and fantasy to creative uses of mistranslation and writing spaces that invite us to see belonging and citizenship in new ways. From the perspective of genre and regional scope, the corpus of texts I discuss might seem broad and eclectic, but my aim was to put into relief a shared form of creative resistance where defamiliarizing takes many forms.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JS: I think the primary audience would be folks in the field of Arabic literary studies and migration studies, though I would be very interested in being in conversation with people outside of those fields as well. I am grateful to already have had the chance to discuss parts of the book with authors whose texts I discuss, and I hope that the book will be read by people who have different relationships to the writing—creators, scholars, learners. The book is now available open access through Knowledge Unlatched.

In terms of impact, I am hoping to bring attention to some of the shared questions that are being raised in contemporary Arabic migration literature (and though I use the term “Arabic literature,” I also include a few texts that are written in other languages that establish a relationality with Arabic). This broad scope allows us to see how Arabic literature is engaging with questions of mobility, citizenship, and contemporary discourses on migration in very meaningful ways. I am also hoping to be part of a continuing conversation on speculative modes of writing in Arabic literature.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

JS: I am at a very exploratory stage of a project that expands the concerns of this book to focus on literary narratives of migration in Middle Eastern contexts and with an increased attention to landscape, built environments, and ecologies. Like my previous research, this project will also focus on how the defamiliarizing capacities of literature and other creative works creatively reframe narratives, especially the flattening or crisis-oriented narratives that we often see in media and humanitarian discourse.

I am also planning to continue a current project of translating Arabic literary theory into English. My hope is to work collaboratively with other translator scholars to create an open access bilingual volume of modern Arabic literary theory in translation.


Excerpt from the book (from chapter one, pp. 22-27)

Shifting Frameworks for Studying Contemporary Arabic Literature of Forced Migration: A Case for Border Studies

Contemporary Arabic literature of migration in Europe is often labelled and marketed as exile literature (adab al-manfa). However, the valences of this term (and many of its cognates) are fluid and changing. In contemporary Arabic literature of forced migration to Europe, modernist and postcolonial discourses on exile and migration found in literary narratives that centered on topics such as political exile, students travelling abroad for study and labour immigration have been giving way to literature that explores the perspectives of refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants. This more recent writing grapples with subjectivities born of mass migration and encounters with borderlands, and explores spaces located outside citizenship. Although terms such as ‘exile’ and ‘migration’ continue to be used to situate this literature, they are quite fluid. This spaciousness is vital and offers us a wide array of linkages and possibilities for situating and analysing these literary texts. While keeping the literature’s contemporary contexts in mind, we can also attend to the ways that it is being reimagined with earlier literary texts and frameworks. One of the important questions to attend to is how to situate the postcolonial in these twenty-first-century literary texts of migration.

In an interesting juxtaposition, in a review of the 2004 novel AqmarʿIraqiyya Sawdaʾ fi al-Suwid (Black Iraqi Moons in Sweden) by the Sweden-based Iraqi novelist ʿAli ʿAbd al-ʿAl, the reviewer places the book alongside classic colonial and postcolonial Arabic novels of migration to Europe, Tawfiq al-Hakim’s 1938 ʿUsfur min al-Sharq (Bird of the East), Yahya Haqqi’s 1944 novella Qandil Umm Hashim (The Lamp of Umm Hashim) and Tayeb Salih’s 1966 novel Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal (Season of Migration to the North). A recurring trope in Aqmar is that of the exile as a moon that has lost its orbit. Extending the metaphor of Salih’s iconic postcolonial novel Mawsim al-Hijra, the reviewer notes thatthe characters in Aqmar are living a season of forced migration, mawsim tahjīr. This metaphor situates the novel within a distinct period of time that both flows from and marks a break with a form of migration and literary expression located in a particular postcolonial past. How do we describe this new season?

Since the 1990s, Arabic literature of migration to Europe has increasingly foregrounded the perspectives of refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. For example, numerous Arabic, francophone and anglophone harraga novels from the Maghreb, including those by writers such as Youssef Fadel, Tahar Ben Jelloun and Laila Lalami, feature undocumented Mediterranean crossings and tell stories of those who choose to embark on them. Harraga, meaning ‘those who burn’, refers to the practice of burning citizenship documents before the crossing, but also, figuratively, to burning pasts. These literary narratives centre on the violence that border-building practices enact on migrants’ bodies and often draw on fantasy, different modalities of storytelling and metaphors of wilderness to stage spaces outside citizenship. This genre of writing about undocumented crossings extends beyond North African literature to sub-Saharan African literatures and other Arabic literatures. Taytanikat Ifriqiyya (African Titanics) (2008), by Ethiopian writer Abu Bakr Khaal, and Der falsche Inder (The Village Indian), by Iraqi writer Abbas Khider (2010), both draw on myth and popular storytelling motifs in crafting stories of undocumented migration. Furthermore, many short stories by Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim, now based in Finland, explore border crossings and the spaces of undocumented migration in settings such as Serbia, Turkey and eastern Europe. Through a kind of ‘nightmare realism’ Blasim’s stories explore a variety of border subversions, linking the crossing of borders in undocumented spaces to ways of imagining belonging and interconnections beyond citizenship.

