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Tired of Being a Refugee

Fiorella Larissa Erni

4. Identity, Identification and Nationalism

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If identity is everywhere, it is nowhere. If it is fluid, how can we understand the ways in which self-understandings may harden, congeal, and crystallize? If it is constructed, how can we understand the sometime coercive force of external identifications? If it is multiple, how do we understand the terrible singularity that is often striven for - and sometimes realized - by politicians seeking to transform mere categories into unitary and exclusive groups? How can we understand the power and pathos of identity politics?
- Brubaker and Cooper, 2000: 1

1In the past decade, there has been an overall sentiment of fatigue regarding the concept of identity in Social Anthropology. This is partly due to the essentialist abuse of the concept in identity politics, its misuse by journalists, the countless attempts of various academic disciplines to grasp the concept of identity in its totality, as well as its overuse in popular discourse, which usually marks the point at which academia drops a concept and invents viable alternatives for it. Nevertheless, in many cases identity remains an indispensable concept of analysis. The fact is that for the Palestinians, identity is not only the source of severest discrimination, but also the only means of claiming rights and maintaining their existence as a people. This shows that, for them, and many others in similar situations, the notion of identity is indispensable for maintaining the hope of a better future. In order to analyse young Palestinians’ relationship to their identity and their interpretation of it, this paragraph will introduce a few concepts which are of importance for later analysis.

2This ePaper works on the premise that identity is a social construct. An important part of the following discussion is about national identitythe Palestinian national identity. A nation is a social as well as a political construct that is the basis for an individual’s national identity. A nation is the result of the national aspirations of a group of people that believe they share a collective identity; “it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson, [1983] 2006: 5/6). A nation does not imperatively have its own nation state; it is the nationalist aspiration of a people, nationalism, which fixes national identity to a physical place and a socially constructed space. “Like ethnic ideologies, nationalism stresses the cultural similarity of its adherents and, by implication, it draws boundaries vis-à-vis others, who thereby become outsiders. The distinguishing mark of nationalism is, by definition, its relationship to the state” (Gellner, 1983 in Eriksen, 2010: 10). A nation without a state – such as the Palestinians, but also the Kurds, the Sikhs or the Sri Lankan Tamils – who have political leaders that claim entitlement to their own sovereign nation state are called proto-nations (Eriksen, 2010). As Gellner ([1983] 2006) observes, nationalism comes before the nation: “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist” (Gellner, [1983] 2006: 169). This may be true for European nations. However in the context of imperialism, where it was the Europeans who drew state borders fairly arbitrarily, the question of what came first – the nation or nationalist sentiments – takes on quite different dimensions. In fact, the Arabic term watan (homeland) is a relatively new one, which emerged with the formation of nation states in the region; it does not share the same long history as its European equivalent. It has nonetheless become one of the most powerful terms in determining identity and belonging along nation state borders. For the Palestinians, watan serves as an influential unifying symbol around which all narratives and the essence of their identity is constructed. As Hart (2005) observed, seeing national identity as monolithic in an essentialist sense is likely to be encouraged by conflict and displacement. In the age of nation states, people are classified along very rigid borders and they are accordingly issued identity papers by the state – a nationality – the sole source of claims to rights and being seen as a complete human being: “A man must have a nationality as he must have a nose and two ears; a deficiency in any of these particularities is not inconceivable and does from time to time occur, but only as a result of some disaster, and it is itself a disaster of a kind” (Chamisso in Gellner, [1983] 2006: 6).

  • 1  One should bear in mind however that Palestinians who take on Lebanese nationality are often seen (...)

3Therefore, having a nationality and belonging to a state are crucial for being seen as human rather than “less than human” (Butler, 2004). It is consequently often pointed out as the determining factor of a person’s identity. National identity and nationality, with very few exceptions, are seen as a person’s main, fixed attribute, which is both ascribed by others and, in many cases, also self-ascribed. The greatest problem of the Palestinians in Lebanon is that they do not have a nationality (jinsiyyat), be this Palestinian, Lebanese or other, that would grant them civil rights in Lebanon or elsewhere. For them, national identity and nationality are therefore two very different things. Nationality (jinsiyyat) is seen merely as a piece of paper that grants them rights.1 A student once explained to me that she was free to do whatever she wanted because she had the nationality (‘indii al-jinsiyyat), referring not to Palestinian nationality, but Lebanese. She told me that her parents had bought the Lebanese nationality many years ago in order to secure their childrens’ rights. On the contrary, national identity cannot mean anything other than the Palestinian identity, and it is linked to the sense of belonging to Palestine: a relation to the homeland (watan) and the Palestinian people. This also explains why many Palestinians who have the Lebanese nationality still choose to live in camps. Drawing on Palestinian national identity, the Lebanese government refuses to grant them civil rights, and they remain, legally speaking, “stateless foreigners”. National identity is therefore the absolute “imperative status” (Barth, 1969) for Palestinians, and in inquiries about their identity (hawiyyat) it would always be mentioned first. Even though Palestinians’ national identity is doubtless an important part of their identity, there are always other aspects to it.

