Johns Hopkins University Press

This essay traces the ambivalent work of ghurba (estrangement, exile, alienation) across four ethnographic scenes: Orthodox Christian activists in austerity Beirut refuse to abandon the corrupted world; a Syrian Islamic scholar in Jordan insists on the patient work of rehabilitation; Orthodox ascetics in a monastic community outside Tripoli turn to the hidden alienation borne in the world; and a Muslim calligrapher in Canada relinquishes the guarantee of ethical relation. Taken together, these scenes form a tableau of estrangement in the shared vocabulary of Eastern Christianity and Islam. Drawing on Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah–in its articulations of soul, community, and world always already shadowed by their undoing–we then situate these four scenes along spatio-temporal axes of destruction and production, city and desert, paradise and hellfire: a purgatorial topology which modulates what Agamben calls the contemporary destruction of experience.

[End Page 112]


In 2018, the celebrated Egyptian poet Iman Mersal was asked how ghurba–exile, estrangement, alienation–deepens poetic experience. She answered that

ghurba is a human condition lived by the individual who does not accept a single, grounding identity (religious, national, sexual) that is distinguished from or in conflict with other identities. Ghurba is a fundamental source of inspiration for those writing in the twentieth century: its meaning is broader than just being away from your homeland, since many live in brutal alienation (ghurba mutawaḥḥisha) even in their homelands.1

Ghurba here refers not to a position one occupies, defined by its distance from and longing for a homeland, nor to an individual identity affording some representations and not others, but to a broader idiom of contemporary experience common across geographical borders. Already well before the twentieth century, the term gharīb named not just the stranger in a far land but also the sojourner in this life whose ultimate destination lies after death in the otherworld (dār al-ākhira).2 Mersal continued, "I think that ghurba opens the doors to revelatory knowledge (maʿrifa) and hellfire (jaḥīm)." Ghurba collapses the specificities of strained material-historical conditions into an existential displacement, opening onto an otherworldly gaze.3

This essay adduces four contemporary modes of ghurba–decay, abandonment, dispossession, and desiccation–from ethnographic scenes engaging Eastern Christianity and Islam. Considering these four modes of ghurba together allows us to ask how these two religious traditions receive and refract the ruptures of the world. It also refocuses attention on contemporary destruction, rather than on how it is sublimated and made productive again. In doing so, we depart from dominant habits of scholarly analysis that emphasize how a religious essence endures through a variegated history (the life of Spirit) or, alternatively, how historical encounters change religions over time (historicism).4 Gil Anidjar observes that "everything is as if agency and construction, formation, production and its means or conditions" are "more accessible, more worthy of reflection, more open to narration and to theorization than destruction."5 How might we instead foreground the experience of destruction?6 Granting already the multiplicity of ways that destruction is registered in these two religious traditions, we seek not to simply compare Eastern Christianity and Islam, nor to demonstrate their various entanglements, but rather to draw on their common vocabulary as a means of conceptualizing ghurba today.

The ethnographic scenes recounted here move across the different scales of soul, community, and world, shadowed by an estrangement that unites and unties them. Orthodox Christian activists in austerity Beirut refuse to abandon the corrupted world they live in; a Syrian Islamic scholar in Jordan insists on the patient work of rehabilitation; Orthodox ascetics in a monastic community outside Tripoli turn to the hidden alienation borne in the world; and a Muslim calligrapher in Canada relinquishes the guarantee of ethical relation. These intimate experiences of destruction bring into relief [End Page 113] a cleaving force. Ghurba marks the site where strangeness (ghirāba) and the stranger (al-gharīb) collapse into an experience or encounter of one's soul, the community, the world, and its terrain as foreign soil.7 Across the following four scenes, drawn from our longer-term ethnographic research in Lebanon (Aaron Eldridge: scenes 1 and 3) and Jordan and Canada (Basit Iqbal: scenes 2 and 4), we pursue this uncanny, cleaving work. We then think these distinct modes of ghurba with reference to Giorgio Agamben and Ibn Khaldun, in order to develop a speculative tropics of the estrangement that cuts diagonally across creational existence.8

1: Decay (Aaron F. Eldridge)

In August 2020, the shock of an explosion in Beirut's port ripped through many of the city's northeastern neighborhoods. Windows and doors, weaponized into deadly shards by the shockwave, perforated both homes and bodies. The explosion, a result of lapses in state protocols, served to accentuate the increasing immiseration of life in Lebanon. The collapse of the Lebanese lira the previous fall had prompted wide-scale protests. Yet the ensuing thawra (revolt/revolution) had been slowly choked out through police action, the prevaricating promises of elites, and ultimately the spread of COVID-19. The explosion, thus a capstone to a harrowing year, brought these destructive iterations into stark relief: St. George's Hospital, already overburdened with patients from the pandemic, was partially destroyed in the explosion, while the collapse of the job market and liquidation of American dollars meant that those faced with the task of repairing homes and institutions in the city could not take recourse to loans or government relief.

Figure 1. "But those people, those departed and beloved to their families, they couldn't rest even after death." Image: Aaron Frederick Eldridge, 2019.
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Figure 1.

"But those people, those departed and beloved to their families, they couldn't rest even after death."

Image: Aaron Frederick Eldridge, 2019.

In an interview conducted in English, a deacon from St. Demetrios Orthodox Church (located just half a mile from the blast) lamented that, apart from the damage to the church building, the necropolis next to the church had also been blown apart:

The first day after the explosion, walking between the cemeteries, everything was open; everything was outside. It was really horrible. We had to collect the bones from the aisles. . . . The main gate, we had to close it so no one could enter, out of respect and because it was horrible to see. We had to collect the bones and to put [them] back, sometimes without knowing whose tomb. . . . Usually, we say, "Rest in peace," for someone dying here–but those people, those departed and beloved to their families, they couldn't rest even after death.9

This latest destruction in the form of an explosion afflicted all: the built environment as well as human bodies, living and dead. In its aftermath, the city's inhabitants sprang into action not only by caring for the injured and repairing destroyed spaces but also by decrying the corruption the explosion had revealed. The will to remake the corruption (fasād) of institutions and spaces, to even just name their decay, effects a translation of the city into an uncanny mode; neither whole (reformed) nor ruined, but rotten.10 [End Page 114]

Drawing on this archival continuum between immiserated bodies, corrupt institutions, and a ruined city–a traumatic repetition of Beirut's destruction during the civil war (1975–90)11–the Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop of Beirut, Elias Audi, delivered a fiery sermon the Sunday following the explosion: "One must ask, where are we with mercy (raḥma) in Lebanon? Where are the leaders (zuʿamā') in our country with mercy, especially the Christian ones among them? Where is mercy in the hearts of those refusing to hear the groans rising from the souls of citizens, their hearts and their bodies?"12 The sermon noted the lack of a future horizon, marked by the erasure of a collective life and memory precariously preserved in the city's built environment: "Is the goal to abrogate Beirut's memory and evict her people? . . . Our edifices have changed into the specters of buildings, our neighborhoods into ruins, and our citizens into migrants," while the country's leaders are mired in "futile quarrels." He reprised his question: "Is there a true intention to really work, save, and repair?"13 The sermon closed with foreboding–"What we are currently living in Lebanon portends the worst. . . . Mercy is absent"–and a warning: Lebanon's officials must "come to know mercy, so that God Most High may have mercy on them, and likewise on the people and history afterward."14

The lacunae left in the wake of the port explosion were filled with a wellspring of activity by those in the city. Among the numerous religiously oriented groups aiding in the restoration of the cityscape was the Orthodox Youth Movement (MJO).15 Founded in the 1940s by students in Beirut, the movement was originally organized around the idioms of anticolonialism, labor unionization, and the Arab renaissance (nahḍa) with an emphasis on the renewal of a communal Orthodox life in Syria and Lebanon.16 One online video posted by the MJO showed its young members cleaning up parts of Beirut's streets and homes. "We are on site, visiting houses," the voiceover narrates; "we never ask about sect, we examine the damage, and then repair it. We are providing financial, even psychological support."17 The video, distributed through largely Orthodox community channels, solicits donations for their endeavors: "Our sole aim is the good of our fellow human beings (khayr al-insān)." In step with redressing the port explosion, the MJO's regular programs are organized around doing good for others: giving to the poor, securing work for the unemployed, feeding the hungry, caring for orphans, and organizing the youth in the church communities through theological education. Yet this did not inoculate the MJO, as an institution, from also being viewed as derelict.

