Du: A selective summary of the contents

January - February 2002

Heimat is in the air these days: and not just as another lofty-sounding German loanword in English, where it is held (by Paul Knight, for instance, translator of the Heimat-oriented Ernst Bloch) to provide nuances of community, group identity and comforting familiarity not contained in either its simple cognate “home” far too British and private or in the compound “homeland,” with its unpleasant resonances of the cynical Apartheid-era term for what amounted to enforced reservations for black Africans. Globalization, as ubiquitously and efficiently at home as Milton’s Satan, has made Heimat into a real going concern all over again, if only by rousing both the Left and the Right into various frenzies of nostalgia for the ostensible comforts of the nation. Nor has the idea of Heimat been spared the poststructuralist taste for pluralization, having been remade for us as a deceptive and brittle hall of mirrors, a funhouse infinite regression of selves and identities. Often only graspable as its own absence, Heimat can also appear to us suddenly out of the distance, like a fata morgana, only to slip away unnoticed even as we are pondering its alleged corporeality.
In our December/January double issue we chart the treacherous vicissitudes of the idea of Heimat, as it wends its way among individuals, among cultures and across the globe: from Calabria and Kosovo to Switzerland and back, to Argentina, out of Germany and into that distant and most international of all Gothams, Berlin. We follow the British Empire on its weary homeward trek, from the Ganges to Oxford and Bradford, and we track the proud Tuareg from the luminous dunes of the Sahara to the kitchen gardens and caravansaries of the oasis. Finally, in honor of “du”‘s sixtieth birthday, six pairs of authors and photographers make a pilgrimage of their own, to the magazine’s very own Heimat, the extended reportage. For wherever it is we may wander, there is one Heimat available to us everywhere: that which we make for ourselves in language.

Even here, however, there have been violent upheavals and waves of emigration in recent times, as the notion of a single language as one of the central pillars of the nation-state has been toppled by regional and dialectal movements on the one hand and by the seemingly unstoppable advance of “international” English on the other. Embarking from the Frisian Island homeland of his paternal grandfather, scene of a signal moment in the postwar history of European linguistic particularism, Ian Buruma takes a tour of the various language battlefronts of our day: the struggle of the French to resist the virulent spread of le franglais; the surrender of Japanese “purists” to an American take-over of their vocabulary, ironically echoing in turn the much-downplayed fact that as much as 60% of modern Japanese is in fact already on loan from Chinese; and the civil war within English itself, as the formerly colonized lament the vanishing of the romanticized language of their former colonizer beneath a Creole cacophony. On this last front Buruma is particularly illuminating: for while he recognizes that language has often been used as a tool in the business of national “identity construction,” he is also aware that there is a real and vividly lived relationship between the speaker and the spoken, a symbiosis that can withstand apparent lapses of logic. Thus Buruma gives us the example of post-colonial India, in which Nehru, among others, had fought a losing battle to make an archaizing high form of Hindi the Indian national language: a cause championed by Gujarati and Bengali intellectuals, but basically defeated by the swelling population of south India, where Hindi enjoyed no toehold. “The problem was recently well summarized by a certain south Indian, whose article a friend downloaded from the Internet,” Buruma explains. “The author’s mother tongue is Malayalam, the language of Kerala, for which he evidently cherishes all the romantic emotions of the 19th-century idealist. He writes: ŒAs someone who is perfectly bilingual (English and Malayalam) I can with certainty say that, while Malayalam is the language of my heart, English is the language of my head. Neither English nor Hindi, he goes on, is able to express the Malayalam ethos, with its melancholy brooding qualities, so stark in contrast to the lush tropical landscape. And then, in order to settle the question of the heart versus the head, he quotes a passionate poem by Sir Walter Scott: ŒBreathes there the man, with soul / so dead / Who never to himself hath said, / This is my own, my native land!”

