Experiences of displacement and longing-for-a-home are very much rooted in the human condition. In this discussion I consider three books focusing on displaced people of distinct diasporas whose experiences, I believe, provide novel insights into not only what exile may mean but how it may, in different ways, condense time and space into symbols, meanings, and narrations of religious, political, or material significance. These include Thomas A. Tweed who approaches the experience of exile of Cubans in Miami by deciphering the material culture inherent in their pilgrimage site and meanings embedded in their rituals while mainly asking how diasporic religion and exile experience may be connected. Sara E. Lewis, meanwhile, explores the exile experience of Tibetan Buddhists in Dharamsala, India by looking into the local processes of resilience and recovery in the face of political violence while asking how human rights campaigns and foreign trauma discourse are situated within a form of life shaped by Buddhist ideals of downplaying personal suffering. Finally, Diana Allan analyzes the experience of exile of Palestinians in Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, drawing our attention to the everyday material reality of their experience while raising the question of what it means for generations born in exile to aspire for a liberated land which they never left and how these refugees may resist against purely nationalist identities and ideals.
Looking into a Catholic shrine in Miami, which has become a pilgrimage site for the exiled Cuban population, Tweed considers the holy statue of the Virgin Mary named Our Lady of Charity and is perplexed by how it wonderfully unites people that cultivate sincere hopes of a return home. Tweed structures his argument by first tracing the history of Cuban and Cuban American devotion to Our Lady of Charity and examines the figure's "locative and nationalistic character" (p.10). By doing so, with the help of statistical data, he is able to observe in what ways the Cuban devotion to this figure has evolved and intensified during exile. Then, by relying on his observations, he analyses the contested meanings of symbols at the shrine by emphasizing the laity-clergy struggle over meanings. He also looks deeper into the diversity of people and their practices at the shrine – arguing how class differences divide visitors in crucial ways. In the latter half of the book, Tweed moves his focus from contested meanings to shared meanings by examining the way religious and nationalist symbols condense time and space – showing how such symbols are embedded in rituals and the material culture. He then concludes by writing about the potential wider implications of his study that narrates the religious history of the Americas and provides some understanding of the religion of the displaced people.
By the author's brief presentation of his historical study of the Cuban exile and Our Lady of Charity figure, we see how a religious figure becomes a vehicle to contested meanings and narrations in nationalist discourse as "most anti-Castro Catholics felt sure about where the Virgin stood in the issue: she stood with them, opposing Castro and socialism and advocating democracy and capitalism" despite how the meanings of these shared symbols have "varied over time and among groups on the island, as has the meaning of Cuban identity" (p.26). The contested meanings and narrations are not only inherent in the historical emergence of the Our Lady of Charity figure but are also prevalent among clergy-laypeople relations. The lay population, not being overly concerned with piety nor the "correctness" in their practice of Catholicism, mostly see the shrine as a place of opportunity to maintain a relationship with the homeland and to collectively hope for its liberation. It really is a fascinating phenomenon of how the variety of people of the Cuban diaspora, coming from different social classes and holding heterogeneous religious backgrounds, views, and practices, seemingly unite as a collective for a single aspiration. This interesting case aids Tweed in raising significant questions concerning the formation of a collective diasporic identity, unity, and narrations based on religious symbols. Yet, the author mostly focuses on how there are contested and competing narrations and symbols instead of what exactly they are and how they co-exist. What do the tensions between laity and evangelizing clergy reveal about the dynamics between religious experience and nationalist sentiments and how do differing religious attitudes co-exist at the shrine? What does the fact that for some Cubans taking a touristic photograph at the shrine becomes a religious practice tell about modern eclectic practices of religion? When some of Tweed's interlocutors combined exercise, leisure, and, piety by, each day, walking around the shrine to improve their fitness – taking "the shrine as health club and the Virgin as exercise partner" (p.73) – how did this redefine piety? Thus, taking several more steps with a deeper analysis of these thought-provoking interactions could have brought about even more compelling arguments and enhanced our understanding of how modern – and seemingly secular – practices become intertwined with religious symbols and create new meanings.
