A lush, green beautiful valley. In Chingiz Samedzadeh and Yulya Rusyayeva’s photograph, which features in British Council’s Close to Home http://www.britishcouncil.org/bulgaria-living-together-close-to-home.htm
exhibition, the natural beauty of the scenery is spoiled by a road that runs right through the valley. But there is more in the photograph than meets the eye. The road is also a border; it divides two warring states, Azerbaijan and Armenia. One on side of the road, there is ‘home’. On the other side, ‘displacement’.
But what is ‘home’? Is it something more than just an address, just the building where we reside, just the valley that is ‘ours’, just the country where we were born and live? We speak of ‘home is where the heart is’, of making ‘a house a home’. What precisely do we mean? And where exactly is the heart of Europe, our continental home? In exploring the associations of such commonplace expressions we begin to wrestle with what is displaced by dislocation and what is invested in making relocation a new home. We live in a world where displacement and relocation are part and parcel of the experience of more and more people. Are we all becoming homeless persons or is the drive to make our living space home too strong? And what are the implications for society when fewer and fewer people are rooted to the soil of their origins? If we live in a country dominated by displaced homes what becomes of the sense of community and cohesion and how are we to bind people together in shared concerns? In short, how do we ‘live together’, we who come from so many diverse nations of this continent and elsewhere, who occupy this space called ‘Europe’?
Home is our beginning, a place of origin, the starting point of an identity. Yet place of birth does not necessarily equate with ‘home’. Home is the place where the people we are related to by birth reside, and that is much more than an accident of birth. Home is a place of belonging but much more than belonging to a physical location. And yet the place itself, the spot of the map – that valley – where we begin our terrestrial existence is not a matter of indifference. Place of birth and home are complex distinctions within the shifting patterns of complicated lives and displaced homes. How complex? Think of an example such as Rudyard Kipling. Born in India where he lived for his first five years, educated in England and then returning to India, where his parents still resided, he worked as journalist for a mere seven years before returning to England never again to visit India. Kipling’s place of birth was no incidental fact of his life. India was the bedrock on which his reputation as a writer is established, an identification inseparable from his creative output and achievement. And yet, never was there a more English Englishman, a man whose identity was more shaped by a historic sense of Englishness, which became the subject of his later literary output. Kipling belongs to India in a most particular way, and despite it all Kipling was never in any recognisable sense Indian. He is quintessentially displaced in the public mind, if not his own. Displaced too are all those people passing through ‘EU citizens’ and ‘OTHERS’ channels at various European airports. They too are quintessentially Polish, Romanian, Slovak, Bulgarian, Turkey, et cetera; and their identity is also shaped by their historic experience. But unlike Kipling, they can, and some will, become the citizens of their displaced homes elsewhere in Europe. And like Kipling, they are unlikely to abandon the sense of their original ‘home’ even when they have settled at ‘home away from home’.
The associations of home are all about origin and identity, beginning and belonging that are lasting, enduring through generations. It is an attachment to place that is emotive but consists of far more than love of landscape, ecology and habitat. Home is the receptacle of history, a formation of life and living within a culture that is itself shaped by a particular land, the people who have lived on that land and how they have refined their way of life. Home is the comfort of normality, the place where we learn and develop our normative ideas of what it is to be human to be part of the associations of human existence: family, neighbourhood, community, clan, tribe, nation, Europe. Home is the hook attaching us to past, present and future. Home is the concept through which we identify ourselves and relate our individuality to people beyond ourselves. If this had not been true in the past, for the generations that went before our existence, it is almost impossible to imagine how the sociability of homo sapiens, the social animal, could exist.
The world does not begin afresh for each new generation. We are born and grow in a family that is our home. But the very nature of our family life is shaped by home grown identities that are cultural and historical. Culture is the sum total of our learned behaviour. Culture is expressed through the language we learn, the habits and customs we acquire. Culture fashions our history and is simultaneously the birthright and legacy we inherit. The historic experience of our culture shapes our outlook on the events of today and our aspirations and vision of the future. Part of the essence of cultural identity is a common mind, a shared repository of ideas.
There is a sense in which the concept of home denies that humanity was ever a wanderer. Home is about stasis, the isolation and exclusiveness of an identity that belongs only to defined and bounded group of people born, raised and spending their lives in one place, one culture as one people entire and of themselves. And yet it is unlikely any such people exist anywhere on this earth, or have ever so existed for time out of mind. The reality is human history is tale of displaced homes, of human movement of mutual influence and diffusion created by the simple fact people have never stayed still. Humanity has been a wandering, moving, shifting and changing entity throughout history. Yet that is not the image of history we cherish. Our concept of home eradicates much of the reality that was and is human life. Home is an excluding idea, an idea of place and belonging that divides and differentiates us from them.
And yet it need not be so. Home can be and is the positive and negative pole by which we navigate the best and worst of human identity. At best, home inculcates a sense of identity so secure it has place and space to recognise, respect and extend toleration to everyone, but especially people who do not share our identity. At worst, home is the sense of identity that makes us suspicious, fearful and innately antithetical to anyone who is not just like us. And home is the continuum between these alternate poles of being.