"The important thing today is that we live in estrangement, in estrangement (al-muhim al-yawm nanu naʿīsh fī ghurba, fī ghurba)," an elder priest once told me in one of our conversations about the Orthodox Church and the MJO, of which he had been a pivotal member. "No one is concerned for one another, no one cares for one another." The priest, who served in Tripoli (the poorest city in Lebanon), was disaffected with the institutions of his church. Their complicity in the structures of class society yielded an intolerable hypocrisy; a disjuncture between words and actions and the abrogation of a mission (risāla) or vision (ru'ya) for politics or ethical relations: "Where is our liberation theology?" he asked. Alienation is shaping the appearance of the community. To inhabit [End Page 115] its estrangement, he insisted, means to engage in the "struggle" (niḍāl) against empty words and corrupt institutions.

This feeling of an anxious "constriction" (ḍayq) of the present, of pervasive institutional corrosion, incites both reform and a path (ṭarīq) to revival (tajdīd). Back in Beirut, Ḥakīm, a young man who was himself ambivalent toward the MJO, often insisted that the goal of living the Orthodox tradition was to "redeem the world." In a talk he gave at one of the local MJO meetings, he spoke about the danger of acceding to the bare tastelessness of temporal monotony; every day brings the same work, the same life. In its stead, Ḥakīm argued that life, when lived in relationship to divine mercy, grows and changes eternally. Ḥakīm, I learned as our friendship grew, had grown up outside of Beirut, in its increasing sprawl. His father had died when he was a boy and he had worked from that point on to support a working mother and his younger siblings. He spoke about how difficult and harsh Lebanese society is, how people live every day in such misery "that we cannot bear to even hear about it." To overcome this alienation, Ḥakīm, like Metropolitan Audi, invoked God's mercy as the possibility of rejuvenation and life. Ḥakīm told me that he felt it was necessary to readily acknowledge the difficulty of life, and added that the Orthodox Church had become too "scholastic" and lacked verve. And yet, he affirmed, "time is not our enemy. We should not be afraid of time. We have time, and we are redeemed by time."

Revival, the idiom that inspires both the MJO and its critics, is marked by a demand for work, salvation, repair of a world that is derelict. Revival creates a space for its operative work by historicizing a time of civilizational upbuilding (its future community, its past memory). This demarcation makes possible a rejoinder to the rot of institutions, the virtuous or suspect "intentions" of their leaders, the decaying corruption of bodies, buildings, and language. During the 2019 Lebanese uprising (intifāḍa), Metropolitan Elias Audi asked God to grant the young revolutionaries success: "Allāh yuwaffiq ʿalā al-shabāb." Then, when asked if this revolt would not produce a political and social void (farāgh), the Metropolitan responded with ire, "a void (farāgh) is preferable to what we are living today!"18 The alienation of rot is intolerable. The experience of destruction–today's rot, between being and nothingness–is both invoked and sequestered (in a word, it is archived19) through recourse to a temporal other: past wholeness, an expectation of and work in the actualization of divine mercy, or at its limits, the void and the divine reprimand of revolt and prophesy. In its refusal to abandon the finite world, revival marks the experience of estrangement that the destructive world impresses on efforts to come to life anew: "in time," if not "today." [End Page 116]

2: Abandonment (Basit K. Iqbal)

An NGO had recently visited to offer English-language classes for the orphanage, Bilāl told me in June 2018. He rubbed his forehead. "I can't decide whether I should accept their offer. I probably will. But what kinds of programs would actually be beneficial for the children? And whom should we ask for help?" He and his family lived in an apartment complex housing Syrian widows and orphans in Ramtha, a town in the north of Jordan. Once an imam at a mosque in south Syria, Bilāl had lived in a refugee camp for two years after escaping across the border from the regime forces hunting him. A distant relative had sponsored his departure from the camp, and he lived in Ramtha until a thief robbed him of all his remaining savings.20 Then he heard that an Islamic charitable organization was looking for a caretaker to live at one of the orphanages it supported. I met him at that orphanage during my fieldwork with religious relief organizations engaged in Syrian refugee support.

Bilāl recognized the double standards and hierarchies of the humanitarian sector; he was keenly aware that even an innocuous request would be factored into the calculated metrics of aid organizations.

Even the organizations who help us Syrians in Jordan sometimes don't–well, they sometimes don't reflect the principles they talk about. They'll get funding to do this work and then use it to pay their own officials. We don't want to support their corruption, we only want to work with those that have integrity. But how do we know where to turn? The responsibility (mas'ūliyya) is overwhelming.

The magnitude of his responsibility had to do with the weight of making decisions that affected two dozen families and the futures of their children; but it also had eschatological implications for his own eternal fate. "It is Islam that gives this weighty sense of responsibility," he continued; "that is what makes you feel obliged. Someone without religion (dīn) would not care about such things. Why should they?" He insisted that one is necessarily obliged to others (to God, humans, nonhumans) already by virtue of one's creaturely existence. But one can live heedless of these obligations; one can be careless with life. Islam is what teaches one to live in obligation (taklīf)–and that is the beginning of ethics and indeed of justice ('adl), which means giving each their due, bearing one's life and livelihood as a trust (amāna) for which one is accountable.

But how does one learn to live in obligation–not least in times of war, when one is displaced from one's home and its institutions of social reproduction? This question is raised across the lands of estrangement (bilād al-ghurba) to which Syrian refugees have fled. As I was told time and again in the course of my fieldwork with refugees in some of these countries (Jordan, Lebanon, and Canada), we are bound together simply by virtue of living alongside each other. But such mutual obligation does not automatically translate into living lives obliged. The displaced families knew that all too well, having been variously interpellated as international objects of pity and fear. Turned into strangers (ghurabā'), expelled from the towns and villages where (so they insisted) [End Page 117] a modicum of moral integrity had still obtained before the war, the years since their displacement had abandoned them to ghurba. Exile voided community–they experienced its dissolution–and suspended the force of moral obligation between kin and neighbors.21

Figure 2. "Remember the ants which fled under the hooves of Solomon's army–and how he heard their complaint." Image: Basit Kareem Iqbal, 2018.
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Figure 2.

"Remember the ants which fled under the hooves of Solomon's army–and how he heard their complaint."

Image: Basit Kareem Iqbal, 2018.

Fostering that countervailing sense of obligation was the task Bilāl set himself. He held religious sessions for the children at the orphanage every other day, which included memorizing the Quran, studying the Hadith, discussing ethical questions that arose in daily life, and learning the jurisprudence of daily worship. He hoped that these lessons, which took place after the dusk prayers, would provide a basis for the children to counter the fear and suspicion dominating life all around. "Even here, on the border with Syria, our own neighbors were afraid of us at first," he explained. "They were suspicious of us, either for being [religious] extremists or for taking their jobs." Jordan had faced dire economic straits already before the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrians displaced due to the war. "But now our relations have improved," he continued, relating this improvement to his religious instruction.

We need to offer these lessons because–speaking frankly–people's thoughts have been polluted in Syria, between the apostatizing (takfīr) [by which some rebels deemed it licit to attack other Muslims] and the blatant repression (ẓulm) [of the regime and its sycophants]. Our effort here is to give the children a different approach, a different ethics.

Building a sense of obligation, even in the lands of exile (bilād al-ghurba), is what could prevail against the refugees' abandonment and the corruption of the world.

Our conversation happened on a warm night, the temperature finally comfortable after the day's heat. Music from a distant wedding reached us in fits and starts. A dozen boys were gathered under the metal trellis in the courtyard. The faint scent of jasmine hung in the air, which Bilāl told me he had planted there so that the children would associate its fragrance with their religious lessons. "The Prophet was sent with the message of mercy (raḥma)," he began the lesson. "A mercy to the worlds. Can we enumerate them? The world of humans, the world of animals, of angels, of jinn. Each has its own language, its own life. Remember the ants which fled under the hooves of Solomon's army–and how he heard their complaint."

