Exile is more than a geographical concept

Episode #39 of AIAC Talk is about exile: a new film on a Libyan dissident and a new exhibition on the black experience. Watch it live Tuesday on YouTube.

A still from "The Colonel's Stray Dogs." The filmmaker Khalid Shamis (left) and his father, Ashur.

Last week on AIAC Talk, we featured the poetry of Palestinian and South African writers, a collective meditation on home, exile, and belonging in the wake of Israel’s latest round of brutality against the Palestinian people. A ceasefire now holds, and the world breathes a sigh of relief: many think, “at least we are now spared daily images of tragedy and loss.” By the time the truce was announced, Israeli army bombardment killed 243 Palestinians, including 66 children, wounded more than 1,900 and damaged critical infrastructure and thousands of homes, according to news service Reuters. Rockets fired by Hamas, killed 12 people in Israel. Nevertheless, in some ways, the moment can be considered a shift forward for the Palestinians—primarily because this recent episode sparked a common front of resistance across Gaza, the West Bank, and historic Palestine. As noteworthy, is that the Israelis may be losing the war on public opinion in the West, their traditional source of support. Now, high profile members of the Democratic party like Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have condemned Israel as an apartheid state and called for an end to the US giving it millions of dollars in military aid. Along with Senator Bernie Sanders, these progressives have intervened to try and block America’s latest sale of weapons to Israel.  Tens of thousands have mobilized in Palestinian solidarity in cities like London, New York and Paris, and terms like “settler-colonialism” are frequently used to describe Israel’s ethno-nationalist character. But all this is cold comfort for Palestinians. If there’s anything we learned last week, it is that even a temporary or lasting peace cannot heal all wounds for the oppressed and alienated—so to borrow from the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish yet again, “Exile is more than a geographical concept. You can be an exile in your homeland, in your own house, in a room.”

How the filmmaker Khalid Shamis first encountered his father, Ashur, on British TV. He recognized him by his voice.

This week on AIAC Talk, we’re thinking about exile again.  A recent film investigates the life and times of an exile, Ashur Shamis. Shamis is an eminent Libyan journalist and long-term political activist who was once a prominent dissident against the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. Like most political detractors, he became a target for the regime and so was forced to flee to London. It was from there that he participated in underground resistance efforts aimed at overthrowing Gaddafi and made a life. The film’s main interlocutor is its director—Shamis’ son, Khalid. The estrangement that comes with growing up in another land, as the son of a man whose dream was always to one day return to his own, is captured when Khalid says in the film’s trailer: “For the forty years he was in exile in England, it felt like killing Gaddafi was more important to him than living with us.” In the end, Gaddafi did fall (we know that because it is history) and Ashul Shamis went back to Libya to help rebuild the , but would he be welcome? And did the country move on from him. There’s also all the alliances, secrets and compromises of exile. Considering that Khalid now resides in Cape Town, South Africa—the country where his mother is from—where is home for Khalid? We’re pleased to have the opportunity to ask him, as he’ll be joining us to talk about this film. Khalid is a filmmaker. The Colonel’s Stray Dogs is not the first film he made about his family; a previous film dealt with his maternal grandfather, Imam Haroon, and his murder by apartheid police in South Africa.  As an editor, his credits includes The Sound of Masks (2018) and The Silent Form (2016).

“The Less I Know The Better II,” 2021, by Tshepiso Moropa. (Part of The Shape of Blackness).

In South Africa, despite apartheid ending formally in 1994, there are a myriad of ways in which the country is still inhospitable for its black majority. The persistence of racialized inequality being the chief reason. And in the United States, the end of Jim Crow didn’t usher in full equality and citizenship for black Americans either, compounded by the fact that they are a minority. The international #BlackLivesMatter mobilization of last year has significantly contributed to a heightened consciousness of race and place—as it applies to Palestine, South Africa, the US and elsewhere. Blackness, as a political identity, has always been about going beyond treating race as a natural feature of reality, and understanding racialization (the process by which people come to be identified as “races”), as intrinsically being an exercise of oppression, of marking the “Other.” 

In a lecture delivered at the University of Toronto in 2002 called “The Foreigners Home,” the late American writer Toni Morrison offers a reflection on the,  inside/outside blur that can enshrine frontiers, and borders: real, metaphorical, and psychological, as we wrestle with definitions of nationalism, citizenship, race, ideology and the so-called clash of cultures in our search to belong. African and American writers are not alone in coming to terms with these problems, but they do have a long and singular history of confronting them. Of not being at home in one’s homeland; of being exiled in the place one belongs.  

African and American artists have to come to terms with this too. A new virtual exhibition created by Cedric Brown called “The Shapes of Blackness”, offered a perspective on the black experience by South African and American visual artists—one a black majority nation, and the other a black minority nation. We are pleased to be joined by Cedric, as well as Odysseus Shirindza, one of the exhibition’s curators. Cedric is an Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equality and is an award-winning social impact leader. Odysseus Shirindza is a South African artist and designer and is the director of Gallery MOMO Johannesburg.

Stream the show Tuesdays at 6 pm in Johannesburg, Cape Town, 7 pm Jerusalem, and 12 pm in New York on YouTube.

We are eternally grateful to the writers and poets who appeared on our episode last week, and given the dynamism of the situation, we did not get the chance to name them in its promotion. Many thanks to Mahmoud Al-Shaer, Basman Derawi, Siphokazi Jonas, Rustum Kozain, and Heidi Grunebaum; as well as to Katharine Halls and Adania Shibli for helping with translations. And thanks to Jay Pather for chairing the episode and to PEN South Africa for helping to put it together. That episode is now available on our YouTube channel. Subscribe to our Patreon for all the episodes from our archive.

Further Reading