And yet, even if the language of Sir Walter Scott speaks only to his head, the author prefers English to Hindi, since English at least connects him to the world at large not to mention the World Wide Web while Hindi merely gives the Malayalam-speaker the sense of being a second-class citizen. Hindi, he says, is the language of the conqueror. Thus the language of an older empire can be deployed to fend off the advances of a newer.” And Buruma has further examples: the East Timorese, in their search for a national language of their own to hold up against the Baha Indonesia of their current taskmasters, are considering Portuguese, the tongue of their ancestral colonizers. In the Philippines, meanwhile, which have been “host” to both the old and the new world versions of colonialism, the hopes for a resistance to the linguistic hegemony of America are vested in the Castilian of an older generation of conquistadors, as symbolized by the Bible of Philippino independence, José Rizal’s Noli me tangere, a novel written in Spanish. (Champions of the native Tagalog, meanwhile, must contend with the fact that its speakers seem to prefer the comic book to the novel.)

And yet of course, as Buruma reminds us, the project of a linguistic Heimat is as potentially fatal as is its geographical counterpart, if also just as seductive. Still, he is also pessimistic about linguistic materialism, the opposing tendency to locate languages in their immediate, sub-national regions. “Equating language and state is no doubt a fallacy, but it is equally fallacious to give language its home in a certain local culture or common heritage. One of the eco-linguists, those champions of the linguistically near-extinct, provides the following model of culture and language. Language, he says, is a remarkable but not an exclusive marker of identity, as cultures can continue to exist even after their translation into another tongue. And then, in order to assess the catastrophic consequences of the loss of a language, this scholar bids us imagine what would have happened if Anglo-French had replaced Old English after 1066: no Chaucer, no Shakespeare, no Wordsworth, no Dickens. Too true. But that assumes that Shakespeare would only have been capable of expressing himself in English. One could just as easily reverse this thought experiment, for that matter, and wonder what would have happened if English had not replaced Irish as the main language of Ireland: no Joyce, no Yeats, no Wilde, no Shaw. And what are we to do with Samuel Beckett, who wrote in both English and French and whose response to the question as to whether he was a Briton was, ŒAu contraire’?”

And what indeed are we to do with Pico Iyer, the child of Indians in England who studied in the US and now spends much of his time in Japan? Where might his Heimat be? In a reversal of Buruma’s “eco-linguistic” model of cultural permanence, the celebrated essayist and travel writer gives us an England whose language has more or less remained the same since its literary heyday, but in which the dominant culture has in the last couple of generations undergone a radical make-over: the BBC, once the standard-bearer of the Queen’s English, now tintinnabulates with regional (as well as working-class) accents; the tea rooms have given way to tandoori-chicken pizza stands; and the English cricket team consists for the most part of post-colonials, from Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean, charged with upholding England’s honor against foreigners from Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean. This does not particularly shock Iyer, who has been immune since early days to the alleged charm of Merry Olde England and for whom his parents’ host country was from the start consonant only with strikes, fish and chips and the sound of breaking glass, rather than with the Shakespearean erudition of his Anglophile forebears . “On my return recently from a voyage abroad,” writes the iconoclast Iyer with relish, “the taxis at Heathrow bore endorsements for Fujitsu and Burger King, the underground was filled with advertisements for Afro-Caribbean hair treatment, and an all-black production of Anthony and Cleopatra was being touted (next to another in which the part of Cleopatra had been assigned to a bloke). The local laundry service was having a special on Arabic clothing and in the yellow pages a certain St. Bede’s Church was promoting itself as a temple of fitness where one could work off one’s last supper according to the latest American calisthenic standards.” Such a Martin Amis-esque Americanization is not so easily digested by one of Iyer’s correspondents, an Anglo-Indian actor who had been living comfortably uncomfortably in a country in which he was tolerated as long as he knew his place and behaved reliably “ethnic,” only to discover that the rules had been changed without his being informed. Iyer’s parents, too, had been accustomed to depending on the old verities: India was their homeland their Heimat ; Pakistan was their enemy; and Macaulay and Churchill had done them no favors. “For me,” writes Iyer, “it was different. I lacked their passions, and I had the feeling that I had failed to inherit any of their enmities. There were simply no traditions I felt bound to uphold; I could say with Theodor W. Adorno, “It is in the nature of morality not to be at home with itself.” Instead of my parents’ strong feelings I was filled with a free-floating dispassion, like so many global souls. In the place of their imperturbable certainty about right and wrong I had adopted a less rigid, more relativizing yardstick. The great difference between me and the generation of my parents is that I have never felt that pang of anguish upon being obliged to leave a place, since I grew up without a feeling for a particular corner of the earth. My Indian friend, for instance, seems to carry a mental map with clearly-drawn borders, while any place could (with certain reservations) become my Heimat and, equally, my non-Heimat. My sense of separations has always been less absolute, and, although I could certainly imagine the partings as contained in the old stories the boy at the harbor with all his family’s hope in his luggage, about to sail off over the waves and leave behind his loved ones for years I always knew that I could just as soon find myself somewhere else, and that nothing is really forever.” Iyer has made his home his Heimat in the present, and in movement.