In the rest of the lesson, he reminded them of the hadith of the woman condemned to hellfire for starving a cat, and turned to practical ethics.

We are here as Syrians, as strangers (ghurabā'). This is a proverb for us: yā gharīb kun adīb, o stranger, be well-mannered. Right? We need to be good neighbors. Remember the hadith about the smell of food cooking annoying those who are not eating? Invite others to eat, be generous. Love for each other what you love for yourself. [End Page 118]

After the lesson he sent some of the boys to sweep the square in front of the building, to clean up any litter they found. Before dismissing them, he led them, laughing, in a one-footed race, from one side of the square to the other, as I sat under the trellis and finished my notes. Although he could not affect the material-economic conditions of the families at the orphanage (which included his own family), and although due to poverty and inflation many of the children would quit school early to work, he could still create a space to inculcate a sense of religious and ethical obligation: hence his efforts and evening lessons (durūs).

A year later Bilāl sent me a document he had prepared. The Islamic charitable organization that paid the utilities for their building had shut down yet another of its orphanages, since its funding was depleting as the war dragged on. He was anxious that their building would be next. "The Jordanians think the war is over and the Syrians should return home," he explained, "but the situation is more complicated." He wrote that life under the Syrian regime was still nightmarish and that conditions in Jordan (outside the shelter of these orphanages) were still desperate. Then he offered some suggestions for how to garner more funding, to be circulated among those who might be able to help stave off the threatened closure. His appeals emphasized the religious value of the lessons he offered, arguing that there is great divine reward (ajr 'aīm) for supporting the livelihood of orphans and widows, but also further reward for supporting their religious education. He implied that although other sites were similarly deserving, his own efforts set this orphanage apart from other sites of humanitarian need, making donations to his building all the more imperative. He emphasized that what was truly at stake in his teaching, beyond the particular religious texts he taught the children, was the formation of their sensibilities. These are integral to the effort of inheriting Islam in our time, he reasoned, when the world is characterized by corruption and abandonment. Such corruption has drifted even into our knowledge of religion, he continued, and the displaced Syrians were abandoned between the extremism of sectarian militias on the one hand and the sycophancy of the religious establishment on the other.

In framing his appeals to prospective donors in this way, Bilāl hoped that the value of his religious lessons would have instrumental (even economic) traction outside the ethical field in which they took place. He thus risked the instrumentalization of his Islamic pedagogy for the sake of its material-economic conditions of possibility. In the face of abandonment, he insisted that–given enough time and enough material support–the children could learn to be obliged.

3: Dispossession (Aaron F. Eldridge)

It was morning at the monastery, the sun had long risen, but the monks and I had been in the morning liturgy since dark. It was sabt al-amwāt, one of the Saturdays of the Dead, when those who have passed this life, both the named relations of those present and the countless unnamed dead, are commemorated and commended to God's eternal memory. After dawn, the liturgy ended and the memorial prayers began. The day before we had [End Page 119] written down the names of the deceased whom we wanted to commemorate. Khalīl, my friend who had introduced me to the monastery outside of Tripoli, was surprised at the merely five names I had put down; he had penned over twenty. During the memorial ceremony, the head of the monastery chanted out the list of names in a low, grave voice: Antūnīyūs, Yuḥannā, Maryam. The repetition of given names, bereft of their family names, ebbed and surged, producing a common and oceanic anonymity that gathered all of us present. Ilyās, Dīnā, Diala. The sea of names, an afterimage of their passing from this life and the destruction of their earthly lives, collected and communalized the living from the vantage of the dead. Hiba, Georges, Dmitrī.

After chanting the names, the head of the monastery led the gathering out into the small necropolis that is housed in the monastery walls; censing the tombs of the dead, he intoned in a loud voice three times over: "li-yakūn dhikrahum mu'abbadan." May their memory be eternal. We each ate a small amount of koliva (boiled wheat, sweetened with honey and fruit) in commemoration of the dead, then went to a small breakfast in the refectory, and shortly afterward began the day's labor.

Khalīl and I walked in step with the novice monk Sarafīm, who circumvented the dilapidated courtyard to enter into one of the large rooms on the second level. Old chalkboards and desks were stacked in the corner alongside large piles of scrap: an old gate, a safe, copper plumbing. The site had been an Orthodox school in the early twentieth century, and later it had served at times as home for an ascetic or two living in the only usable room. Now the young monks, five including their spiritual elder, had come to inhabit the largely ruined site, which had been ransacked and occupied during the civil war, in order to rebuild it.

As we worked to move out the debris and scrap from the room, Sarafīm, whose lower back seemed to be suffering, remarked to Khalīl that he appreciated the pains of his body, which made possible the remembrance of the poor and ill. The young monastic told us something of his background, how he had come to the monastery to move from the alienating space of "the world" which was dominated by the "logic" (manṭiq) of "egoism" (anāniyya).22 He likened the world to a machine that is organized around the I (anā): "Everything is about me, me, me (anā anā anā)," he said with a gentle smile. This machinic quality of the world, where the world revolves around the ego, enslaves the individual to one's self. Inquiring about my own origins, he noted with a smile how much he loved to travel in his mind, to scan maps, and to study the statistics of geography. He quickly delivered a few facts about landmass and distance to me and Khalīl and then noted that if he left the monastery, he felt that he would die.

We continued our work, and I was surprised to see the care that the young ascetic accorded each piece of material. Holding a ruined object in his hand and examining it, much like one might study the topography of a map, he discussed with me and Khalīl both what the former use of the material might have been and for what it might be repurposed. At one point, the head of the monastery came to see our work and consult about some planks of particle board, irregular and rough. Looking with concern, the elder noted that they had been used for icons and could be used again for that same purpose. [End Page 120] Nothing remained of the image on the front, a result of defacement during the war (such iconoclasm was a common theme in our discussions, spanning the periods of the civil war and the Ottoman period's plastering over the monastery's frescoes); but on the back an inscription marked the name of a priest (Isḥāq), who, the elder explained, was the head of the monastery when it had been a school.

The concerted attention directed by the ascetics toward this foreign "material" (mādda)–that which is "stretched out" (mādd) or "extended" (imtidād)–disclosed the immanent surface of the world: Sarafīm was enjoined by his spiritual elder to cultivate a kind of gentle care for, and use of, material, one that does not constitute an objectification via appropriation of something for the ego. It harkens to the singular foreignness of creation, salient in destruction, in contrast to the world as a logical structure of the self (and, therefore, a possession of the self).

The sensibility of humble non-possessiveness, which likewise suffused the ascetic's relationship to the body, participates in a larger structure of the monastic's inner watchfulness, (yaqa), a means of organizing the energies of the soul (nafs) around the heart. The heart, like the ruined monastery, is spoken of by the monastics as a desert place, one in which a disclosive encounter with a God beyond creation is sought. The dispossessive retreat from the self to the heterotopia of the heart is organized by the ascetics' ceaseless prayer: yā rabbi, yasūʿ al-masīḥ, ibn illāh, irḥamnī (O My Lord, Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, have mercy on me).

The Arabic word for being stripped (yatajarrad) in ascetic renunciation, from the same root (j-r-d) as "to peel" a piece of fruit, or the term for "abstract art" (al-fann al-tajrīdī), is also the way one might describe a desert as "barren" (mujarrad). It also is the word by which one indicates that there is "nothing but"; a remainder that is at once pure and destitute. Dispossession is an estrangement (ghurba), as writes the seventh-century ascetic elder Isaac the Syrian, whose writings are central to the monks' memory and practice: "the one far from worldly things is a stranger (gharīb)."23

The ruined building, the defaced icon, the renunciant's worn body: these singular remainders of destruction, of a process of stripping away/ being stripped, disclose a gap in being, in the surface of the world. For the ascetics, it effects a decisive re-coordination–that there is no constancy to a self that remains as a subject (that is, as ὑποκείμενον, what lies underneath) of and in the world.24 Situated at this gap is an encounter described by Gregorios Palamas–the renowned fourteenth-century codifier of the hesychasm practiced by the monastics–as a darkness beyond radiance: "beyond the stripping away (ἀφαίρεσιν) of beings, or rather upon their cessation, not only thought but works for us have been completed; beyond this, it follows, if there is an unknowing (άγνωσία) it is beyond knowing, and if there is a darkness it is beyond radiance."25

Figure 3. "The heart, like the ruined monastery, is spoken of by the monastics as a desert place." Image: Aaron Frederick Eldridge, 2019.
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Figure 3.

