Book Review: Palestinians Born in Exile: Diaspora and the Search for a Homeland / Juliane Hammer

Hammer, Juliane. Palestinians Born in Exile: Diaspora and the Search for a Homeland. University of Texas Press, 2005.

In this ethnographic book Juliane Hammer, a scholar of Religious Studies with a focus on Islam, writes about the different ways Palestinians born in exile subjectivize their Palestinian identity and how they experience ‘return’ to homeland. She has interviewed 60 young Palestinians from various backgrounds, either those that come from a Western country or from another Arab country—who have had the chance to go to Palestine after peace negotiations during Oslo Accords in the early 90s—and has interviewed them in the years 1998-1999. Thus, the book relies mostly on the accounts of her interviewees and has little room for participant-observation, limiting the scope of the study to Ramallah/Jerusalem area. Since the interviewees were born and raised in the diaspora, Hammer is curious about what it was that tied them to a homeland they did not know and how they could not feel at home in any other place. For her, “the pride they took in their material culture, such as music, poetry, dance, embroidery, and food, was unfamiliar and surprising” (p.3). And she presents how their idealized image of Palestine that was constructed via oral narrations, images, and other forms of material culture had to confront that of reality when they returned. So, Hammer is also interested in the play in identities of the returnees once they face reality and look into their plans for the future. I believe the questions she pursues are quite significant as the idea of a return to homeland is a rather crucial aspect of the exile experience yet the return and the experience it may entail itself is usually uncertain as it is in the future. Yet, in this study, a return (in different aspects) indeed occurred; however, the idea of homeland was still questionable due to the occupation that Palestine still suffered at the time. So, it is reasonable to also bring up the question “even if physical return to one’s place of origin is possible, is it really ‘return’, or is it rather the discovery of a new homeland?” (p.10). The experiences of the returnees that Hammer presents provide interesting insights that make one re-question the categories or concepts of ‘exile’, ‘diaspora’, ‘return’, and ‘homeland’. 

Since the author interviewed a significant amount of Palestinians from very different backgrounds, identities, ideas, and aspirations, I believe it was inevitable that the book would turn out to be mostly about identity and the mutual adjustment process between the locals and returnees; while also shedding a light on how “the realities of Palestine, the ongoing occupation, the difficult economic and social conditions, and the problems with Palestinian Authority replaced the idealized image with a complex picture of Palestinian society” (p.222). Despite my own disinterest in the topic of identity, I think that the book is still very much revealing about many other subjects and themes and thus has plenty of strengths. First of all, the author presents how the notion of nationalism is much more complex than Anderson’s definition “as Palestinians so far have no state and the historical circumstances that led to the emergence of Palestinian National Movement are complicated” (p.24). It is also quite compelling to see that nationalist sentiments and narratives of Palestinians were not based on “education, museums, memorials, media, coins, and stamps, but rather were confined to telling bits of the story, developing many narratives, but still lacking one Palestinian history” (p.40). When Hammer writes about the creation of the two categories by local Palestinians to describe returnees—that is Amrikan (those that come from a Western country) and Aideen (those that come from an Arab country)—she makes the crucial point of how “migration not only changes the lives of those who migrate but it also questions those who stay behind about their aspirations in life and their relationship to migration” (p.21). These categories had different implications and meanings for the locals while being constantly transformed and re-negotiated. Thus, we see how the fact of wanting to return to a homeland may be shared among the diaspora but their aspirations and potential experiences are also very much shaped by their previous migration experience. The book also presents rather significant arguments about the elusive usages of the terms ‘exile’, ‘diaspora’, and ‘refugees’. She provides different arguments from various intellectuals who question what it means to be Palestinian and what terms should be used which would not deny their right to return to their homeland and have sovereignty as a people. For instance, “for Palestinian politicians, as well as scholars, and individuals, insist on using the term refugees” (p.59) as they believe it is this claim that helps their ideals of return and sovereignty—because the label recognizes that there is a problem requiring a solution. On the other hand, the nature of expressions of exile is individualistic and the usage of ‘diaspora’ can be a bit problematic depending on its definition as it could deny their claim to their homeland and eliminate the very language of the need to change their situation (p.57-58). Hammer’s introduction of the terms that people used, such as ghurbaal-watan, and al-balad, is quite enlightening as these terms question the terms that we use in understanding migration, exile, or return because they have a rather different sociocultural context with tangents to Islamic theology and philosophy. The author also makes use of the concepts of liminality in drawing a framework of the return process, which provides some anthropological richness and extends the notions of pre-liminal, liminal, post-liminal to five stages of return decision, arrival in Palestine, meeting Palestine, living in Palestine, and ‘staying in Palestine?’. 

In addition to the aforementioned strengths and significant points of the book, I believe there are some weaknesses as well. To me, the most disappointing aspect of the book was its organization. I don’t think that the chapters were organized well as each chapter contained many aspects or themes that some other chapter too looked into; and there were no clear distinctions between what each chapter argued for. Perhaps this has to do with the hardship of bundling themes that may derive from 60 accounts which are most of the time very individualistic stories which may make it hard to draw a more holistic image of the situation. Since the book heavily relies on interviews, I think the methodology followed makes the reading of the book rather dry. Perhaps some ethnographic accounts of Hammer’s own observations in Jerusalem and Ramallah would have been a significant contribution to her arguments as I am rather surprised to see that she has not done so. I would have personally wished that the author expanded more on some of her points about the categories of exile, refugee, and diaspora. When she discusses these terms, she usually refers to the sayings of Palestinian intellectuals or other scholars but not the accounts of her informants. Also, when she describes the material culture that forms the idealized image of Palestine to the diaspora members, she could have done a more in-depth analysis of the symbols that were negotiated instead of a narration of what objects or practices at home in the host country helped the diaspora members link themselves to the homeland. I also wish that she presented more about the case of Christian Palestinians and their own negotiations of Palestinian identity, which seems to be a very Islamic one if we are to base our understanding on what the Muslim Palestinians said.

Overall, I think that the book could be considered a rather important contribution to the ethnographic literature on exile—especially her introduction of the terms that people themselves used enrich our understanding of how people may perceive their exile and migration experience and how it shapes their ideas of homeland. Also, since the case that she investigates topples our standard understandings of the nation-state, boundaries, and historicity, Hammer’s work can be brought to a further analysis in re-thinking these concepts which are very much shaped by Anderson’s work and the line of thinking that followed. Some of the author’s points on the negotiation of religious identity before and after their return are too significant because it brings up how much religion is intertwined with nationalist sentiments and how belonging to different categories of returnees by the locals shapes the expected religiosity from the individuals in a general sense. 

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