No Exit: Arab Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Decolonization

Publication Year



Yoav Di-Capua, Ph.D. 2004.

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 He tells this story by touring a fascinating selection of Arabic and Hebrew archives, including unpublished diaries and interviews.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.


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

Reviews and Endorsements

Dipesh Chakrabarty, University of Chicago

"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."

Samuel Moyn, Yale University

“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.”

Jonathan Judaken, Rhodes College

“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.”


"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."

University of Chicago Press
Cloth: 9780226499741; Paper: 9780226503509; ebook: 9780226499888