"The heart, like the ruined monastery, is spoken of by the monastics as a desert place."

Image: Aaron Frederick Eldridge, 2019.

No via negativa, no will to pass through the negative or the nothing, can recover this gap, one which destruction orients the ascetic toward as an estranging encounter. As Lebanese monastic Aspiro Jabbur writes in his short treatise on theology, God "exceeds [End Page 121] (fā'iq) essence, exceeds righteousness, exceeds uprightness, exceeds light, exceeds splendor, exceeds power, exceeds wisdom, exceeds glory, exceeds praise, exceeds mercy . . . moreover: absolute mercy, longing absolute beauty." This means that God is of a degree that exceeds "every understanding and concept" and consequently, God "is not the supreme good (al-khayr al-a'am), but he is the one who exceeds every good, every description, and every appellation."26 The destructive gap in the surface of the world, the self, institutes a procedure of striving for God as perpetual estrangement and dispossession–what the ascetics would always call jihād, struggle.27

4: Desiccation (Basit K. Iqbal)

Shams is grateful, of course, for the refuge granted him in Canada; for the rule of law, for the social norm of security. But when I met the accomplished Iraqi calligrapher in December 2018 after the evening prayers at a storefront mosque in Edmonton, he was also ruminating on how deep the estrangement of exile ran. As Shams tells it, he first realized he had an aptitude for calligraphy in third grade, when his teachers would always ask that he be the one to write on the chalkboard. He eventually formally studied calligraphy with numerous teachers and developed his craft. Then came the U.S. invasion of Iraq; in the resulting occupation and social and political chaos, he left for Syria; a few years later, when the uprising against Assad led to such brutality, he fled to Jordan. In September 2015, his application for asylum in Canada was approved, and he and his family moved to the other side of the world.28

We sat in the antechamber of the improvised prayer hall. I asked about his calligraphic work. He launched into an impromptu lecture about how calligraphy is one art form among many others, but is also historically sanctified through its association with the Quran. The different scripts have distinct purposes, he continued, which he tried to explain in his workshops. But ultimately it is through the practice of calligraphy–how to hold oneself, how to adjust one's pen–that he found calm (rāḥa). "Here in the West they practice yoga for this," he said, "but for me, bad thoughts leave when I am writing."

A brief video clip posted on his website demonstrates the efficacy of his teaching. The camera is trained on a middle-aged woman in a bright blue hijab. He asks her, off camera, why she is learning Arabic calligraphy in his workshop. She begins her answer by formalizing her reply: "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Kind. I've always liked calligraphy," she says in English, with the faint clip of a South Asian accent. "I've always liked calligraphy and registered for this course as soon as I heard about it. I have been painting for years, and I copied a lot of Quranic calligraphy. But now I have learned from ustaz (teacher) how to write, how to recognize different scripts." Calligraphy is something that was already part of her religious tradition; calligraphy was an art to which she already belonged but had no direct access. In her earlier artistic projects, she could only copy calligraphy, restricted to the practice of mimesis. But with his help she learned the distinctions among the work she was already doing, which led to its (invisible) transformation. She continued: "It is very sacred for me, it is very holy for me, and it gives me a [End Page 122] lot of relaxation. . . . And I would love to continue this all my life. . . . I also make sure that I make vuzu when I do Arabic calligraphy because it is very holy for me. Thank you." She explained that by "relaxation" she did not mean respite from a busy schedule but rather the calming (sakīna) of her soul. For her, the aesthetic practice of calligraphy is a mode of engaging the divine word: she performs ablutions before sitting down with her reed, as she would for prayer.

Figure 4. "If you start the letter well, it will end well." Image: Basit Kareem Iqbal, 2020.
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Figure 4.

"If you start the letter well, it will end well."

Image: Basit Kareem Iqbal, 2020.

I took calligraphy lessons from Shams until they were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We met in an Uyghur community center. He taught us how to hold the bamboo reeds at an angle, how hard to press the paper. He repeated the gestures over and over. If you start the letter well, it will end well. Imagine the shape of the letter, then shift it from your mind to your hand. This process can take a week or two months or eight years. Repeat the gesture. Repeat. Repeat. Form a letter, then pause, dip the pen again–a moment to ponder (tafakkur)–only then move to the next letter. This practice interrupts our habit of rushing toward every new thought, then the next one, and the next one. "Like the five prayers interrupt our day," Shams continued, "giving us a chance to focus, as the scholar al-Sha'rāwī says. Through this repetition, one can even train the inner intellect (al-'aql al-bāṭin). If you practice like this, the knowledge will be there when you need it." Talal Asad calls this the body's possibility to develop capacities "through conscious repetition that aims at making one's self-conscious actions unself-conscious in the future."29 "Just like if you declare it enough in your life," Shams explained, "in your daily dhikr (litany), you will be able to utter the shahāda (testimony of faith) even in the rigor of death." Shams compared the essential calligraphic strokes of the pen to the points of articulation of Quranic phonemes (makhārij al-ḥurūf). A gestural homology between inscribing the revelation and reciting it aloud. "And there, as you gather your thoughts (tajmī' afkārak) and rest before turning to the next letter, your distress dissolves."

A community initiative now celebrates Shams as a success story of Canadian refugee integration: his work has been shown in a gallery at Edmonton City Hall, a local cultural center, and the public library. But despite his repeated announcements at local mosques and art stores, there is not really an audience for calligraphy in his new city, or at least not enough that a calligrapher with thirty years of experience could be commissioned for regular projects. And he still needs to feed his family in this new country. When I met him, he was working at an Arab restaurant. A few weeks before he gained Canadian citizenship, he commented: "Only today did I realize that my studies, which I pursued under bombing and war and suffering, have blown away in the wind in Canada. That, that is exile (hay al-ghurba)."

As he narrated it, the distress and estrangement of his exile was not just about the distance from his homeland or his renewed displacement. It touched every aspect of his new life, even those communal spaces he expected to offer solace. [End Page 123]

There's no warmth or mercy (raḥma) here. It's hard to breathe–in exile (ghurba), you have to learn everything again. Even how to walk (laughter) when the snow comes. It feels like you are between two fires. And if you don't melt, if you don't form into the Canadian culture, if you don't hug women or eat non-halal food, people look at you differently. Even the mosques here make you feel the deprivation in your soul (taftaqid bi-l-rūḥ). The Muslims here are successful, they are wealthy, but the mosques don't give the same sense (ma'nā), the same feeling of tranquility that they would in Iraq or Syria.

However much calligraphic practice relieved his estrangement, the contraction and constriction of exile made it hard to breathe. Even the forms of religious community and ethical cultivation no longer provided the same sense (ma'nā) of rest or ease; they had been emptied out, despite the wealth and productivity of the Muslim community. In fact, the worldly success only amplified the lack of tranquility which failed to obtain in the prayer halls of Canadian mosques. His bitter complaint offered an image within an apocalyptic frame, recalling hadiths in which the Prophet foretold the hollowness of religious forms.

There will come upon the people a time in which nothing will be left of Islam other than the name, and nothing left of the Qur'an but the vestiges of writing. [The Muslims of that time] will be named after Islam but are the furthest of people from it. Their mosques then will be occupied but desolate of guidance.30

The mosques are indeed busy, bustling with activity, but their work was near indistinguishable from their evacuation. "They are just tax shelters," Shams shook his head, offering nothing "to the deprivation of one's soul."