4Having established that identity is to some degree a social construct, subject to political imposition, and that national identity is just one aspect of a person’s identity, I will move on to defining identity aside from passports and identity cards.

5Identity can be seen as a tool to make sense of ourselves in our social environment, and as a means “through which individuals understand themselves in their social context” (Elbedour et al., 1997: 217). Or as Lévi-Strauss said, “[identity is] a sort of vital center to which we must refer to explain certain things, but without it ever having real existence” (Quoted in Brubaker and Cooper, 2000: 9). Identity gives us a sense of belonging and it is a source of opportunities as well as constraints. Identity is partly self-ascribed and partly ascribed by others. In popular discourse, identity is the answer to the question “Who are you?” Still, the concept of identity is more complex than that. Johann Gottlieb Fichte would answer the question “Who are you?” with “Ich bin ich!” (I am I). “Identity means being the same as oneself as well as being different” (Eriksen, 2010: 71). Two entities must be considered in the study of identity: the collective and the individual. Sameness and difference may be individually and collectively perceived subjectively, or attributed to individuals and collectives by others. “There is no simple sameness unmarked by difference, but likewise no distinction not dependent on some background of common origin” (Jenkins, 2003: 9). It is only possible to determine sameness when we can determine otherness; hence identity is based on a constitutive other. As Said observed in Orientalism:

[…] the development and maintenance of every culture requires the existence of another, different and competing alter ego. The construction of identity […] involves the construction of the opposite ‘others’ whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and reinterpretation of their differences from ‘us’. (In Khalidi, [1997] 2010: 10)

6In this sense, collective identity is exclusive, which means not everyone can take part in a group as he or she pleases (Eriksen, 2010). This process is the construction of the I and you and the us and you. Within the group, this process leads to what Sartre calls the construction of “us-hood” and “we-hood”; us-hood is the loyalty and social integration of individuals in a group in relation to the other group, and we-hood is the social integration based on shared activities within a collectivity (Eriksen, 2010). However, only those features of sameness that the group members themselves regard as noteworthy and socially important are objectively identifiable (Barth, 1969). Such collective identities are strengthened and maintained through belief in a shared ancestry, a shared history and narratives, collective action, shared consciousness, dispositions and solidarity (Brubaker and Cooper, 2000). Conflict and outside pressure tend to intensify collective identities, and individuals tend to take on their collective identity as their “imperative status” (Barth, 1969), which overshadows other identities. Moreover, in such situations, individuals also tend to classify their opponents by their collective identity in an essentialist manner. Likewise, conflict enhances group cohesion, as Simmel’s Rule states: “internal cohesion of a group is contingent on the strength of external pressure” (quoted in Eriksen, 2001: 22). Elbedour et al. (1997) argue that this process homogenises the individual members of the in-group, because in these situations individuals form their identity as intertwined around and connected to the conflict. Collective social identities are also particularly important for diasporas who must maintain the sentiment of connection to a specific identity that is attached to a homeland. This strategy works in resisting the normalised processes of distancing, assimilating and forgetting (Clifford, 1994). In the case of transnationalism, forced migration and occupation, it is resistanceto assimilation that leads to essentialism and to a solidification of particular collective social identities constructed on locality. What is more, it also creates new identities that are connected to collective action (Gupta and Ferguson, 1997). Therefore, in such cases, the notion of homeland is often one of the most powerful unifying symbols. However, there is a bi-focality of the notion of homeland that may lead to serious tensions: the homeland as a unifying symbol and place of desire from a distance, or the homeland that becomes a lived-in space (Gupta and Ferguson, 1997).