In addition to these numerous literary narratives of undocumented migration, many Arabic literary narratives explore the perspectives of asylum seekers or refugees in Europe. Although these narratives do not typically focus on journeys or crossings, they share a focus on writing borderlands: that is, spaces outside normative citizenship. These writings are often deeply engaged with rewriting the modernist notions of exile that were dominant in Arabic literature, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century. For example, in the 1990s and 2000s, literary narratives by leftist Iraqi writers such as Haifa Zangana, Iqbal al Qazwini and Mahmoud al-Bayaty grappled with the shift from being political exiles to becoming refugees in different European countries. On a larger scale, numerous Arabic literary narratives explore asylum processes as well as the dynamics of mass migration. For example, in al-Nadawi’s (2010) novel Tahta Samaʾ Kubinhaghin (Under the Copenhagen Sky), discussed in Chapter 4, the young protagonist, Huda, considers what it would take for her to transform herself into an exile writer. A daughter of Iraqi refugees who arrived in Denmark as a young child, she struggles to match her own experiences to discourses about exile and the exile writer. Why, she wonders, does exile feel so stifling and how can she, as a second-generation refugee in Denmark, draw on some of the creative agency assigned to the figure of the exile?

The subtext of many of her reflections is that the exilic condition, though painful, is supposed to be freeing and engender the possibility of individual detachment. The novel poetically explores the changing meanings of exile as well as citizenship in contexts of mass migration. Rasha Abbas, a Syrian writer now based in Berlin and whose writings are discussed in Chapter 5, has staged border crossings and the war in Syria through speculative writing that draws on the absurd and elements of science fiction and fantasy. In her 2018 short story collection Mulakhkhas Ma Jara (‘The Gist of It’) and humorous accounts of learning German in her Die Erfindung der deutschen Grammatik (The Invention of German Grammar), which was translated from Arabic and first published in German, she explores alternate meanings of the words and discourses used to shape the public image of the refugee, especially the Syrian refugee after the so-called refugee crisis of 2015–16.


Though many different genres of Arabic literature are flourishing in Europe, including some that reimagine diaspora and mobility in different ways from those discussed in this book, this chapter will focus specifically on Arabic literature of forced or precarious migration and on how we might adapt some of our critical frameworks and comparative paradigms to better engage with it. Throughout, I use the terms ‘forced’ or ‘precarious’ migration to denote the broader material conditions that interact with the literature. The International Organization for Migration (IOM 2011) defines forced migration as ‘a migratory movement in which an element of coercion exists, including threats to life and livelihood, whether arising from natural or man-made causes’. Whereas categories such as ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ describe specific trajectories towards citizenship in a country of arrival, forced migration encompasses a wide range of legal statuses and the variable (and often overlapping) elements that impel people to cross borders. Here, precarious migration draws on Judith Butler’s definition of precarity as a ‘politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death’ and refers to the ways that the conditions of migration often increase vulnerability for migrants, especially in spaces outside established networks of support and citizenship. An inquiry into the literature that focuses on forced or precarious migration aligns with ‘border thinking’, which asks us to think from the border and centre the languages and forms of knowledge that have been marginalised by colonial languages and epistemologies.

Given that these spaces and forms of migration are increasingly part of the global landscape, this chapter considers how we can make the shift to global or planetary understandings of space and migration that are so critical to migration literature. Though I mostly use the term ‘global’ to refer to worldwide trends in migration and displacement, the context and content of this literature on migration and border spaces emphasise the divisions and inequalities that are part of our current moment of globalisation. I thus incorporate some of the planetary critiques of the way that the global often emphasises unity and cross border movement, sometimes at the expense of attention to how borders create immobility and extra-legal spaces for the many who are on the move. The new aesthetics and politics of contemporary Arabic literature of migration are being created in the context of mobility and precarious migration and in a climate of heightened anxiety about state sovereignty, which animates border and wall regimes. Though I refer to specific novels and short stories throughout, this chapter emphasises approaches for reading this literature and its changing contexts, approaches that I will continue to develop within specific contexts in the subsequent chapters. I argue for extending the scope of the postcolonial in Arabic literary studies to include the concerns and contexts of contemporary forced and precarious migration and the border-building practices that states employ in an attempt to limit or manage mobility. Specifically, I suggest that we can productively draw on frameworks from border studies to analyse what the postcolonial means in contemporary migration literature. These include questions about how communities and subjectivities are created by borders and border-building practices. Such queries help us see how the literature itself is theorising these issues and, through its imaginative capacities, introducing new perspectives on this current ‘season of migration’.