Ghurba as Destructive Experience

Each of the preceding scenes presents one variation of destructive experience. Its paradigmatic figure is provided by the Arabic root gh-r-b, meaning to pass away or depart, to become hidden or withdraw, to become obscure or difficult, to cross a limit (whether good or evil), to set apart (as a singular wonder that refuses assimilation into everyday categories of experience): thus the derivations gharīb, an alien or foreigner, and ghurba, being foreign, strange, exiled or estranged.31 Ghurba presses in on the coherence of space and time, experience and expectation. Within the archives of classical and modern Arabic literature, ghurba is a central topic and mood of exilic poetry and prose;32 within the archives of Eastern Christian and Muslim traditions, ghurba names the ambivalence of worldly relations (of both distance and proximity from divine blessing and mercy). These long poetic and theological itineraries of ghurba intertwine worldly and existential loss. Ghurba underscores an impersonal displacement that cuts across the grammars of subjectivity (the existential) and objectivity (the social, the nonhuman).33 And, as seen in the preceding ethnographic scenes, it provides a recursive idiom of destruction. This estrangement cannot be easily delimited, naming rather the experience of crossing a limit, marking a separation in oneself and undermining the certitude of any experience. [End Page 124]

Following Agamben's account of the modern "expropriation of experience,"34 we eschew a formulation of destructive experience as that to which and in which one is subject. That is, such experience does not participate in what Agamben calls the "infinite process of knowledge,"35 the incomplete, asymptotic process which one can only undergo but never have. Instead, the experience of ghurba hearkens to the ambivalence of the pathei mathos: an experience one suffers as an event, which offers no certainty or absolute knowledge of itself, which disorients and unsettles.36

The experience of destruction cannot be reconciled with the traditions of Christianity or Islam through the historiographical operation which emplots and redeems them for the sake of infinite (historical) knowledge. In that historicist procedure, destruction is located in a history which is thus secured or immunized against it.37 Nor can destruction be read only through the psychological operations which attempt to deflect or defend against it (mourning and melancholia). Rather, here we observe that destruction touches the traditions of Christianity and Islam as a confrontation with the differential estrangement which already accompanied them in the world. These traditions, their coherence ever held in question, fracture and refract in encounter with destruction.38 For Agamben, the "correlation" of experience is not to knowledge but to authority, "that is to say, the power of words and narration."39 Destruction configures the authority of tradition, throwing open the conditions of its transmission and disinheritance.

For the historian Ibn Khaldun, in his own vocabulary, estrangement similarly accompanies historical topoi as a shadow. His masterwork of history, The Muqaddimah, insists on the historical contiguity of the soul, the world, and the afterlife, such that the experience of a limit crosses these domains. Thus "strain and sensations of choking" accompany the prophetic visionary exchange of "humanity with angelicality,"40 and the soul's intellect reaches a point in attending to God where it becomes "lost, confused, and cut off."41 For its part, the civilizational dialectic of city and desert meets estrangement not in the dynastic cycles of waxing and waning (Ibn Khaldun's famous rise and fall of sovereign powers) but in the heteronomous call to inexistence; "as if the voice of existence in the world had called out for oblivion and restriction, and the world had responded to the call."42 Likewise, the afterlife (before the resurrection and divine judgment) is marked by the uncanny perceptions of the dead, who foretaste in their exilic "purgatory" (barzakh) the "seat" they "will occupy in Paradise or [the Fire]."43 Ibn Khaldun offers and then undermines the temporal delimitation of each of these sites (the soul; human habitation, whether of desert or city; the afterlife). In what we read as a restless unsettling, the becoming-strange of its self-presence, ghurba marks both distance from God and from the neighbor as well as the immiseration or choking of one's soul. The historical course [End Page 125] of the human community is thus bounded and accompanied by a striving which can only ever be finite.44

A Tropics of Estrangement

Read together, the four ethnographic scenes above enfold, echo, and modulate one another. Although we have sought to foreground different modes of estrangement in these scenes (decay, abandonment, dispossession, desiccation), we do not intend to identify these modes as merely discrete effects (productions) of destruction. Such an analysis would only reproduce the sublative account of production/destruction that we seek to write against (such that, in the most prominent example, negativity is the life of Spirit in G.W.F. Hegel's dialectic). Moreover, these modes of ghurba are not structurally (epistemologically) incommensurable, since decay can conceivably exacerbate dispossession, and abandonment can lead to desiccation. Yet these ethnographic scenes remain distinct: these modes of ghurba are singular in their specific encounters and variegations and so are immanent to their conceptual architecture. They do not collapse into one another; what seems to cause the estrangement in one scene is simply not at issue in another.

Among the Orthodox Christian responses to the abandonment suffered in austerity-era Beirut, ghurba is born temporally, as a kind of estrangement from one's present. The practices of the tradition offer a temporality of hope in struggle, repairing rot inside and out, catalyzing a revivalist refusal to abandon the world. Through the work of upbuilding, indeed of production, the power of destruction can be opposed even as it opens up the weakness of the human world: through consolidating the community, returning to it, inhabiting it, transforming it. For this revivalist movement, the powers of destruction and production act on each other in a kind of inverse relation.

In the scene of Islamic pedagogy at the orphanage in the Syrian borderlands, by contrast, ghurba is born of spatial dislocation, through a displacement from the cultural and religious contexts that would allow for the integrity of the community. Here tradition, specifically through the ethical work of charity, neighborliness, and etiquette, offers the resources to disarticulate oneself from the effects of destruction and so to emplace oneself again. The emphasis here is not on production to counter destruction, but a slower, more intimate rehabilitation, which is possible through therapeutic recourse to the ethical tradition but requires time to take hold.

Among the monastics outside Tripoli, assuming ghurba is both a necessary condition of orientation toward God, the summit of its consummation, and enabled by inheriting destruction. Here destruction is not a means to another end, nor a temporal development that calls out for the work of revival. Instead destruction, in heightening alienation, [End Page 126] reifies the world, its immanent finitude, and catalyzes a procedure of striving for the uncreated God. The monastic community and its forms are defined by this erotics of dispossession; in it, the created powers of destruction and production are indistinguishable.

Finally, for the Iraqi calligrapher in Edmonton, ghurba emerges not simply from a spatial displacement but from a kind of temporal disjuncture. That is to say, here there is life (thank God), but even the forms of communal relations that were once available are not sufficient to rehabilitate the world. Here production and material upbuilding in fact only intensify destruction: the wealth and leisure of the new (alien) community are themselves desiccating; they cut out the ground of ethical relation. The destructive experience here conscripts production as well, yielding a deep and purgatorial alienation from the forms of tradition.

The first two ethnographic scenes (decay, abandonment) recall what Ibn Khaldun describes as the senility and injustice of civilization. They encounter ghurba as a harrowing and ambiguous time of God's inheritance: time's restriction in abandonment and corruption, its weary expansion in displacement and refuge. The latter two ethnographic scenes (dispossession, desiccation) invoke what Martin Heidegger describes as an existential anxiety: "being held out into the nothing–as Dasein is–on the ground of concealed anxiety is its surpassing beings as a whole. It is transcendence."45 Ghurba, this uncanny encounter with suspension, shows a constitutive relationship to nothing as ground: "only because the nothing is manifest in the ground of Dasein can the total strangeness (Befremdlichkeit) overwhelm us."46 Destruction is thus found in an antecedent force, in the constitutive binding of being with the nothing.47 Meanwhile, the first and fourth scene mirror one another through the estrangement in the city, one borne in the horizon of the city's historical depth (decay) and the other in a field of experience of its extension as superficiality (desiccation). They speak to what Anne Dufourmantelle characterizes as "mawkishness," the perversion of gentleness in modern life.48 The second and third scenes stage the space of the desert as that which, disregarding the problem of estrangement in the city, turns to view "the world" from its edges (either in retreat or displacement); exposed to the precarity of any and every inheritance, the desert offers lucidity.

