On Homo Sacer


homo sacer
by homo sacer

According to ancient Roman laws, homo sacer is an outlaw “who may be killed and yet not sacrificed.” Italian philosopher, Georgio Agamben, contemporized this concept so as to refer to a person deprived of the universal human and political rights enjoyed by citizens of a modern sovereign state – and thus protection of law such as provided by Habeas corpus – yet subject to these same laws. Classical examples of homo sacer include Golden Age pirates, and Jews, gypsies and other Holocaust victims. In the post-9/11 era some have advocated the inclusion of those suspected of terrorism in this category. In authoritarian states – in which basic human rights are nonexistent – anyone is a potential homo sacer.

In addition to these legally defined or articulated cases, I submit, there is a class of self-designated homo sacer. A typical member epitomizes a self-exiled political refugee who identifies himself not with where he permanently lives, but with a place and time he believes he has never left. He is an outcast whose lingering state of mind has been primarily shaped by the traumas he had previously suffered in his home country. His symptoms were best described by the late Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi in his seminal article published in 1982 in the second issue of Alefba Magazine (Paris) titled, “Rahayi va Degardisi-e Avareha”,

            For a long time he hangs on to his past, to his physical and mental awareness. This is his defense mechanism against a definite death in barzakh [purgatory]. Hanging on to the memory of the homeland, to the memory of his comrades and friends, of fellow fighters and a few verses from Hafiz, or of a few quotations from the agnostics. Once in a while he uses a proverb in his conversations, makes witty comments and brings his audience to laughter. But the avareh [vagrant] is constantly in a state of metamorphosis. He changes radically, not like a bud which changes into a flower, but like a flower which has been cut and is now wilting and dying. Impatient, sensitive, moody, tearful while laughing, generous and stingy, disinterested in the outside world, wandering about and shedding tears in empty alleys, calling his loved ones by name. Constantly thinking about the homeland and taking refuge in oneself will eventually lead the avarehs to hate each other. They lose sight of the fact that they have all been expelled from their homes and escaped the jaws of the sharp-teethed wolves. On the surface, it is issues of belief and ideology that cause the tension. They may even reach a point where one of them wishes the other had never succeeded in his escape since ‘it would have served him right to pay for what he did.’ This is the kind of grave that avarehs dig for one another. Accusations are one of the major symptoms and one of the first outcomes of the cancer of avaregi [vagrancy]. The avareh thinks that only those who share his beliefs have the right to survive. To the dogmatic, prejudiced avareh, the large world appears very small. Shortly after arriving at a secure place, many of those who had similar beliefs will separate from one another – now because their evaluation and analysis of poignant social issues are different from those of yesterday, later because they have yet a newer analysis. These splits have another effect, too; leaving one’s circle of friends and joining the opposition. Out of everyone’s sight, they repent for the past; yet they keep new relationships a secret. To maintain ties with old friends, they keep criticizing their then-enemies and now-allies. They accuse others of compromising with the enemy, but are themselves extremely afraid of being accused of having done the same. Though old beliefs are gradually sifted out, nothing else is at their disposal.”

The Metamorphosis and Emancipation of the Avareh. Translated by H. Shahidian, JRS 7(4): 411-7,1994.

Sa’edi distinguished between a mohajer  [emigrant] and an avareh: “An émigré is like a migrant bird” free to move and look for a temperate climate, while an avareh has no choice, “forced to take refuge in the only place offered to him.” They both suffer from being away from home. However, “The émigré is taken by the superficial aspects of life; the avareh, on the other hand, is taken by the depth of his loneliness. The émigré adores the [traditional Iranian New Year’s] haft seen table and ghormeh sabzi [vegetable and lamb stew]. But the avareh does not care much for any of these. The émigré awaits a day when his homeland is swept and dusted so that he can go back, take off his shoes and relax. The avareh, however, wants to get into the country any way he can and sweep the entire country with his tears and eyebrows, and throw out to the Sea of the Dead all the lunatics who rule over his country.” While acknowledging some similarities between the two, Sa’edi emphasized that, “The more delicate point is that an émigré can always become an avareh but not the vice versa.” The fate of an exile is irreversibly sealed in his homeland.

