By Khaled Diab
A return to an ancestral homeland is a dream that's long inspired diasporas – often with troubling results.
9 July 2010
The Zionist vision of a “return” to the Promised Land has been both a dream come true, when you view Israel's success at forging a vibrant and modern melting pot of Jewish peoples from around the world, and a nightmare, given the decades of conflict it has engendered, and built as it is on the ruins of Palestine and the continued subjugation of the Palestinian people, not to mention the wholesale uprooting of Middle Eastern Jews.
But Jews are not the only scattered and oppressed group of people who have entertained sentimental dreams of a triumphant return to their ancestral homelands. For instance, a similar situation existed for Greeks. Like the Jews, Greeks had not possessed an independent homeland since Roman times and counted a sizeable diaspora across the Roman empire and its successors, right down to Ottoman times.
This diaspora played a central role in the creation of the modern Greek state by raising funds and awareness abroad. An example of these efforts was the Filiki Eteria (“Society of Friends”), a secret society set up in Odessa (Ukraine) in 1814 with the aim of establishing an independent Greek state. However, unlike in Palestine where Jews represented a tiny minority of the population, historic Greece was still largely populated by Greek speakers (albeit of bastardised regional dialects) who were able, with the support of the diaspora and European sympathisers (Philhellenics like Lord Byron) , to throw off the yoke of Ottoman rule rapidly.
Just as Zionism sought to unite all the Jewish peoples in a single homeland, the Megali Idea (the “Great Idea”) aimed to unite the “unredeemed” Greeks of the Ottoman Empire in a single country and, rather megalomaniacally, to restore the Byzantine Empire. Along with the draw of living in an independent Greece, diaspora Greeks experienced the push of increasing distrust fuelled by Greece's expansionism and the regular wars it fought with the Ottomans. This culminated, after the World War I, in the modern world's first large-scale compulsory “population exchange” which ethnically cleansed Turkey of its Greek Orthodox population and Greece of its Muslim population, robbing 2 million people of their homes and livelihoods and bringing to an end centuries of cultural and religious diversity.
But it's not just Greeks and Jews who have dreamt of turning back the clock and returning to Zion or Olympia. Across the Atlantic, the romantic idea of a “return to Africa” has a long pedigree among the descendants of African slaves in the Americas, although few of them could say with any confidence precisely where “home” for them is.
So, Africa as a whole has become their “Zion”. This is quite literally so for Rastafarians who believe that they will one day escape their Babylonian captivity (western society) and return to Zion (Africa) and its capital New Jerusalem (Lalibela, with its beautiful churches hewn out of the rock, in Ethiopia) led by the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie whom they believe is the second coming of Christ.
In the 19th century, some wealthy African Americans, like Paul Cuffee, became convinced – like Theodor Herzl later would regarding European Jews – that the only way for blacks in America to gain salvation and overcome the burden of racism and the legacy of their enslavement was to “return” to their ancestral homelands.
Just as Zionism would later be supported by both European antisemites, who saw the creation of a homeland for the Jews as the optimal solution to the “Jewish problem”, and European Judeophiles who were inspired by the romantic redemptive power of a return to ancestral lands, many racists supported the “Back to Africa” ideal as a solution to the “black problem” and well-meaning activists backed it as a way of emancipating and empowering poverty-stricken and marginalised African diasporas.
Both currents can be seen at play in the creation of Sierra Leone (created by British philanthropists to resettle London's black poor) and Liberia (created by American slaveholders and philanthropists). Although they may have shared similar skin tones, these western implants pitted black colonists against the indigenous populations, which felt discriminated against and marginalised on their native lands. In Liberia, this eventually led to the overthrow of the Americo-Liberian regime in 1980.
The “Back to Africa” dream was revived in the 1920s by Marcus Garvey whose philosophy, known as Garveyism, focuses on the African diaspora returning to their ancestral continent to create a prosperous and advanced United States of Africa which would be a safe haven for all Africans.
In contemporary America, despite the growing empowerment of (and continuing discrimination against) African-Americans, the dream of “return” still carries a certain cache. DNA tests which claim to help African-Americans trace their ancestry are popular and some African-Americans invest in Africa, have resettled there or have gained dual nationality.
Examples include the American actor Isaiah Washington who recently became a citizen of Sierra Leone, where he has launched a number of philanthropic projects and Haitian cook Marie Claire Rimpel who opened up a restaurant in Accra, Ghana. In fact, Ghana is actively embracing diaspora Africans by offering them citizenship and the opportunity to invest in the country, partly for their development potential and partly as a symbolic apology for the role earlier generations from the Gold Coast, as it was then known, played in the slave trade.
So, why does the dream of “returning” to an ancestral homeland carry such appeal across such diverse cultural and geographical boundaries?
I imagine that the draw is partly nostalgic, the kind of romanticising of an idyllic past that so many of us humans are prone to. As someone who has spent three-fifths of his life outside his native land, I don't feel a particular nostalgia or sentimentality towards my homeland. As I grow to feel more and more like a global citizen, I find the notion of nationalism increasingly mystifying and narrow-minded. However, I have the advantage of not being stateless or the member of a an oppressed or persecuted group, and I speak from the comfortable vantage point of having a fairly clear-cut core national identity, and a clear home base to which I can flee if ever the need arises.
All the examples above, despite their diversity, share certain features in common. One is the inferior status of these groups in the societies in which they lived or live – which not only made them vulnerable to persecution but also lowered their self-esteem.
Another factor is Utopian thinking: made to feel somehow sub-human by their host cultures and excluded from many areas of power and polite society, diaspora groups often entertain the belief that if they ran their own country they would be better off and could even surpass the society which puts them down or persecutes them.
So, is this kind of “return” a good solution to the problems faced by marginalised diasporas?
The trouble with attempts like these to turn back the clock is that time invariable moves on, rendering the distance between dream and reality a very significant one. Most modern projects to “return” to an ancestral homeland or to create a homeland for a particular group, such as Pakistan for Indian Muslims, have resulted in enormous human dislocation, suffering and death.
This is not to question the right of any of these states to exist today – and those that reject this right, as say some Arabs do vis-à-vis Israel, are also futilely trying to turn back the clock to a past that no longer exists – but merely to highlight that, when local populations are not taken into account, efforts to “return home” can bear a striking resemblance to colonialism, with the once-oppressed playing the role of oppressors. And it is the contemporary remnants of this colonial legacy that need to be dismantled if a more just future is to be created.
This is the extended version of a column which appeared in the Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free section on 2 July 2010. Read the full discussion here.