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Friday, 10.1.04: Expatriates: Social Outcasts & Political Exiles

Thinking as I type...

Yesterday I wrote:

Listening to the current waves of insanity gives me that strange expatriate feeling I get now and then. It's like I've moved to Paris and am seeing my former country only through phone calls from friends. There is a certain wistfulness and a little guilt about now being part of the fray anymore.

I keep coming back to this idea of the expatriate. I wonder why that is.

Expatriates are different from immigrants, although I'm sure the boundaries are blurred. You think of an immigrant as someone who has come to stay. Irish emigrated to America to escape crushing poverty and start over. European Jews emigrated to Israel to start over with religious freedom in their "homeland."

Expatriate has the air of exile. Not always -- Americans who retire in Mexico or gets jobs in Saudi Arabia often live in enclaves of expatriates. They are not giving up their citizenship. They are guests who don't really intend to assimilate, even if they wind up living their permanently.

But I'm more curious about the political exile or the social outcast. They say that many artists went to Paris in the twenties or lived for extended periods in the South Seas because they wanted the stimulation of an exotic environment to spur their imaginations. I'll buy that. But I also think that their native land had become uncomfortable for them in some way. They were misfits longing for a place where they could be comfortable or a place that would help them understand who they were. Think of all the gays who were among those famous expatriates: Gertrude Stein, Paul Bowles, James Baldwin...

The political exile seems saddest. Think of all those Cubans in Miami -- the first wave, at least, who escaped from Fidel but intended to stick together and organize his overthrow from Florida. Think of Jews fleeing Germany or Austria when they realized what Hitler was up to.

I'm curious about the decision-making -- the moment when someone gives up the notion of "working from within." The moment when someone gives up seeing himself as part of the Resistance and decides to grab what he can and get the hell out. I'm reading Persepolis, a comic-book style memoir about the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. It isn't always clear when you need to go. Some people bolted. Some people stuck around, hoping that the situation was only temporary.

When the person who bolts starts hearing news that her friends who stayed are being tortured, does she feel guilty? Does she feel like she lost her chance to be noble, to fight the good fight?

Some days I think of these things from my Parisian garret.


more on this theme of exiles


Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi