Skip to main content

No Exit

Arab Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Decolonization

No Exit

Arab Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Decolonization

It is a curious and relatively little-known fact that for two decades—from the end of World War II until the late 1960s—existentialism’s most fertile ground outside of Europe was in the Middle East, and Jean-Paul Sartre was the Arab intelligentsia’s uncontested champion. In the Arab world, neither before nor since has another Western intellectual been so widely translated, debated, and celebrated.
By closely following the remarkable career of Arab existentialism, Yoav Di-Capua reconstructs the cosmopolitan milieu of the generation that tried to articulate a political and philosophical vision for an egalitarian postcolonial world. He tells this story by touring a fascinating selection of Arabic and Hebrew archives, including unpublished diaries and interviews. Tragically, the warm and hopeful relationships forged between Arab intellectuals, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and others ended when, on the eve of the 1967 war, Sartre failed to embrace the Palestinian cause. Today, when the prospect of global ethical engagement seems to be slipping ever farther out of reach, No Exit provides a timely, humanistic account of the intellectual hopes, struggles, and victories that shaped the Arab experience of decolonization and a delightfully wide-ranging excavation of existentialism’s non-Western history.

336 pages | 9 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2018

History: History of Ideas

Middle Eastern Studies

Philosophy: General Philosophy, History and Classic Works


"A tour de force, No Exit provides an absorbing, sensitive, and yet complex and multi-stranded narrative of the sense of intellectual excitement and political frustration that marked Arab intellectuals' engagement with Sartre and existentialism in the 1960s. An exemplary exercise in global intellectual history and postcolonial studies."

Dipesh Chakrabarty, University of Chicago

“In an age when so many associate the Arab world with regressive faith and failed revolution, Yoav Di-Capua’s brilliant study is a galvanizing reminder of its centrality to the history of one of the most vanguard intellectual movements of modern times. In a pathbreaking global intellectual history, Di-Capua reveals that Jean-Paul Sartre's celebrated depiction of ‘no exit’ could take on tragic new meaning in postcolonial societies. It is an amazingly bold and ingenious accomplishment, crossing and uniting fields like no book I can remember.”

Samuel Moyn, Yale University

“In a gripping narrative, Di-Capua unearths the vast terrain of Arab existentialism heretofore invisible. This important global intellectual history transforms our understanding of decolonization from the close of World War II to 1967, introducing readers to a generation of the Arab world’s leading thinkers and how they sought to navigate the Cold War by translating existential ontology to suit their purposes. Scholars of existentialism, decolonization, racism, postcolonialism, the Cold War, and Middle East studies will find it of vital interest.”

Jonathan Judaken, Rhodes College

"The archive of Arab philosophers and littérateurs that No Exit makes available in English opens up a space for the historian as well as the postcolonial theorist to return to a moment of decolonial potential and its political-ideological stakes to glimpse acts of political commitment, articulation, hope, struggle, and, ultimately, betrayal that could have been otherwise and, yet, still have much to tell us today."


"Focusing on Sartre but looking beyond the hexagon, Yoav Di-Capua fills an important scholarly gap as he shows the impact that the famous existentialist had on literature and society in independent Arab nations. Providing a thorough overview of the literary establishment mainly in Egypt and Lebanon, Di-Capua traces its transformation throughout the 1950s and 1960s and how it was influenced by Sartre. ... No Exit is a remarkable example of the high-quality work that published sources can lead to when complemented with archival material."

Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History

"This work is well-executed and will certainly mark an important milestone in the history of Arab intellectuals."

H-France (Translated from French)

Table of Contents

Note on Transliteration

1 The Visit
2 Why Existentialism?
3 Commitment
4 Meet the State
5 Unfreedom’s Counterculture
6 A Beachhead in the Sixties
7 Toward Universal Emancipation
8 High Hopes
9 Fiasco
Epilogue: A Cosmic No Exit
Selected Translations


UT Austin/University Co-Op Society: Robert W. Hamilton Book Awards

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press