* * *

Sa’edi’s avareh is an AWOL who refuses to admit that he is no longer on the frontline of the struggle. His seeking refuge in patriotism is escapism driven by avareh’s sense of guilt. He is imprisoned by the memory of his own painful past, which prevents him from opening a window to his new vicinage - A world that can provide him with the opportunity to project himself into the future he had dreamed of for his homeland. Outside his inner circle of friends and comrades, he has difficulty proving his worthiness other than by presenting himself as a ‘canary in the coalmine’ of his native land.  Rather than seeing life in exile as a laboratory to validate the social model he had fought for all his adult life, or to test his own fortitude in surviving and flourishing in a free society he had revered for so long, Sa’edi’s avareh hides in his self-made purgatory, from which the only emancipating act is to fall into perdition. A forward metamorphosis might be too much to ask from one whose deep wounds and irreparable scars are not only daily reminders of the ordeal he has gone through, but also the evidence of his newly acquired identity – a nonconformist; however, expecting otherwise is tantamount to acquiescing to the loss of some of the best and bravest among us.

Twenty-eight years after the publication of his article, it has become clear that Sa’edi’s pessimism was unwarranted. There are quite a few exiles that have assimilated to their new environ and have become productive members of their community of immigrants. A whole new genre of post-exilic art and literature produced by Iranian Diaspora, many of them dealing with issues related to life in the adopted countries rather than reminiscing about the homeland, is a testimony to the adaptability of human nature and exiles’ ability to leave behind painful memories of the past, in order to build a brighter future. These gradual shifts in narrative, along with the success of Iranian émigrés in their professional lives in their adopted homes, promise a progressive transformation of our culture which without any doubt will influence the future of not only our own children but also that of Iranians living in Iran.

It is time to close the book on exiledom – sacred or otherwise.


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Farah Rusta

Come back soon homo

by Farah Rusta on

Our days in exile are not over yet :)



homo sacer

Adios IC Aficionados

by homo sacer on

This was the last of a six-blog series I wrote for IC, this summer. Fall is upon us, and it is time for me to return at earnest to the mundane, yet equally rewarding and vital, task of earning a living. As you know by now, sacer stands for summertime accorded contemplations of an emancipated radical!

My FRiends, thank you for your informed feedbacks.

JJ, Thank you for including my musings in your featured blogs.

Farah Rusta

Exiled: Iranian style

by Farah Rusta on

Iranians have a unique ability to change, twist and bend the meaning, the mix and even the shape of everything that comes within their reach, sometimes beyond recognition. From materialism to modernity, from religion to revolution and to refugees, when we got hold of these definitions and doctrines, we have added our Iranian spice to them and their tastes were not the same - at least within our own confines.

Sa'edi's take on the subject of abandoning one's domicile and taking refuge in a new land is largely drawn from his own personal and limited experiences as a political refugee in Paris in the early years after the Islamic revolution. I can identify S'aedi with almost all of the features he has described for an avareh in his article. He didn't live to see how the same fellow refugees with whom he played the blame game over cups of coffee-au-lait in those cosy Parisian coffee shops, turned into immigrants after they reached a deal with the Islamic regime (something he seems to have rejected to happen in his article). He didn't live long enough to see how the regime dissidents were "allowed" to leave the country and took up residence in the country of their choice not as political refugees but as polical commentators! There are many more examples of so-called avareh who went on to become something no exiled person, self or enforced, ever dreamt of becoming (like an official interpreter of the very government he is supposed to flee from!