One of the main points of Tweed to take note of is how "for Cubans in Miami and other displaced peoples, diasporic religion, like diasporic nationalism, is transtemporal and translocative" (p.94), that is, the people's shared meanings move between the host country and the homeland and between a constructed past and an imagined future. The author comes to this conclusion not only by his engagement with his interlocutors but also by beautifully capturing the material culture inherent in the site, investigating and deciphering the many symbols that make up the cultural landscape for the exiled Cuban population in the shrine. As an example, according to Tweed, the exterior form of the site "re-creates the contours of the Virgin's cloak, to seek refuge is to cling to the mother's body." The small dark and conical interior space also alludes to the womb. So, "to enter the shrine is to return to the womb; to exit is to be reborn. Further, [...] they go in exiles, alienated from their homeland and its people, and they come out bonded with the island in the diaspora as citizens of the Cuban nation." (p.115) – emphasizing again how all the rituals and festivals that take place indicate how diasporic groups construct a common past and future, while their shared symbols bridge the homeland and the new land. His analysis of the religious aspect of the exile experience of Cubans also argues how "religions can have a vertical and horizontal dimension, and it is the horizontal that is most important for diasporic groups." (p.139). This is not to disregard his acknowledgment of how what we may classify as diasporic groups may "differ in important ways because of the cause, length, density, and environment of the displacement and the character of their religion when they left home." (p.140).
This is a theme picked up by Sara E. Lewis, a cultural/medical anthropologist with a training background in clinical social work, who researches the Tibetan exile community, united with their spiritual pole and leader Dalai Lamai in Darahmsala in India, "wanting to understand local processes of resilience and recovery, with a particular interest in how Buddhist practices might shape responses to traumatic events" (p.1). In a context in which Tibetan political activists feel compelled to circulate narrations and pieces of evidence of trauma and suffering for human rights campaigns, Lewis questions whether Tibetans experience trauma but not talk about it or whether their experience altogether is different. "If resilience in the face of political violence and resettlement is not sufficiently defined by the absence of psychological symptoms", then the author wonders, "what defines resilience for Tibetans" (p.8-9). And, perhaps more distinctively and importantly, Lewis asks the question of how do Tibetans – who "tend to down play or even deny their own trauma" (p.3) – uphold their government-in-exile identity which is intertwined with human rights issues and experiences of disenfranchisement and political oppression. To find answers to these questions, Lewis attempts to dive deep into the Tibetan Buddhist understandings of suffering, pain, compassion, memory, and narration while presenting a critique concerning the universalizing assumptions of the human rights discourse which, by universalizing Western assumptions of bodily and psychic experiences, may overlook alternative meanings that humans may inscribe to "traumatic" events. When it comes to the organization of her argument, Lewis first describes Tibetan political history from the early 1900s to contemporary times and some important differences with regard to social classes in the community. She then looks into the Buddhist approach of resilience in encountering life's inevitable problems and how for Tibetans pain and suffering becomes an "opportunity for transformation" (p.19). Having provided the Tibetan Buddhist principles of perceiving and managing distress, Lewis contrasts her interlocutors' understanding of violence and pain to that of North American therapeutics of trauma, as Tibetans tend to "deconstruct both the legitimacy and the utility of holding tightly to 'my story'" (p.19). Having provided the different understandings and approaches to trauma in Western psychiatry and Tibetan Buddhism, the author proceeds to present the curious paradox that emerges as a result of Tibetan political rights and resistance campaigns by Tibetan political activists who feel the need to appropriate foreign ideas as a political device, rather than for psychological healing. Finally, Lewis digs deeper into the Tibetan practices of creating a 'spacious mind' and its relation to agency. Considering how suffering is culturally shaped and how distress and difficulty are part of life, the author argues against the idea of 'victim mentalities' and contends that such Tibetan understandings and practices actually promote agency against political violence – providing an alternative approach to outsiders.