Across these four scenes, destruction variously is opposed to, disarticulated from, identified with, and supervenes over production. Ghurba is born temporally or requires time; it is imposed through displacement or is discerned through withdrawal. Surveying this tropics of destruction, the distinctions between ghurba and what surrounds it begin to blur. Yet that indistinction is already the uncanny work of ghurba, which unsettles the difference between home and away, neighbor and stranger, one side of a boundary and the other. Familiar topography morphs into foreign terrain. Although they converge on the necessity of the divine inheritance, moreover, these four modes of ghurba diverge even on how adequate they deem the communal forms of tradition. Meanwhile ghurba divulges and threatens the conditions of relation. As Ibn Khaldun begins his Muqaddimah, "time wears us out. Our lives' final terms, the dates of which have been fixed for us in the Book (of Destiny), claim us. But He lasts and endures."49 The ineluctable finitude of every effort exposes the limit of every human sovereign claim. [End Page 127]

Within these scenes of destruction, distinctive concepts are articulated: the striving (jihād) for islāḥ (repair), hudū' (stillness), amāna (upholding responsibility), or rāḥa (rest in God) animates forms of life that, encountering ghurba, bring their own dissolution into relief, bring their own technologies and forms of practice under a primary erasure. The work of repairing, of ethical cultivation, of the renunciant body, or of calligraphic practice under the term of estrangement marks a dynamic curtailment in which forms, like the effaced image or the disjointed letters, come to articulate their singularity in their cessation.50 Recalling Ibn Khaldun's dialectic of decline, this gesture that undoes gesture leads one toward the Last Judgment.51 Nor is this merely an individual experience. It marks the orectic and diminished point from which one–although this "one" is not the personal self–glances toward the variegations of the city, studying its lines and its contours, encountering through the pain of one's body or the strain of one's lettering the alienated denizens of the polis. To live in the desert is to live a life in view of its own vanishing. That form of vanishing is not the death one endures, as Sarafīm and Shams both intimated, by inhabiting a city from which one remains estranged, but remains other within and for the human community.52

These traditions disclose how destruction itself comes to serve as an ambivalent guarantor of experience. Rather than work as a palliative narcotic,53 the forms of tradition here are purified and authorized by a proximity to, in an experience of, ghurba–in the binding of their forms with the nothing, an experience of being(s) out of joint, or of the vantage of the afterlife. As was already the case: in a hadith widely cited today, the Prophet declared that "Islam began as something strange (gharīb) and will return strange as it began, so glad tidings to the strangers (ghurabā')"54; in a warning to his ascetic disciples, Isaac cautions that "he who wishes to attain this virtue, that is, bearing injustice with long endurance, must be distant and estranged from family and kin, for it is impossible to attain this in the homeland."55 This destructive experience, common in the lives of those recounted here, may likewise accrue its authority "like a pearl"56 in the life of tradition as an uncertain disclosure; upon desert and city, impressing upon every human habitation, "the inevitable sentence of divine judgment."57 Rather than Agamben's modern "destruction of experience"–in which the division between (human) experience and (divine) knowledge is overcome by the systematizing ambitions of experimental science–here the axes of city and desert, paradise and hellfire, offer a purgatorial topology to modulate the experience of destruction. Ibn Khaldun concludes, "It was as if the voice of existence in the world had called out for oblivion and restriction, and the world had responded to its call. God inherits the earth and all who dwell upon it."58

In one passage of The Book of Strangers (Kitāb adab al-ghurabā'), an anthology attributed to Abū l-Faraj al-Isfahānī (d. 967 CE) collecting travelers' reports on the theme of estrangement, a Cairene treasure hunter recounts his adventures. When he and his fellow travelers arrive at a fortress of demons, they find two poetic inscriptions on its walls. The first expresses the wretchedness of exile: "I wish I knew when my hardship will be over / and my trials will come to an end / I am displaced, cast out, devoid of solace / far from my home and distanced from my native land." The second presents time as the [End Page 128] destroyer of all creation: "We have built and we shall perish / what we have built will survive us only a while / nothing endures against time but God / whom we do not see, though he sees us."59 These two stanzas together bind work to its failure, production to destruction, leading the reader (and the Cairene adventurer) to see themselves being lost. Building and perishing, making but not enduring, the work of time is given over to an unceasing inhuman divine gaze.


Taste of Cement, Ziad Kalthoum's 2017 film essay "dedicated to all workers in exile," focalizes the interlacing of destruction and production in projects of upbuilding, projects of destruction, projects of enclosure and repair. Kalthoum, who himself fled Syria at the beginning of the revolution, grounds his film in the life of exiled Syrian workers who are building Beirut's skyscrapers on the ruins of Lebanon's own war. Amidst the dialectic of construction and destruction–Détruire/construire, as the film's French title has it–our exiled narrator recounts in Syrian Arabic a childhood memory that has become a dream and a wound: his father, a construction worker, returns from Beirut and brings the image of the Mediterranean from its shores. Reaching out his hand, "a wave tugs me under. . . . From this day I would spend my time in front of the picture, diving into it (ghuri'at fīhā, lit.: I drowned in it)."60

Figure 5. "The built environment supervenes over its human subject." <br/><br/>Courtesy of Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts, BASIS BERLIN Filmproduktion
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Figure 5.

"The built environment supervenes over its human subject."

Courtesy of Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts, BASIS BERLIN Filmproduktion

The built environment supervenes over its human subject as the workers slowly build a reverse panopticon. From there they gain more and more vantage over the city they work to build but (due to curfews for Syrian migrant workers) cannot inhabit. At night the workers must return to the building's unfinished basement; they sleep and view the destruction of Syrian cities on their phones or small television sets. The laborers are mute, drawn into a literal apparatus of work and leisure that the film dwells on through long takes of pouring cement, building a crane, and resting in the dark basement.61 Halfway through the film, another memory of the narrator intrudes:

The sound of the drilling was piercing, I woke up. I could not move or shout. My house was covering me. It was in my mouth. In my nose. In my eyes. People were shouting. Is anybody there? They drilled all the day long until they found me. That's what they told me. The taste of cement was eating my mind. The smell of death. I fled. There was an opaque darkness (kān ʿatam). Suddenly, I found myself in another hole under the earth.62

The camera turns toward the shoreless sea and soon plunges into its depths, finding the ruins of a tank slowly decomposing on the seabed.

As the film progresses through the monotonous yet polyphonic scenes of construction, the distinction between construction and destruction slowly disintegrates. Cuts between a worker in Beirut's skyscraper scraping up dirt and a camera mounted on a tank patrolling a razed city in Syria increase in pace, the sounds of the battle scene and [End Page 129] construction flow and crash over one another like churning waves: the pounding of a hammer and the breaking of a bag of cement meld with the explosion of shells from the tank's cannon. The dialectic of construction and destruction is figured as a process of a slow revolution across daytime's active labor and the intrusive memories of destruction at night.

Figure 6. "The workers return to sleep under the building and the choking opacity reaches its height." <br/><br/>Courtesy of Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts, BASIS BERLIN Filmproduktion
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Figure 6.

"The workers return to sleep under the building and the choking opacity reaches its height."

Courtesy of Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts, BASIS BERLIN Filmproduktion

In this way, at the end of the film, darkness falls on Beirut. The workers return to sleep under the building and the choking opacity (ʿatam) reaches its height. The camera moves through an underwater passage, which remains dark and obscure. What looks like an underwater landscape slowly crystallizes into a scene of inhuman destruction, vague lights and sounds transmute into flashlights and human voices, screaming in the dark aftermath of a bombing in Syria. The five minutes of footage, filmed on a cellphone, show dozens of people scrambling to dig out those trapped in the rubble of the bombing.63 At its close, the camera once again moves through the underwater passage, returning to the Beirut skyscraper and a sunrise.

The surreal oceanic in Taste of Cement figures ghurba both as a passage to and from the underworld–the harrowing destruction in Syria that is also home–and as a point of contact with the intemporal, which overwhelms and submerges the historicity of one's life. The dialectics of destruction and production, their ambivalence and ultimate indistinction in the cyclical time of building and burying, death and life, is ever shadowed by the inhuman time of the ocean.64 [End Page 130]

Aaron Frederick Eldridge

Aaron Frederick Eldridge is an incoming postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. His doctoral dissertation, titled "A Desert Place: Asceticism in the Aftermath of Destruction," analyzes the flourishing of Orthodox Christian monastic communities in post-civil war Lebanon.

Basit Kareem Iqbal

Basit Kareem Iqbal is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at McMaster University. His book manuscript, based on fieldwork with refugees, relief workers, and religious scholars in Jordan and Canada, is titled "The Dread Heights: Refuge and Tribulation after the Syrian Revolution."


