Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Blood and Soil: Nationality

"Our true Nationality is Mankind"
HG Wells

It's often said that you can choose your friends but not your family. I would go further still: your truest friends become family. By this token, surely a man's nationality has far more to do with a feeling of personal allegiance and belonging than with the stamp on his birth certificate or passport? Since writing about Irishness around St Patrick's Day, I've been considering what is formally implied by nationality, and what the word might evoke for you and me.
My brother-in-law and I are polar opposites politically. I know he likes to wind me up about things I'm passionate about: I suppose I would think something was very wrong if he suddenly started to sing from my hymnbook. Recently we've crossed words on the subject of nationality. My brother-in-law is a Yorkshireman who would possibly make his home county a republic if he could. Years of living and working overseas have done little to dull his Northern accent and I believe he still thinks Britain has an empire. He would prefer his nationality to read as English, rather than British. I've told him that I respond very little to the nationality on my passport: it simply relates to the place of my birth. I have always felt part Irish and part Belgian. The Irish part is not further dissected into northern or southern for me, yet the Belgian side is strongly Walloon (French). Absence has failed to dilute my brother-in-law's sense of belonging; and I can easily empathise with this view, although I'm be looking through the opposite end of the telescope.
I believe I've inherited the strongest ideals, fears and passions of my parents and their ancestors; including people I never knew. That's what I believe runs through my veins. There is no English blood there, yet I don't feel "foreign" or "estranged". Born in south London, I will always have an affection for the region: my childhood memories and significant people and places are still stitched to that backcloth. But in Brighton, I feel I've found a home: beyond the obvious bricks and mortar and roof tiles. In an area where I knew no-one and have no family links or formative memories, I feel I've found a place which will nurture my future. The Brighton I live in is far from glamorous: employment, always seasonal, could now be described as rare. Property prices are high and living costs roughly the same as in the capital, but the average wage in Brighton is currently several thousand pounds a year less than the National Average Wage. Previously grand period houses sit derelict while homelessness becomes more visible in every quarter of the city. It doesn't take much for traditional British seaside-glamour to become rundown and seedy. But I love it here. It doesn't feel as though I've started a new life here as much as just woken up to who am and where. When I visit London I feel like a fish out of water. Here, I feel that I might find just the right size pond for myself.

My passport says I'm British: I feel I'm the blend of my parents' and of my own encounters on my way to Here. I understand what it means to be European; I'm choosing stay with Britain because of familiarity and fondness, and Brighton has become my new hometown. Other places around the world have touched me and maybe more will in the future: I haven't had a chance to revisit Australia for a few years now, but a particular shot of Mrs Macquarie's Point or the streets of Paddington in Sydney can move me to tears. Places can be great loves as much as people. And no matter where you originated from, have emigrated to or gained citizenship of, ideally you should be able to belong to and take pride in that country, county, town or community that moves you. "Belonging" can be as broad or is intrinsically intimate as you need it to be.
Traditionally, nationality has been based on "Jus Soli", right of the soil or territory, or on "Jus Sanguinis", right of blood; or a mixture of both. Jus Soli grants nationality by place of birth; Jus Sanguinis, by virtue of where one or both parents were born. The textbooks will confirm that nationality is the status of belonging to a nation by origin, birth, or naturalisation. I understand naturalisation by experience: my father lived and worked in England for more than fifteen years to attain British nationality by naturalisation. Following World War II, the huge rise in population due to globalisation and the sharp increase in numbers of refugees suddenly created a class of stateless persons. My mother and father referred to them respectfully as "displaced". Naturalisation laws were created because recovering western democracies were simply not equipped or prepared to accommodate massive de-nationalisation, nor the mass expulsion of ethnic minorities from newly created states. My father's situation wasn't quite as dramatic: he held a Belgian passport and found work in Britain interpreting and translating for consuls and embassies; he also taught French and English. He was informed that his professional status and reputation could only benefit from his naturalisation. In fact, my Dad worked constantly while I was growing up and he achieved British nationality only the year before he died, aged fifty nine. His accent was as strong as ever, and his professional reputation was such that Mum was still receiving letters of condolences from overseas students and ambassadors two or three years after he died.
My sister was born in Belgium and spoke nothing but French until she landed in South London at the grand age of seven. Her nationality was given as Belgian, although I assume she was included on our mother's British passport at that age; even though Mum would have argued that she herself was Irish! When my sister was over the age of twenty one, she was offered dual nationality - she promptly chose British sole nationality. My sister seems to have shed her Belgian skin quickly and easily: by the time I was born, she had forgotten her first language completely; by her own admission, she cannot master French to this day. Forever bonded by good, loving parents, we are very different. My sister is quintessentially English, rarely even expanding to call herself British. She doesn't share my interest in Belgian politics or Irish folklore, and I feel the absence of that. Yet her identity is strongly self-determined.
Paradoxically, I may not feel innately British, but my own nationality is qualified by both Jus Soli and Jus Sanguinis; I was born in Britain and at that time, one of my parents was defined as British in her passport. In fact, my mother always maintained that she was Irish by birth and I would never refer to her as Northern Irish. When Mum was born, in the north of Ireland, Britain hadn't yet claimed six counties; Ireland hadn't agreed the treaty that effectively created Northern Ireland. I don't wish to get too political here, but I feel this scenario illustrates the complexity of nationality. Incidentally, having already touched on the enigma of Irishness elsewhere on this blog, my Catholic cousins and their Protestant spouses in that region refer to themselves and each other simply as Irish.

Nationality can be defined as being part of a nation: a collective of people sharing a national identity. Recognised forms of belonging can be based on ethnic and cultural similarities and ties; including self-determined ones, if a nation has no state, such as the Scots, the Tamils, the Basques. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 15 states that "Everyone has the right to a nationality - No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality." But what if someone doesn't particularly want to be restricted to one? In some cases, over-riding a state's law, determination of nationality can be governed by Public International Law applying treaties on statelessness and by the European Convention on Nationality. As Swiss-born poet and philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel said: "If nationality is consent, the state is compulsion". His own family were driven from their native France into Switzerland within the expulsion of Huguenot Protestants. It seems that religion and nationality can be uneasy bedfellows, yet inexorably linked.
Technically, Judaism is not a race because Jews do not share one common ancestry: some Jews hail from Europe, others from the Middle East. People of many races have become Jewish over the centuries. So, although Judaism is a cultural as well as a religious identity, Jewish nationality has been dispersed throughout the world for two thousand years. Yet the country of Israel is seen to be the Jewish homeland, and "being Jewish" certainly means you are part of the Jewish people, whether you were born into a culturally Jewish home, or because you choose to practise the Jewish religion. Jewish identity is automatically bestowed on babies of Jewish mothers according to Orthodox Judaism, and of Jewish mothers or fathers according to Reform Judaism. This Jewish identity can endure throughout life even if someone subsequently doesn't practise Judaism as a religion. Still with moi??
Jewish ethnicity, nationality, religion and culture are clearly strongly interrelated: definition of Jewishness can be based on nationality or religion. As the only faith of the Jewish nation, converts to Judaism hold the same status as Jews by birth within the Jewish ethnos, traditionally absorbed into the Jewish people. In 2010, the Jewish population was estimated at more than thirteen million across the world. It's estimated that only about forty percent of the global Jewish population live in Israel. Judaism literally means of the land of Judah, and all Jews are said to be descended from the Israelites. In fact, most Jewish people have lived in diaspora since the legendary destruction of the First Temple, in the sixth century before Christ. Israel aside, they've formed a minority in every country they've lived in. Throughout Jewish history, Jews have been repeatedly expelled from their original homeland and areas they've settled in; from the Roman Empire, through the Crusades, to the dreadful Holocaust of World War II. During that state-organised persecution and systematic genocide, six million European Jews were slaughtered, for being Jewish.
Israel was established as an independent, democratic Jewish state in May 1948. In the following ten years, the Jewish population rose from 800,000 to two million. There was a mass immigration of Jews who survived the Holocaust and those subsequently fleeing from Arab countries, Ethiopia and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Apart from the West Bank area over the river Jordan, modern Israel is roughly located on the site of the kingdoms of the ancient Israelites and Judah, later Palestine. This area is historically the birthplace of Christianity and Judaism, also sacred to Islam. World War II had left the surviving European Jews in as displaced persons and refugees; miserably, many were then held in internment camps organised by Britain and other powers. More than ninety percent of these Jewish refugees asked to live in their own state, in the region of Palestine. The Jewish people believe this land was promised to the