Perhaps, a reason for the author's approach and interest stems from her own background and experiences in clinical social work, providing her the tools that help her investigate the curious and thought-provoking tensions between 'resilience' in the framework of 'karma'; and 'trauma' in the context 'psychotherapy' or 'psychiatry'. So, the book justifiably centers on the literature of anthropology of ethics, morality, and Buddhism rather than that of exile – although, there are important points to be drawn regarding the exile experience, hence the book's inclusion in this book review essay. On top of being extra careful in not exoticizing her interlocutors, Lewis also pays attention to how there is not one homogenous religious population that challenges modernity in every way as she presents different lives with different motives – from the highest-ranking monks to an ex-monk that works in a touristic cafe and aspires to study in the US. So, the book stumbles into a set of long-standing concerns within the anthropological study of religion, "namely the distinctions (and overlaps) between religious scripture and everyday practice" (p.58). In addition to the brilliance of the aforementioned questions raised by the author, her work helps readers consider some other questions that are not addressed in the book. I could not help but wonder what it would mean when a religious figure, such as Dalai Lama, becomes the uniting glue of a diaspora while not every person is strictly religious. What would this reality say about our assumptions of the notion of religion, identity, and, diaspora? Unfortunately, I also feel like Lewis leaves some fascinating questions that she raised not well answered – especially when it comes to the dilemma of Tibetan political activists who worried that signs of strength, resilience, and recovery "may weaken their political campaign" and who "have revamped local sensibilities of 'telling trauma' by encouraging their country-mates to disseminate their stories of violence to the world" (p.115), leading Tibetans to see the narration of stories of suffering as an exceptional case when done for a good political cause, although how much, under normal circumstances, it could be a sign of a weak mind. This issue that she touches upon, I believe, is rather crucial as it connects her work with anthropological critique of humanitarianism – morally driven actions and motives that base themselves on the totalizing and universalizing discourse of human rights, producing problematic assumptions that lead to unjust epistemological hierarchies.
Lewis presents and argues how "there are bitter divisions within the diaspora yet Tibetans are highly motivated to present themselves as a cohesive community" (p.5) – suggesting that "Tibetans are not refugees on individual terms but as part of a nation-state community, or more accurately, a nation-state in exile" (p.4). With this state of things, also a discourse of and practices that center on the idea of 'return to homeland' emerges. The author points at this case by signifying how, although living in India offers a degree of pragmatic freedom, "the refusal to pledge their citizenship (first to China, and now to India or Nepal) is a power move to stake their own claim to future citizenship in a free Tibet" (p.26). While remarkably approaching the ethical experiences and moral frameworks of these Tibetans in exile, Lewis manages to neither victimize nor normalize the experience of the Tibetans as she touches upon many stories that involve heavy tortures, self-immolations, and imprisonments – which, I believe, should be recognized as a key strength of her analysis. Such stories provide how her interlocutors make sense of their situation while connecting to a broader community that aspires for a free Tibet where the spirit of Dalai Lama would hopefully reside again. Compared with the previous case of Cubans, both the diasporic groups have a significant religious symbol/figure that becomes the uniting center of the exiled community – despite the individual differences – aiding the community in connecting under a common purpose. Yet the configuration of symbols is quite different in these two experiences of exile. In the case of Cubans, Our Lady of the Charity is not the reason for exile but the aftermath of it as it eventually becomes a vehicle to certain stories and meanings that are linked to anti-Castro discourse. On the other hand, Dalai Lama is not a product of exile but rather the reason for it as many Tibetans see him as a spiritual pole to be united with and who ought to return to 'homeland'. In the former, the exile experience shapes the meanings inscribe to the religious figure, in the latter, however, the values that the religious figure expresses shape the exile experience. The terms transtemporal and translocative too are perhaps not applicable in the same ways for the Tibetan case. Even though the Tibetans too move between a constructed past of a harmonious Tibet and an imaged future of a free Tibet with Dalai Lama and shift symbolically between the homeland and the new land, the imagined future is not as clear because of the ambiguity that Dalai Lama passing away outside Tibet may bring which not only may shift 'homeland' to where the new Dalai Lama emerges but also challenges the tradition of having a Dalai Lama.