Just such a moment of epiphany is granted Katarina Holländer, too, if in a rather different form. The emigrant from Czechoslovakia was for 16 years “stateless” before being naturalized as a Swiss in 1984; today she and her siblings hold five different citizenships. For Holländer, Heimat was also a matter of language, but of a language that excluded her, that threw up baffles against her attempts to integrate. In the casual way in which her Swiss schoolmates would announce their intention to return home at the end of the day ich gang jetz hei she heard not only the self-evident naturalness of people linked for generations to their surroundings, but also the beginning of a sort of linguistic drift, a chain of associations that would bear her away from her new home and back to the dream of a lost country. “Hei, pronounced like Hai [shark], like high, like hi. Hey, meanwhile, means “yes” in the language I learned first. And “yes” in German is ja, and ja means “I.” Language lays traps for us. I am at home where I can speak the way my heart desires. But that place doesn’t exist, because my heart has grown twisted, twisted across borders, across languages. No one speaks my mother tongue; a handful of relatives and other emigrants speak regional varieties, each one his or her own region; we are the only ones to speak our mother tongue, and there is no fatherland to go with it.”

Holländers orphaned national status was mirrored in her family’s intellectual isolation from its adopted nation: she and her siblings were forbidden to engage in Swiss political discussions, as if “politics” was what the entire rest of the world had been initiated into. “We were stateless, we were without a state, without a country, and the country was rid of us, was a state without us; we only lived within it, we were of no consequence to it, it was none of our business, it could be none of our business, for the state is, if nothing else, political.” Her limbo identity was impressed upon her every time she came to a border and was obliged to present her provisional passport to the customs guard, who would be uncertain whether to let her either out or in: an absurdity worthy of the contradictions her family had left behind in Slovakia. “Freedom was not entirely guaranteed us. We had been sentenced in absentia in the CSSR, I learned as a child. I had been sentenced. Where my home should have been there was now some kind of prison, I had to presume. I didn’t really believe this, but I also knew it was not a joke. I hadn’t yet read Kafka.”

And then, early in the post-Soviet twenty-first century, Holländer travels to Ukraine and, in a meadow above the river Bug, outside of any town, community, or dwelling, she feels distinctly: at home. “Now all is well, says a voice within me. The stones around me here on the banks of the river Bug have names, names of people. The city on whose outskirts I am lingering has a name, Bratzlaw. I have discovered a feeling of Heimat here I scarcely know what to do with. I do not understand why this feeling has overtaken me, here, for a moment, near Bratzlaw in Ukraine, the feeling that I need no longer search in Prague or Bratislava. I have visited many graveyards. Why is it that when I arise from this spot it is with the sense that I must seek no longer? The randomness of the places that appear to us as Heimat is like the randomness of birth: it remains fathomless.” Thus, while Pico Iyer is prepared to feel at home anywhere, or nowhere, Katarina Holländer, who never expected to feel at home anywhere, has surprisingly come home to somewhere.

Of course, for others, their particular Heimat is anything but random or fathomless. There are those who have been willing to die, and to kill, for the right to return to an autonomous homeland, and Switzerland has over the years played host to many of them. One of the most recent of these is Hashim Thaçi, President of the PDK, one of the parties contending for power in post-1999 Kosovo. Thaçi is also the co-founder of the UCK, or Kosovo Liberation Army, the corps of guerrilleros that led the uprising against Milosevic´ and the Serb nationalists. Born in humble circumstances in a remote valley in Kosovo, Thaçi went on to studies in Prishtina and, when he was sentenced by Belgrade for his seditious activities, in Zurich, where he attended lectures in East European history. He dematriculated in 1998 in order to devote himself to politics in his homeland, and the next thing his Swiss professor knew, he was watching agape on TV as his handsome thirty-year-old former student strolled around the gardens at Rambouillet with Madeleine Albright. Thaçi had become head of the Kosovo-Albanian negotiating team delegated to the conference in southern France at which Milosevic´ signed his own doom, and had parlayed his grass-roots activism into a place on the world stage.

Thaçi’s university instructor was not the only one watching. Swiss public opinion reacted favorably to the media talents of its sometime guest, and, when Thaçi’s wife Lumnije gave birth to their son at a Zurich hospital while Thaçi himself was encamped on the battlefield in May of 1999, it was no problem for the Kosovar leader to have his refugee status in Switzerland extended so he could see his child. The Swiss foreign office reasoned that Thaçi was a politician, not a military man, that he had been internationally recognized as a negotiator and thus as a key figure in the peace process, and that it would only make matters worse to set any obstacles in his path. Besides, there were more worrying goings-on than the cross-border visits of a young father: a thriving illegal arms-running trade had struck up between Switzerland and Kosovo, only to be emulated not long after when hostilities began in Macedonia.

Thaçi finally turned in his specially extended Swiss refugee papers this past summer. “Switzerland gave me security, support and a first glimpse of western values: the rule of law, democracy and tolerance.” His tone is almost nostalgic, notes Marlène Schnieper, who contributes a report on the roots of Kosovo activism in Switzerland. Nevertheless, like Buruma’s Malayalam-speaker from Kerala, Thaçi is clearly divided between the language or the culture of his head, and that of his heart; and his compatriots have been fired by a similar passion, which has not stopped short of the commission of atrocities upon the bodies of both Serbs and Roma people within Kosovo. But Schnieper is not content to allow her continental reader to retreat beyond the comfort-ing divide that shields the forward-looking, law-abiding West from the hysterical vendettas and ressentiments of the East, for, as she recalls, considering the history of Albanian-Swiss emigration and re-immigration, there is a little bit of Switzerland in Kosovo and a lot of Kosovo in Switzerland. “They are a little like we are. Or we are a little like them. Which begs the question, Where would we have been standing, with the beaters or with the beaten? And at what point?”

Christoph Kuhn, Latin America correspondent for a major Swiss newspaper, also experiences an encounter with an uncanny doppelgänger in a place ostensibly far from home. In the Argentine town of San Jerónimo Norte there flourishes a community of descendants of families who left the upper Valais, in southern Switzerland, to make a new life in South America. The Julliers, Eberhardts, Martys, Albrechts and Kuchens live together in a tidy little Helvetian universe surrounded by the powerful forces of their new homeland: the beefsteaks and sports-crazed machismo and economic roller-coaster of Argentina. At the Swiss club, under the tutelage of Roque Oggier, those who feel an especial homesickness (the word was, after all, invented for Swiss mercenaries in the early modern period) can learn the Wallisertitsch of their ancestors and practice such useful phrases as Der grosfater hät kei lusch alle tága bado; är zeid das isch moda fa di iungui lit (Grandfather doesn’t care to bathe every day: he says that’s just a young people’s thing), or Mina fetter hät guiot kerb fam schiss frouve; iéts hät niva auto koiff, niuss hiyi, und schaff nimma (My cousin has inherited a substantial sum from his wife; he’s bought himself a new car and a new house and is no longer working). Kuhn can hear that they’ve all got Wallisertitsch in their ear, that they heard it in the cradle, but he’s not sure they really know what they’re saying. The older generation still swears by the prudence of its forefathers, who invested in farm machinery when times were good and made sure that their heirs were well taken care of; but the current generation, fears the mayor of San Jerónimo, has lost that Swiss work ethic and has retained only the superficial customs of the original Argentina expedition. The present crop of San Jerónimitos has taken on the local character, said to be a mixture of Italian vivaciousness, elegance and vitality and northern Spanish saturnine melancholy and stalwartness. And yet Kuhn thinks he can detect something of the upper Valais in the repartee to which he is treated at the home of the club member Roque, while the company enjoys a traditional Argentinean asado, or grilled beefsteak. “Here, at Roque’s cheerful table, upper Valaisian mockery rubs up against Italian liveliness and northern Spanish phlegm to produce a truly bizarre mixture.” In other words, Heimat is a kind of bricolage, a half-deliberate, half-aleatory assembly of the bits and pieces tossed our way by blood, history, and the decisions of our grandsires into a whole that is strangely familiar: unheimlich.

Like Till Lincke’s experiences in Timbuktoo and environs, on the lookout for Tuaregs, the fabled nomads of the Sahara. His first stop? A cybercafé, of course, where he is introduced to the texture of life in postmodern Africa. “My predecessors have been to www.blonde.com, sinfulmail and hornybitches. The virtual wastebin is overflowing with gangbang, ejacsfacials and fistfuck. Pornographically speaking, at least, the digital divide identified by the UNESCO-worker Stella Hughes as separating the first and third worlds does not seem to exist.” And lo and behold, having been disappointed in his quest at the local bar, where he merely had his wallet lightened as he waited for the promised nomads, Lincke is confronted by a real-live Tuareg, heir to the ancient culture of the desert traders seated at a monitor, carrying on an e-mail correspondence with a travel agent in Milan.

That this particular Tuareg has evidently been scared up for the pleasure of the tourist trade, and that there are at the moment only four tourists in all of Timbuktoo, does not discourage Stella Hughes. It is her aim to get the inhabitants of northern Mali, spread over a million square kilometers, hooked up with the World Wide Web (presumably for some more edifying aim than that pursued at the author’s terminal). She is convinced that the new technology has something to offer even those Tuaregs who do not wish to indenture themselves as tour-guides. She imagines farmers discovering cures for their sick camels by surfing the Web, or downloading the current market prices of cattle and grain. How does she propose to make the Web available at all to the Tuareg, who are spread over a vast area and have no ready access to computer terminals or land lines? Her answer is to have a radio moderator sit in front of a monitor and a microphone and simply relay the results of virtual excursions to the Tuareg listening public; those of them who have access to a telephone, meanwhile, can call in and have questions answered in regional language by a rotating panel of guests. Distributing the fruits of the latest ultrahigh-technology to people living in ancient folkloric conditions: surely an advertising campaign for the brave new multicultural society of peace, information and progress, as the human extremes reach out their hands to one another and the whole world becomes one big Heimat? But then comes September 11, and Till Lincke is witness to the reactions of the hotel staff as they cluster around the television to watch the World Trade Center disintegrate under the force of a low-tech but very high-concept attack. “C’est comme ça tous les jours,” says the barmaid Jolie, dismissing the carnage in lower Manhattan, which she does not distinguish from the suffering on the West Bank and in Gaza. And with that, the whole world has indeed become a sort of infernally networked Heimat, or at least several degrees more unheimlich.