7Even though one could argue that the Palestinians find themselves in the exact situation of transnationalism and conflict that tends to homogenise individuals and to “essentialise” the collective identity (national identity in the Palestinian case), this analysis shows how among the young Palestinians of the fourth refugee generation there is space for individual identities to emerge. No matter how important a person’s collective identity may be, every person has an individual identity and a social identity, which signals that individuals are part of “a variety of relationships, occupy different roles, and are members of different organizations, groups, and communities. They identify themselves to, and are in turn identified by, others in terms of any of these” (Parekh, 2009: 272). The person’s individual and social identity makes up his or her overall identity (Parekh, 2009). Shibutani (1955) argues that every person, in some way or the other, is an actor who performs for an audience that he or she values. The audience – the significant others – serve as reference groups. According to Shibutani (1955), this audience may be real or entirely imagined. The reference group can on the one hand be an individual’s we-group, but it can also be a group the individual does not belong to, but values. In order to establish group identity, people take on the values, attributes and behaviour of the reference group (Elbedour et al., 1997). With this in mind, we can conclude that a person’s overall identity is inherently plural, and it has multiple foci. Or, to be more precise, a person’s ego is plurally made up of a multitude of identities. Therefore people develop hierarchies of identity, and it is this situation that defines according to which of these identities a person behaves or acts (Stryker, 1987 in Elbedour et al., 1997).

8As I have shown, the notion of identity has many aspects and it can be a slippery concept to grasp. Therefore it is a problematic analytical concept. In the literature, a strong emphasis is placed on the fact that identity is a dialogue; that it is plural, situational, contextual, relational, in flux and temporal – all words with “no meaning” as Brubaker and Cooper (2000) would say. Indeed the concept is, as Tilly said, “blurred but indispensable” (quoted in Brubaker and Cooper, 2000: 12). Developing this line of thought, Brubaker and Cooper (2010) wrote in their article “Beyond Identity” about how the notion of identity could be substituted. They argue that identity either means too little or too much. Therefore, they propose the concept of identification to substitute the notion of identity. They write on identification:

It invites us to specify the agents that do the identifying. And it does not presuppose that such identifying (even by powerful agents, such as the state) will necessarily result in the internal sameness, the distinctiveness, the bounded groupness that political entrepreneurs may seek to achieve. Identification - of oneself and of others - is intrinsic to social life; "identity" in the strong sense is not.

(Brubaker and Cooper, 2000: 14)

9They posit that identification is relational (student-teacher for instance) or categorical (a group of people who share some categorical attribute, such as language). They go on to argue that it is on the one hand a self-identification, and on the other hand identification through others. They conclude that while identity is a condition, identification is a process. This is where I would like to take up Brubaker and Cooper, and use the concept of identification – not, however, as a substitute for the notion of identity, but as a supplement to it. Looking at the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, I would argue that an individual or collective has some identities (self-ascribed or ascribed by others) that are, even if socially constructed, a given (or if not a given, at least very hard to overcome in the individual’s social context). Besides these “strong” identities – such as national identity – an individual or collective has other “weak” identities that are easier to overcome and change in time. Therefore, at certain points, some aspects of an individual’s identity can indeed be considered a condition. Despite this, each individual and collective is capable of interpreting and giving meaning to his or her identity, whether self-ascribed or ascribed by others. Moreover, an individual as well as a collective can interpret and give meaning to the identity of the “other”. The process of giving meaning to an identity, and of choosing an identity, is what I would call identification. Looking at identification from this perspective, it is indeed a dialogue; it is situational, contextual, relational and temporal, even though the identity may remain the same.

10Hence, unlike scholars who believe identity to be temporal, contextual, and in flux, I believe that identity is quite stable. It is the process of giving meaning to identity – the process of identification – that is in a constant state of negotiation and change. This point may be illustrated by the finding that among young Palestinians of the fourth refugee generation in Lebanon, young people gave a new meaning to their Palestinian national identity. On the collective level, young Palestinians have creatively reinterpreted what Palestinianness means, but this fact does not imply that their national identity has changed – it is still the Palestinian national identity. On the individual level, each child and young person in Burj al-Shamali has his or her own idea of what it means to be a Palestinian, and therefore he or she gives his or her national identity its own meaning. It is both their individual and collective identification as Palestinians that give their identity a meaning. I would therefore argue that the process whereby an individual gives meaning to an identity and chooses new identities is what we could call “identification”. Consequently, even though identity may remain apparently static in its meaning, identification is very flexible and open to interpretation. Barth (1969) makes this very point when he observes that culture is the result of ethnic group organisation and not its precondition, and therefore an ethnic group will remain the same even if its culture changes. Consistently with Barth’s notion of status identity and role, Jenkins (2003) also argues in a similar vein when he observes that social identity is both nominal (a name) and virtual (an experience or meaning, etc.), the former being a process of categorization, and the latter a process of internal identification.


1  One should bear in mind however that Palestinians who take on Lebanese nationality are often seen as traitors by the Palestinian community - even though to them it may be just a piece of paper.


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