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Internal Exile: Writing in Limbo

The Dehkhoda Dictionary defines “exile” as “denial of a homeland; to expel from a territory; to banish someone from a place or homeland; in legal terms, it is a form of punishment.” 

Another form of exile is “internal exile,” in which an individual hasn’t been physically banished to another city or country but feels alienated from society, government, and their surroundings.” During the authoritarian rule of Francisco Franco in Spain, authors used such “inner exile” in their writings, as Paul Ilie explains in his book, “Literature and Inner Exile: Authoritarian Spain.”  

Exile can have different interpretations. In an article titled “Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals,” Edward Said describes the exiled human in the past:   

“Exile is one of the saddest fates. In pre-modern times, banishment was a particularly dreadful punishment since it meant not only years of aimless wandering away from family and familiar places but also being a permanent outcast, someone who never felt at home and was always at odds with the environment, inconsolable about the past, bitter about the present and future. There has always been an association between the idea of exile and the terrors of being a leper, a social and moral untouchable.” (p.113) 

Today, women in Afghanistan are marginalized, feeling as if they are ostracized from society by the Taliban and its policies. Edward Said considers the worst part of exile to be the reminders that the exiled person recalls their life in their homeland, where the wounds of exile are reopened. Female writers in Afghanistan reminisce daily about their life under the previous political and social order, when writing free from censorship was possible. Those memories leave a bitter taste in their mouths. In this context, internal exile manifests as the complete alienation of a female writer from the entire social and political environment around her. 

The most tormenting aspect of this internal exile for a female writer is not only the recollection of good memories from the past but also experiencing a limbo-like state of complete suspension. In theory, she might be still able to write creatively, but in practice, she faces a solid wall of censorship and suppression. No publication inside Afghanistan would publish her works. This frustrating feeling is the most distressing part of this internal exileNavigating between exiled writers outside the country and female writers still living in Afghanistan is one way to bypass Taliban censorship and tyranny. For women without incomes, the cost of connecting online can be high, sometimes too high for authors. It also requires the concerted efforts of literary activists outside Afghanistan, many who face their own hardships in the form of refugee life, which presents its own hardships and insecurities even though it’s relatively better than life inside Afghanistan.   

I conclude this piece with bitterness: In the two years since the Taliban’s takeover, I am unaware of any signficant novels or stories published inside Afghanistan. Male writers also experience an internal exile and alienation from the political and social environment, although this time, it’s doubly burdensome for women. Challenging times lie ahead for literature in Afghanistan. Edward Said regards speaking the truth to power as one of the responsibilities of intellectuals. Under the Taliban despotism, this possibility and capability have been stolen from women and men. The current decline in storytelling, novels and narratives should be understood as a reaction to that oppression. Writing out of a commitment to truth will hold more significance amidst this asphyxiation gripping our literature, leaving behind writing based on craftsmanship. 

Mehdi Dehqan is a writer and cultural commentator from Afghanistan.