patriarchs of their faith by God Himself. In response to the crisis, the United Nations recommended partitioning Palestine, with land given over to form a new Jewish nation. Obviously, Palestinian born Arabs would not be happy with this; neighbouring Arab states tried to invade the day after the state of Israel was declared. In 1950, citing Jus Sanguinis, the Law of Return granted all Jews protected and immediate citizenship of Israel if they wanted it. More than sixty turbulent years later, the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been declared Palestinian Territories since 1988, although this identity remains unrecognised by the United Nations and a quarter of the world's countries, including Israel and the United States.
National identity can be a glorious and unifying thing; disputed or mistaken identity of land or boundaries can be ugly, destructive and unending.
Friedrich Johann Schiller was another (German-born) poet and philosopher; he wrote that "It's not flesh and blood but the heart which makes us fathers and sons." Sometimes bonds form inexplicably but seemingly inevitably, with places as much as people. He also expressed his idea of Utopia as somewhere where everyone could be content and everything could be found beautiful. Sadly, no passport stamp will ever read "Utopia", but it may be sought by or carried within every human being. Nationality is not purely ancestry or heritage, DNA, religious or social allegiance, blood or soil: it can be any or all of these things. Ideally, it is "home is where the heart is" on the largest and yet most personal scale. So spare a thought for those who feel they must leave everything familiar to them to find refuge, social acceptance and financial security. People not welcome in their homeland; evicted by war or nature, displaced by new governments and flags. While some people may emigrate; others simply flee. It's as negligibly easy as it was in the 1930s to blame today's incoming displaced people for the losses and hardships of an established community. For every individual we feel may have played the system like a fiddle, there are so many others whose nationality has been abused or stripped from them. I may not refer to myself as English, but I'm deeply distressed when helpful people suggest I should give up my home in Sussex and look for a good job overseas. I moan that my house is falling down around my ears, but it's still my little haven. To dismantle it and leave it behind would rip the middle out of me. What if you or I had no choice? What if choice was made by a government or a gun?
When I tried to find a suitable piece of music to add to this post about nationality, I found countless beautiful songs, in every genre, praising and idealising particular cities, countries or continents. I found very few which simply evoked a feeling of unmapped belonging; if anyone reading this has suggestions, I would be interested to hear them. If I've offended anyone by saying that I don't readily describe myself as English or British; whatever I think of the bankers, the public sector cuts and the higher tax threshold, I'm totally appreciative that the land I was born in accepts that I call myself half Irish and half Belgian. For that, I am wholly grateful.

"After the spiritual powers, there is no thing in the world more unconquerable than the spirit of nationality."
George William Russell

"This is Your Land"  Simple Minds

(Carol Ann Duffy)
If we were shades
who walked here once
over the heather, over the shining stones,
fresh in our skin and bones
with all of the time to come
left to be us,

if we were dust,
once flesh, where a cloud
swoons on the breast of a hill,
breathing here still
in our countable days,
the words we said,

snagged on the air
like the murmuring bees,
as we lay by the loch,
parting our clothes with our hands
to feel who we were,
we would rather be there

than where we are here,
all that was due to us
still up ahead,
if we were shades or dust
who lived love
before we were long dead.

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