In the final account, Diana Allan reports on fieldwork in a refugee camp in Shatila in Lebanon to ask: "how do local material conditions shape the way refugees think, feel, and act? How are identity and belonging perceived and enacted by refugees themselves? How are social relations and interdependencies and solidarities that hold people together created and sustained? How is home conceptualized?" (p.214). Adopting a phenomenological lens, Allan argues that for many refugees in the camp, "prior to the questions, who am I? or where do I belong? comes the question, can I exist? Life itself has become uncertain" (p.97). According to her, the field of Palestinian studies has been dominated by the discourse on Palestinians as political actors and agents of resistance, and less focus has been on "the social, material, and affective worlds that refugees inhabit and negotiate from day to day" (p.25). Her fascinating and brilliantly written ethnography sheds light on "the central role that doubt, identity, and misfortune play in structuring social and moral life" (p.27) and challenges such scholarship by presenting how the strong tendency to see Palestinian refugees as historical and ideological subjects but not contemporary material ones has become distortive. And so Allan's writing aims to look into "the interplay between canonical narratives of return to Palestine and local material realities of camp life" (p.2). She structures her argument by first looking into the politics of commemorative practice in Shatila and how memories of the 1948 expulsion are structured and to what extent refugees born in exile invest in this past. Allan then looks into the relations of social life and the material practices of camp refugees who connect with each other to live through the social, economic, and political realities of the camp life. She then digs into how "structures of power have become enmeshed in battles over electricity provision in the camp" (p.31) – revealing the informal politics and resistance against corrupt local leadership. Having touched upon the material aspect of the camp, Allan proceeds to investigate how refugees generate societal hope through social, imaginative, and spiritual strategies – engaging in dream interpretations and the language of emigration (hijra). Having focused on aspirations of migration and reclaiming agency, Allan concludes her book by presenting how the politicized nationalist discourse of the right to return "presupposes fixed relations to the past and to place, as well as conceptions of nation and home" (p.33) – one that overlooks distinct forms of "Palestiniannesses" produced.
A significant detail in the context of her research is how the Lebanese government and the Palestinian voices share a common ground in which it is believed that Palestinians should not be integrated into Lebanon for them to maintain their political ideals concerning returning to a liberated home – leading to the lack of support provided by the Lebanese government to Palestinian refugees. According to the author, such expectations (and highly politicized discourses regarding the Palestinian cause) result in the creation of a hierarchy of voices that downplays the camp refugees' concerns. In other words, the politics of commemoration has "created a hierarchy of experiences deemed worthy of retention and fostered the belief that daily life in Palestinian communities – in all its minutiae – is always a direct reflection of larger political forces" (p.41). As a result, along with almost-institutionalized collective memories (via NGOs, cultural centers, and so on), macrohistories masquerade as microhistories in refugees' recalling of memories and experiences of decades of exile. So, Allan tries to capture how, in contexts of radical uncertainty and poverty, Palestinian camp refugees in Shatila "seek to understand and alleviate the problems they face through purposeful actions" (p.28). She achieves this by doing an anthropological study of 'ethic of care' via looking into the debt relations, emigration networks, electricity distribution, dream interpretations, and so on, and reveals the constant tensions and modes of sociality forming and being shaped in the camp. These interactions, according to Allan, showcase dynamically evolving identities and cumulative experiences of exile instead of a fixed relation to territory and home.