Also the choice of the word avareh is a direct result of Sa'edi's professional knowledge (as a former psychiatrist) and personal experiences as a clinically depressed person. Avareh may be correctly translated to English as vagrant but my preferred term to describe an exiled person is wanderer or drifter. A large number of Iranian migrants (of wich refugees is a subset) were not and are not homeless, as vagrants and vagabonds are. They may well have settled in safe and comfortable dwellings but their minds are still drifting around anchor less. They are truly sargardan or ghareeb as described by Hafiz:

هوای کوی تو از سر نمی رود مارا
غریب را دل سرگشته در وطن باشد

When it comes to Iranian migrants/exiles Sa'edi's interpretation of exiled is by no means a complete picture.

On the question of the Islamic regime's repatriation of dissidents, or lack of it, I should point out the case of Nazis and their  persecution of the Jews, communist, masons gays and gypsies. Apart from a limited programme by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs which repatriated a small number of the Jews from captured neutral countries the hundreds of thousands of the Jews who fled Europe ahead of the Nazis arrival for the safe shores of, among other ports, the UK and US, were not economic migrants,  Therefore I can't see how the absence of a systematic programme to send dissidents into exile would preclude the potentially persecutable individuals from the exiled status.

The case of Iranian exiles (similar to Afghan exiles) is much more complex than Sa'edi could have predicted. And my dear homo I never reject a message for its messenger's thoughts or deeds. Gregory VII last words still resonate with the people fleeing the injustices of our world.  





homo sacer


by homo sacer on

I am sorry. I meant to address you as IG, not IR.

homo sacer


by homo sacer on

Sa’edi chose “avareh” [vagrant], and not panaahandeh [refugee]. As you know, he himself was a refugee in France. I trust, as an articulate and learned writer, he knew the difference. I do not dare suggesting that he was in denial. However, your point is right on the mark.

As you correctly noted, my blog was about the exile-émigré metamorphosis, and not the assimilation tendencies in some immigrant groups. I hope someone more apt at the sociology of immigration address this question.

homo sacer

My FRiend

by homo sacer on

Correct me if I am wrong. If my memory serves me well, the IR does not have a policy of expatriating its undesirables – all other inhumane forms of punishments it administers, notwithstanding; and, Sa’edi avoided the word tab’eidi in his article, and instead used “avareh” (I read Rahai va… about the time it was published, so I may have forgotten). In the case of Iranians who left Iran after the revolution, “exile” has a self-promoting tone to it; “émigré” is more accurate – irrespective of how justified their egress was.

BTW, I thought a religiopolitical figure like Hildebrand would be the last person on earth you quote, considering what he did to the German king, Henry IV, even after death.

Immortal Guard


by Immortal Guard on

You outlined the difference between a Mohajer and an Avaareh. What about a Panaahandeh? What are then the shades of meaning or the differences in meaning?

You could also maybe elaborate on the transformational process that eventually makes the immigrant become part of the melting pot (U.S.) or the Mosaic (Canada)? How comes certain immigrant groups retain their identity across generations while others flow into the majority?


Farah Rusta

For as long as there is iniquity, there will be exile

by Farah Rusta on

Dear Homo Sacer

As always I thoroughly enjoyed your writing and your informed opinion. If, however, I may beg to differ on your last words by offering my most favorite quotes of all on this subject:

"I have loved justice and hated iniquity: therefore I die in exile.

Pope Gregory VII


With regards


homo sacer

آنکه دور ماند از اصل خویش ، باز جوید روزگار وصل خویش

homo sacer

Dear NP,

The hope is for the forward transformation - from exiled to emigrant, as distinct categories a la Sa’edi. Centripetal force will exert itself until the last breath.

homo sacer

Thank you, Ms. Sadegh

by homo sacer on

I hope other readers of this blog similarly find it useful, and not offending.

Niloufar Parsi

interesting read

by Niloufar Parsi on

though globalisation has the opposite effect, no? always pulling us back to the origin...

thanks HC. plenty of food for thought :)


Azarin Sadegh

Excellent blog!

by Azarin Sadegh on

Thought provoking and educational! I was also a homo sacer and I didn't know it! Thank you...it made me reconsider (and re-think, even re-define) my own existential issues...:-)