The yearning for home is, not surprisingly, encrusted with ideas of sacredness, a spiritual attachment to place, to people and to history that can elevate human understanding of self and others, or be distorted into hatred of others. The monotheistic religions all teach and encourage the sacredness of home. Ultimately, they teach it is God who is humanity’s true home, and our homing instinct and its cultural expressions are the reflections and signs that lead or should lead to a better appreciation of the divine. Yet, down the ages such expansive ideas that should inspire toleration of others has been resolved into the dictates of God on my side – but not on anyone else’s. This is, of course, equally true of other notions such as ‘my nation right or wrong’, or ‘my territory, my place’ that has no place for others of different faith, culture and ethnicity. Displacement of the meaning of home can be as pernicious a condition as physical displacement from a terrestrial home. But displacement can also be enticed with false promises of rewards – with devastating consequences, as illustrated by Dana Popa’s photographs: a lonely, young female figure, framed by a claustrophobic room that is her prison, looks out of a window covered with a blind, a baby (abandoned?) isolated on a bed, an abandoned wife clutches her baby in a kitchen come sitting room. These are the victims of a new slave trade, the trade in sex trafficking that now plagues Europe. Displacement can be a shroud behind which unspeakable acts of inhumanity are committed.
Our sense of home, of belonging, may be where we all begin but the imperatives of making a living or the consequence of events can have a great bearing on where we actually spend the rest of our days. We live in world shaped as much by displacement as it has been identified with homes. The suitcase in the ‘memory suitcase’ series by Yuval Yairi represents our perennial condition. A suitcase stuffed with memories of home in hand, we go out in search for employment, education, or a better life or simply for a more peaceful place. New opportunities, new discoveries, ecological changes wrought by nature or human activity, shifts of power and disagreements within and between cultures, peoples and nations that are the rumours of wars and effects of wars, have all made displacement a permanent feature of human existence. By choice and the exigencies of circumstance people have always been on the move from home in search of a new home. Displacement has constructed human history as much as the sense of home and the identity it fixes within people.
How do people cope with displacement? How shall we count the innumerable ways in which it works on people and their sense of identity? How do displaced people survive? Piruza Khalapyan’s photograph show us how an African migrant settled down to a multicultural life. When the dust settles, the displaced make a home just like the rest of us.
At best, displacement is the positive agent of constructive change, the introduction of impetus and ideas that enables new developments to emerge. Displacement can bring in it wake the gradual diffusion from which synthesis can be fashioned. People taking new industries, new technologies and ideas to the place where they settle have founded new developments, promoted the well being and enrichment of the places where they settled. Synthesis can be seamless, it can look and feel like the inevitable development of what was and forget what it owes to what has been introduced from outside, brought in by displacement. At worst, displacement can produce the penetrative oppression of one people overwriting the existence, identity and home of another. The colonial imperialist imperative has been at work down the millennia of human history. Indeed archaeologists long conceived of human history as total eradication of one group of people by displaced incomers. Displacement is defined by the sense of home the traveller and settler takes with them, the scale and numbers in which they move and how they set about the business of remaking their displaced homes wherever they come to rest.
Home and displacement are architects that between them have made human history and continue to construct the world in which we live. Yet we harbour very different attitudes to these concepts. What is warm, consoling and comforting about home is vaunted while we look with disfavour on the rupture and challenges that always accompany displacement. How can displaced persons fit into a new location, a new culture, a new nation? They make their adjustment by and through the sense of home they bring with them. It is the human impulse to make a house a home that travels with the displaced. Home is so embedded in our sense of self that the most natural consequence of displacement is to seek out, reconstruct in a new place, elements of familiarity and recreate the means to perform the customs and rituals of one’s cultural identity in a new land. The history of the world is replete with positive and negative examples of how the homing instinct has operated in the process of relocation.
So it is incumbent on us to remember that the history of the European peoples begins with the recreation of displaced homes. The Franks, Huns, Alans, Goths the peoples who became the Europeans all were displaced out of Asia in historic times and through relocation and synthesis fashioned modern national identities, even as they overwrote, included or superseded earlier identities home grown in Europe. European history also demonstrates how rapidly displaced homes become the only home of relocated peoples. Jutes, Angles and Saxons made their way as displaced people from Northern Europe to Britain and there founded a new identity, a new home grown sense of being Anglo Saxon. Other groups from Northern Europe settled in France to become Normans. When the Norman William the Conqueror sallied across the English Channel two identities, from common stock, forged in displaced homes came into direct conflict – and together have fused into the history of Britain.
European nations know a great deal about displaced homes. The modern history of the world has been shaped by the displaced home Europeans carved out for themselves across the globe. The colonial mindset, the ex-patriot way of life, is an archetype of the displaced home. Colonists took their culture and way of life with them and recreated it, as well as they could and such amendments as were acceptable to them, wherever they went. The history of Europe has many negative lessons of what can be wrought by displaced homes, of the tensions and injustices that can be created in the power relations produced by the displacement and relocation of people. And yet, examined in a different light Europe has a wealth of experience on which to draw to find the positive, accommodating and creative possibilities of displaced homes being built within its bounds.
Home tugs at all our heart strings that make us human. Yet, if the tug of home is also an intimation of the divine in each and everyone of us then it is a call to something much greater and beyond ourselves. We have the choice to look and think of home in ways that enable cohesion, acceptance, mutual respect, toleration and synthesis between the multiple or plural ideas of home that exist in today’s Europe. The mass movement of people across the new and extended European Community as the beginning a new, diverse and more innovative ideas of what it means to be European today.
We also face the challenge of withstanding the growing sense of displacement that is consequence of an ever more mobile population. More and more people are faced with the task of making private displaced homes for themselves in faceless cities where all sense of neighbourhood and community has evaporated. After a working life of engagement in place and community more and more people across Europe opt for private dreams of a good life in displaced homes by the sea or in the countryside and end their days without the comforts of family and community around them.
We have much to consider when we think of home. What being at home or in a displaced home actually means is not self evident and given. It is a consciousness, moral challenge we have to construct. We have to choose whether and how we will make Europe home for all who live and come to live here. This is what this exhibition points towards. How we choose will define the future of Europe.
From Close to Home, British Council, London, 2008