Despite bringing crucial arguments to the table, Allan does not provide much food-for-thought when it comes to the usage of the terms such as 'exile', 'refugee', and 'diaspora'. I think that she could have developed her rich ethnography to engage theoretically with these concepts. Some of her findings concerning the inner dynamics of the Palestinian diaspora, I believe, could be significant and much revealing in the power dynamics that may be inherent in these concepts. In the book, we see how her camp refugee interlocutors were mostly preoccupied with the material reality of poverty and hardship yet felt it taboo-like to publicly speak of their daily struggles and the lack of resources in the camp. Comments that may potentially undermine the aspiration to 'return' were frowned upon by the more privileged groups in the diaspora, who acted as the primary spokespeople, and whose "exclusion of camp refugees seemed a conscious oversight" (p.209). For instance, Allan mentions and criticizes the remarks of a Palestinian legal scholar who, after seeing a survey result that found out how the majority of camp refugees would choose to remain instead of electing to return if material conditions in Lebanon improved, made comments which "implied that poverty and marginalization limited the ability of camp refugees to recognize their own political predicament" (p.209-210). I believe this thought-provoking case, in a way, illuminates a potential tension and a distinction that could be made between the concept of 'exile' and 'refugee' – as, perhaps, the term 'exile' here would be aptly applicable to more elitist privileged groups in the diaspora who claim representation of 'refugees'. We see a dominant discourse produced by political and nationalist ideals of a certain privileged group in the diaspora who could be considered as living the 'exile' experience while overlooking the more material concerns of 'refugees'. The poor and the disenfranchised are disqualified from representation due to their supposedly limited ability to know what they should be wanting as their vision is supposedly clouded by their daily material concerns. In other words, in this case, the 'exile' experience, which may be thought to be shared by all the members of the diaspora that long for the liberation of Palestine and a return, actually has to separate and distance itself from the 'refugee' experience to claim validity for a unified political and nationalist predicament. As Edward Said (2000) claims, exiles are often self-claimed conditions that only become apparent through individual expressions which attempt to cross physical borders and challenge barriers of thought and ordeal; whereas being a refugee carries a stigmatizing label which, at the same time, is a binding legal status that encloses one with borders and barriers. This is, of course, not to claim that these concepts are mutually exclusive. Hence, although some scholars may not see much importance in differentiating the terms' use, I believe looking more closely into what sort of power configurations and dynamics that these terms may produce within a diaspora, from an insider point of view, is crucial and should not be overlooked.
Borrowing Tweed's ideas, if we are to look at these three interesting cases of communal experience of exile, we see that a mutual point is how there is an imagined community glued with translocative and transtemporal meanings, asserting a cohesive unity which all three scholars bring to question in different ways – although the intensity of translocative-ness and transtemporal-ness differs in each case. The condensing of time and space in these experiences – and even identities – of exile provides much more mobility in understanding the conception of 'home' as the individual's sense of belonging eclipses physical boundaries and challenges contemporary realities. For the Cubans in Miami, according to Tweed, the return to a democratic and capitalist homeland is "only a matter of when that will happen [...]. For now, however, Cubans at Miami shrine still ask 'How long must we wait?'" (p.141). When the Tibetans in Dharamsala refuse to pledge their citizenship to China and India, they also refuse to be belonging to the time-space point that their physical living may be trapped in and aspire for a free Tibet and the return of Dalai Lama. Although not necessarily concerning a liberated Palestine, when the refugees in Shatila engage with dream talk, they are less constrained by the present circumstances as they develop vocabularies to talk about the future – overstepping the physical reality and immersing into the symbols in the dream world, nourishing hope.