As Ian Buruma reminds us, the one-world fantasy of the New Economy was powered by a boomer confidence in the unstoppable progress of the world language and the palpable cultural advances of late capitalism: a confidence that bears within it the seeds of its own destruction. “In many ways, the metropolis can be a more provincial place than the periphery. If you only have one language, even if it is the world’s language, then other people will seem either very strange, or deceptively similar. They speak English, eat at McDonald’s and watch Hollywood movies, so they must be like Americans. This can be just as misleading as the assumption that the inability to understand what other people are saying must mean that their thoughts are similarly foreign to us.” On September 11, at the very latest, the champions of a one-world globalism were confronted with a searing refutation of their utopian homologics; the challenge for that camp now is surely to try to overcome the flipside of their position, and to realize that the thoughts of the rest of the world are in fact not opaque and inscrutable, but merely different: differently situated in their various Heimaten.
Georg Brunold takes a sentimental journey into the Heimat of his own other, the remote Calabrian hometown of the friend of his youth, the seasonal guest worker Antonio. Brunold had been taken under Antonio’s wing on the construction site when he went to hoist girders to pay his tuition, and now, twenty-some years later, he has come to San Giovanni in Fiore to visit Antonio in the house he built for his family with the proceeds of his Swiss sojourn. But for Brunold, the trip is also one into a counterworld in which his own Swiss small-town Heimat is refracted back to him through a lens of Italianità. “The first twenty hours of the train trip quite met my expectations. I had boarded the train in Bellinzona in the evening, an hour from the Swiss border. My reserved place in the Stuttgart­Reggio car was already occupied, so I became the ninth in an eight-seat compartment. Then, after a change of trains in Marina di Páola, Calabria began to correct my prejudices about southern Italy. Antonio, who knew me from Arosa, one of Europe’s highest-altitude communities, had obviously not thought it necessary to tell me about life in the mountains, and that it was to be had elsewhere in the world besides in Switzerland. Scarcely had it turned away from the coast, the diesel locomotive switched over to cogwheel in order to cover the 400 meters of altitude to the tunnel above in the shortest distance possible. The tunnel then led under 979 meters of the Passo Crocetto by narrow-gauge railway to the provincial capital of Cosenza. Traveling time for the total of 40 kilometers: around one and a half hours.” Brunold notes with some satisfaction that the Italian Mediterranean rail society had commissioned work on the Cosenza­Crotone narrow-gauge railway in 1911, at precisely the moment at which building was beginning on the Chur-Arosa railway back home in Switzerland. Brunold seeks in vain for some token of Antonio’s time in his Heimat, perhaps to serve as a talisman as he makes his foray into the strange familiarity of the foreigner’s home, a Heimat once imported in its turn, snail-like, with those same “guest workers” when they came to Arosa, or Oerlikon, or Basel, to build Swiss roads and cook pasta late into the night. “In his house I have yet to find a single souvenir or even a simple object that I can identify as Swiss. There is no hint of the seasonal worker who showed up every spring for ten years on the construction site in the Swiss mountain valley, not in the kitchen, where we have been sitting down to meals for three days now, not in the living room, where we chat into the evening. Far and wide not a sign of the world beyond this town.” And yet the San Giovannesi are famous for emigrating, famous for turning up at assemblies of expatriate Italians when a visiting dignitary needs welcoming in yet another land of the Italian diaspora. But the ties to the mother country are evidently so strong that all connection to the world of exile disappears when the wanderer returns home. There may be intangible, invisible souvenirs like the clichés of Swiss punctuality and reliability, cherished as a verity by the Calabrians and dismantled as a fiction by the Argentineans. Or it may be that this very quality of being-at-home is itself the proof Brunold has been seeking of the harrowing journey abroad, of Antonio’s ten Odyssean years of wandering and laboring before his triumphant arrival back in his sylvan Ithaca.

Katarina Holländer tells us the story of a Swiss who set out to bring comfort to expatriate Tibetans by bidding them follow his example, he who felt no need of his Heimat in Switzerland, he who would not think twice about abandoning it: he who had never been forced to leave it, as they had been. As the Calabrians were, for their own reasons; as the Kosovo-Albanians were, for others. “He who never left, never came home,” says the proverb. And Holländer supplies a gloss: “Home is born in the secret of its loss”.

Published 27 November 2001
Original in English
First published by Du

Contributed by Du © Rafael Newman / Du / Eurozine

PDF/PRINT

Published in

Discussion