. We thank Charles Hirschkind, Milad Odabaei, Rajbir Singh Judge, the two anonymous peer reviewers, Karen Pinkus, and Hannah Miller for their critiques and feedback on this essay. Earlier drafts were presented at the "Anthropological Inquiry" workshop at the University of California, Berkeley; the Society for the Anthropology of Religion biennial meeting; and the "Belong Nowhere: States of Statelessness and Displacement in the Muslim World" conference at Michigan State University. Thanks go to the organizers and audiences at each of these events. For fieldwork and writing support, Aaron thanks the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada) and the Mellon Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies. For fieldwork and writing support, Basit thanks the Wenner Gren Foundation, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada), and the UC Berkeley Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Institute for International Studies. Interlocutors' names are pseudonyms.

1. Mersal, "Abwāb al-jaḥīm wa al-maʿrifa."

2. For such itineraries of the gharīb, see Rosenthal, "The Stranger in Medieval Islam."

3. The otherworldly threshold precipitated by ghurba marks its clear difference from other contemporary explorations of estrangement as a "disturbed appropriation of self and world" (see Jaeggi, Alienation).

4. Recalling the distinction between "law-establishing force" (rechtsetzende Gewalt) and "law-sustaining force" (rechtserhaltende Gewalt) in Benjamin's "Critique of Violence," such literature on the history of religion explores questions of origin or change, innovation or conformity, continuity or rupture (cf. Abeysekara, "Religious Studies' Mishandling of Origin and Change").

5. Anidjar, "On the Political History of Destruction," 145. Benjamin had already refocused his attention on the work of destruction when he noted of a "destructive character" that "what exists he reduces to rubble–not for the sake of the rubble, but for that of the way leading through it" ("The Destructive Character," 542).

6. Of course, destruction is not foreign to the traditions of Eastern Christianity or Islam. Key grammars of destruction we explore elsewhere include ruination as ascetic dispossession and tribulation as a theological figure of finitude (see respectively Eldridge, "From the Margins of the Colophon" and Iqbal, "Reprising Islamic Political Theology").

7. In this regard its activity resembles that of trauma, as when Freud wrote that the latter "–or more precisely the memory of the trauma–acts like a foreign body which long after its entry must continue to be regarded as an agent that is still at work" (Studies on Hysteria, 6, emphasis is ours).

8. For another example of this kind of interrogation, see Kaufman, "The Inexistence of the Western Jewish Archive." Along somewhat similar lines, Jonathan Lear traces how the Crow Nation endured "cultural catastrophe" under expansionist American imperialism. Through attention to Crow forms of virtue cultivation, dream interpretation, and tribal politics, Lear develops a rigorous account of psychological and cultural hope. While we echo Lear's attention to form, we pursue its fracture as hearkening beyond the horizon of historical recapitulation. See Lear, Radical Hope; and a critical counterpoint to Lear's book in Goldstone, "Critique of Abysmal Reasoning."

9. Ancient Faith Ministries, "Hope from the Ruins of Beirut."

10. de Certeau, "The Institution of Rot"; Hage, Decay.

11. See Khoury, "The Memory of the City."

12. An-Nahar, "al-Muṭrān ʿAudi."

15. For an Arabic collection of the MJO's writings, see Anṭākiyya tatajaddad: shahādāt wa nuṣūṣ (1943–1992).

16. The most prominent figure in the MJO, now retired Archbishop Georges Khodr, details some of this history in his aphoristic autobiography, Law ḥakaytu masrā al-ṭufūla. For other writings on renaissance and postcolonial movements in the Levant, see Bardawil, Revolution and Disenchantment; Hanssen and Weiss, Arabic Thought beyond the Liberal Age.

17. MJO General Secretariat, "Mashrūʿ al-tarmīm."

18. Noursat TV, "al-Muṭrān ʿAudi fī taṣrīḥ mudawwī."

19. Jacques Derrida notes in Archive Fever that "if there is no archive without consignation in an external place which assures the possibility of memorization, or repetition, of reproduction, or of reimpression, then we must also remember that repetition itself, the logic of repetition, indeed the repetition compulsion remains, according to Freud, indissociable from the death drive. And thus from destruction" (11–2).

20. On movement in and out of refugee camps in Jordan, see Tobin et al., "Figurations of Displacement in and Beyond Jordan."

21. How can one learn to be obliged? One classic answer to this question comes in Ibn Ṭufayl's philosophical allegory Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, in which a boy raised on an island reasons toward knowledge of God and natural obligation (see Bashier, The Story of Islamic Philosophy). For a strong relationship between obligation and moral community, see MacIntyre, After Virtue: "the notion of desert is at home only in the context of a community whose primary bond is a shared understanding both of the good for man and of the good of that community" (250).

22. The term anniyya ("thatness," as abstracted from anna) has historically served both as a translation of the Greek το είναι (the infinitive form of "to be") and as a paronomasia in Sufi writings for anāniyya (selfishness, egotism)–in the former case referring to existence (versus essence) and in the latter referring to the extrinsic epiphany of God (as opposed to his unknowable self–huwwiya). See Mayer, "Anniyya"; Frank, "The Origin of the Arabic Philosophical Term 'anniya."

23. Isḥaq al-Siryānī, Nusukīyyāt, 201. See also the English translation, taken from the Greek and Syriac, in Isaac, Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, 170.

24. While Orthodox asceticism is organized around a locality (the body, the soul, the heart), it does not follow that this localization is a "self" in the sense of a Cartesian subject. In that sense, it differs from the central premise of Gavin Flood's far-reaching account in The Ascetic Self, wherein "the eradication of subjectivity in ascetic pursuit entails the assertion of subjectivity in voluntary acts of will." For Flood, the ascetic subject realizes itself through performance in the gap between "goal and means" (2). This gap is sutured by a "will," in the double sense of the grammatical future and an actualization of potential. This analytic premise, which follows Immanuel Kant both in the deduction of an a priori transcendental self and in the radical link between human will and potential ("man muss wollen können"), starkly sublates the inoperativity and heteronomy of exile, manifest in renunciation, into another moment of self-production.

25. Palamas, Grēgoriou Tou Palama Apanta Ta Erga, 2:190. See also the contemporary Arabic translation of selections of Palamas' writing by the monks of Mār Georgios, al-Difāʿ ʿan al-qiddīsiyyīn al-hudū'iyyīn.

26. Jabbūr, Allāh fī al-lāhūt al-masīḥī, 40 (emphasis is ours). See also Yannaras, On the Absence and Unknowability of God.

27. See also Naqvi, "Acts of Askēsis, Scenes of Poiēsis," for a resonant meditation on renunciation, form, and jihad as struggle.

28. On the relevant Canadian refugee settlement programs, see Hamilton, Veronis, and Walton-Roberts, A National Project.

29. Asad, "Thinking About Tradition, Religion, and Politics in Egypt Today," 176.

30. Al-Dānī, al-Sunan al-wārida li-l-fitan, 3:545; see also Cook, Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic, 235–36. For a poetic account of this corruption as complaint against God, see Kermani, The Terror of God.

31. Although we do not pursue this sense here, gh-r-b also names the west (thus maghrib as the time of sunset and the dusk prayers, and the Maghreb as the western side of the Mediterranean) and the West (thus more recently istighrāb as Occidentalism, over its older rhetorical sense of evoking wonder).

32. On this topos in various historical moments, see for example Pifer, "The Age of the Gharīb"; Ṭaḥṭaḥ, al-Ghurba wa-l-ḥanīn fī-l-shi'r al-andalusī; Barakāt, Ghurbat al-kātib al-'arabī. For a broader account of "alienation in Arab culture", see (with thanks to peer reviewer 1) Lebanese novelist and sociologist Ḥalīm Barakāt's al-Ightirāb fī-l-thaqāfat al-'arabiyya, especially, for our purposes, Chapter 8 ("al-Ightirāb min al-dīn wa fīhī"). For a remarkable reading of Arabic poetry and prose in relation to individual and collective loss, dispossession, and destruction, see Sacks, Iterations of Loss.

33. Agamben comments, "This does not mean that today there are no more experiences, but they are enacted outside the individual" (Infancy and History, 18). We return to his account of the destruction of experience further below, but for now note simply that we seek to read ghurba while eschewing a turn toward subjectivity and its narrative emplotment (romantic, tragic, ironic, or otherwise).