Yet, this sort of idealization of the exile experience, as Allan warns us, should not lead us to reduce the aspiring-for-a-return-to-home exiled people to simply historical and ideological subjects. Translocative and transtemporal symbols and meanings that create imagined communities and aspired imaginations also include the contemporary material reality that the subjects share and utilize. In other words, the exiled community's shared meanings and symbols – which condense time and space by moving between the homeland and the new land and traversing between a constructed past and an imagined future – do not really transcend the material conditions that the group shares at the time. In fact, if we are to piece together the different approaches and questions of the authors, we see how it is the contemporary material reality that provides ground and opportunity for the exiled community to create and share meanings, symbols, and narrations while forging dynamically evolving identities according to the cumulative experiences of exile or the accompanying conditions. By looking at Tweed's approach, we see how the shrine not only is a vehicle to many meanings that he analyses but is, as a site of pilgrimage, also able to physically and socially create a unity – representing and cultivating the unending hope of Cubans as long as it stands. The site also breeds new symbols and meanings, creating dynamically evolving identities, as the visitors of various backgrounds bring in new elements from their contemporary lives to the site and rituals. When it comes to the Tibetans and the questions Lewis raises, we find an embodied collectivity that centers on the figure of Dalai Lama whose personage is a symbol for a unified – and perhaps liberated – state of Tibet. In this sense, the material aspect of Dalai Lama, his presence, and his body's physical location in Dharamsala plays an important role in both translocative and transtemporal aspects of the religious group. Yet what transcends this materiality, that is the potential incarnation elsewhere – outside the occupied lands of Tibet – may add to the uncertainty to 'return to homeland', creating evolving identities depending on what Dalai Lama, as the spiritual pole, says, does or where he re-incarnates. And when it comes to Allan's findings regarding her Palestinian interlocutors, the material everyday reality that the camp refugees need to overcome by purposeful actions creates new forms of "Palestinianness" that challenge the nationalist ideals of the more elite groups in the diaspora – dynamically re-structuring exile identities.
The idea of dynamically evolving identities during exile also echo Sandra Dudley's argument that concepts such as 'home' or 'memory' which may be thought to be concerned with the past, in fact, constitute "complex, embodied actions, experiences and things which belong and are continually being made in the present." (2010, p. 159). When the Tibetan interlocutors of Lewis were faced with the conditions of playing the game of humanitarianism, they not only had to re-structure their memories of the past but their perception of memory and narration itself, by choosing to narrate their sufferings instead of showing resilience and striving for a spacious mind as Tibetan Buddhist practices would normally suggest. When the Cubans in Miami engaged in a feast day ritual, according to Tweed, the collective remembering experience differed from generation to generation as for the older ones it was more about recalling their life on the island while the newer generations born in exile positioned themselves in a time that was important to those they loved. Thus, as is evident in the differing aspirations and sentiments Allan's interlocutors had, "return" is not a simple process. It is not simply that exile is a detachment from the present and longing for a fixed idea of home. Rather, as Amanda Wise writes, "the whole range of diasporic cultural experience is created in and through a different set of connections and needs to be seen in its specificity as occurring within particular social, cultural and historical junctures." (2006, p. 86). And with these brilliantly written books, along with the authors' distinct approaches and questions, we see how the diasporic cultural experience is lived and dynamically shaped by different factors – be it via evolving religious practices and ideas, humanitarian efforts of political activism, or everyday material reality.
Dudley, S. H. (2010). Materialising Exile: Material Culture and Embodied Experience Among Karenni Refugees in Thailand. New York: Berghahn Books.
Said, E. W. (2000). Reflections on Exile: And Other Literary and Cultural Essays. London: Granta Books.
Wise, A. (2006). Exile and Return Among the East Timorese. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Image credit: Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash
Blog post by Huzeyfe Kıran, The Chinese University of Hong Kong#
This blog post reviews the following books:
Allan, D. (2014). Refugees of the Revolution: Experiences of Palestinian Exile. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Lewis, S. E. (2020). Spacious Minds: Trauma and Resilience in Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
Tweed, T. A. (1997). Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine in Miami. New York: Oxford University Press.
Read relevant Identities articles:
Unexpected places: land, words and silence in a Mapuche family trajectory of (dis)placement
Narratives of exile twenty years on: long-term impacts of Indonesia’s 1998 violence on transnational Chinese-Indonesian women
The 3rd May, a photograph: identities of and beyond displacement
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