36. The experience of destruction then approaches what Talal Asad has described as an event in which one comes "to encounter something unpredictably that transforms her, to be gripped through her senses by a force (whether immanent or transcendent)" ("Thinking About Tradition, Religion, and Politics in Egypt Today," 51). Charles Hirschkind's recent monograph The Feeling of History pursues this question through a deft tracing of Andalucismo as an experience and intuitive feeling that does not belong to a "subject" (of politics, piety, or secular reason) as such but is found in a passional attachment to al-Andalus "carried out in the multiple ways people seek to accommodate their lives to the demands of an inheritance only partially available to knowledge and thus often more felt than known" (3). This destructive inheritance of exile, its experience, is likewise our concern here. See also Anidjar, "Our Place in al-Andalus," 59: "Grief distances and isolates the poet from the place in which he utters his speech, making his relation to place contingent, distancing him from his place, from everything that has vanished, and, apparently, from the vanishing itself."

37. We have separately made this argument in Eldridge, "Movement in Repose" and Iqbal, "Asad and Benjamin." See also de Certeau, "The Historiographical Operation."

38. We have in mind the simultaneity of opening and closure traced in de Certeau, The Mystic Fable.

39. Agamben, Infancy and History, 16.

40. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, 339.

41. Ibn Khaldun, 351. Stefania Pandolfo writes that "Ibn Khaldun emphasizes how the possibility of human society as such–what he calls al-'umrān, the filling, the occupation, the human settlement of the world–is based on an element of ruin and dissolution that is at the same time what makes human life possible and human (as opposed to animal or divine), and what determines its impermanence and mortal fate" (Impasse of the Angels, 327n77).

42. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, 30. This is a historical process, not a natural or a logical one; but it is a history ultimately grounded in the incommensurability of the divine command (amr) which created humans as frail, fallible, and finite.

43. Ibn Khaldun, 357. The barzakh is a limit and bridge, as William Chittick's reading of Ibn 'Arabi has it, an "isthmus between wujud (existence) and nonexistence and between this moment and the next" (Chittick, The Self-Disclosure of God, xxvi). For anthropological work that directly engages the barzakh, see Pandolfo, "The Barzakh of the Image and the Speculative Scene of Possession."

44. Goodman, "Ibn Khaldun and the Immanence of Judgment," 737: "What drives the dialectic Ibn Khaldūn traces is not just the ecological fragility of human life but the moral finitude of human actors." On the historiographical debate around interpreting Ibn Khaldun, see Brett, "The Way of the Nomad"; and for a reading of Ibn Khaldun's aesthetics of history, see Lelli, Knowledge and Beauty in Classical Islam.

45. Heidegger, "What is Metaphysics?", 93. For an analogous exploration of thinking "inner extension or self-displacement" through Ibn Sina, Aristotle, and Jacques Lacan, see Copjec, "Cinema as Thought Experiment."

46. Heidegger, "What Is Metaphysics?", 95. In this sense the question of the nothing–and its derivations into modes of destruction–cannot be posed through the division (or decision) of immanence versus transcendence. Indeed, for Heidegger, the fact that the nothing (as part of the being of beings) is prior to negation, thus "forces us to face the problem of the origin of negation, that is, ultimately to face up to a decision to concerning the legitimacy of the dominion of 'logic' in metaphysics."

47. To be clear, in contrast to Heidegger's anxiety, here ghurba is not outside the encounter with the divine. Heidegger writes that "no one is bothered by the difficulty that if God creates out of nothing precisely he must be able to comport himself to the nothing. But if God is God, he cannot know the nothing, assuming that the 'Absolute' excludes all nothingness" ("What is Metaphysics?", 94). In contrast, ghurba, as the experience of the binding of being and nothing, refracts precisely the space of the barzakh, the limn between paradise and hellfire, that provokes a sense of creaturely being, one that is properly suspended "above" the abyss and in the divine command (amr). In this suspension ghurba marks an encounter with finitude that invokes God not as the opposite of nothing (as the supreme being, or the totality of beings) but as the uncreated one, beyond both the nihil and being(s).

48. Dufourmantelle, Power of Gentleness, 3.

49. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, 3.

50. As C. Nadia Seremetakis argues, nostalghia, a shared marker of the "historical unconscious" of forms, "evokes the sensory dimension of memory in exile and estrangement; it mixes bodily and emotional pain and ties painful experiences of spiritual and somatic exile to the notion of maturation and ripening. In this sense, nostalghia is linked to the personal consequences of historicizing sensory experience which is conceived as a painful bodily and emotional journey" (The Senses Still, 4).

51. About the cultivation of crafts and the pilgrimage to Mecca, Ibn Khaldun writes, "Man should not set his heart upon any of his luxury customs . . . or expose himself to any other customs with which his soul and character have been affected. When he dies he will necessarily lose them. He should come (to the pilgrimage) as if he were going to the Last Judgment" (The Muqaddimah, 323).

52. As Derrida reminds us in The Beast and the Sovereign, reading Aristotle, to be cityless (apolis) is to approach the non-human worlds of both divinity and animality (347).

53. See Georges Bataille's preface to Inner Experience: "Anyone wanting slyly to avoid suffering identifies with the entirety of the universe, judges each thing as if he were it. In the same way, he imagines, at bottom, that he will never die. We receive these hazy illusions like a narcotic necessary to bear life" (xxxii).

54. Thus likewise the hadith in which the Prophet declares, "the world is a prison for the believer, a paradise for the unbeliever." The broader literature on zuhd (asceticism) includes Massignon, Essay on the Origins of the Technical Language of Islamic Mysticism; Melchert, "The Transition from Asceticism to Mysticism at the Middle of the Ninth Century CE"; and Bowman, "Refuge in the Bosoms of the Mountains." Another point of reference for the theological itineraries of ghurba is how the sufi Mansur al-Hallaj renders it a state of "desired suffering," a "desert in a desert," indeed "'the banishment' of oneself" (Massignon, The Passion of al-Hallaj, 208).

55. Isḥāq al-Siryānī, Nusukīyyāt, 38.

56. Agamben, Infancy and History, 16.

57. Goodman, "Ibn Khaldun and the Immanence of Judgment," 753. To be clear, ghurba also refuses identification with the surface of that history. Thus Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah opens with the difference between surface (ẓāhir) and depth (bāṭin): "For on the surface history is no more than information (akhbār) about political events, dynasties, and occurrences of the remote past, elegantly presented and spiced with proverbs (amthāl)." This is the chronology of sovereign power, however finely narrated, and includes proverbial experience. "The inner meaning of history, on the other hand, involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth, subtle explanations of the causes and origins of existing things, and deep knowledge of the how and why of events" (5).

58. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, 30.

59. al-Isfahani, Kitāb adab al-ghurabā', 69–70; translation in Crone and Moreh, The Book of Strangers, 63.

60. Kalthoum, Taste of Cement, 4:58.

61. Here Taste of Cement effects (rather than simply represents) abstracted labor time (and its excluded other, leisure time). This characterization, taken from Gilles Deleuze's theory of the "time-image" (see Cinema 2), is exemplified in Cesare Casarino's reading of Italian neorealist cinema ("Images for Housework").

62. Kalthoum, Taste of Cement, 30:59–31:42.

63. For the disintegration of ruins into rubble (particularly apt for this film's interlacing of construction projects in Beirut and destruction projects in Aleppo), see Gordillo, Rubble; and for further analysis of the "oscillating urbanism" (temporal repetitions and spatial reversals) of Taste of Cement, see Naeff, "Time, Space, and Subaltern Phenomenology."

64. Stefania Pandolfo writes, regarding the oceanic, "the psyche as a topology was for Freud a metaphysical hypothesis, one that undid chronological time, and alluded to another, nonhuman time, beyond individual life and subjectivity. His reluctant exchange with Romain Rolland on the mystical notion of 'oceanic feeling,' a merging into the 'unbounded,' and the 'sensation of eternity' it produced is a witness to this fact" (Knot of the Soul, 4). For Freud on the oceanic, see his Civilization and Its Discontents. See also Algerian novelist Mohmmed Dib's Qui se souvient de la mer?; Honarpisheh, "The Sea as Archive."

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