Thursday, 25 May 2017

NZIIA Seminar: 'A Historical Perspective on the Agency of the Displaced: Hospitality or Refuge'.

Since ancient times, the concept of refugees and displacement has been an old one. But how much has it changed throughout human history? By the end of last night's seminar by speaker Elena Isayev, Historian and Professor of Ancient History at the University of Exeter, the answer: not much. Using ancient sources and texts, Professor Isayev’s seminar explored the concepts and themes of the displaced, or in this case "The Stranger". First using the ancient Mediterranean as the starting point, the seminar explored the potency of refugee agnecy and the innovations that emerge in the lesdt expected contexts to re-claim, and re-frame, the so-called ‘non-exceptional’ state itself.

The inflow of people into many points of southern Europe demonstrates the huge impact that refugees are having on economic, political, and social circumstances in the European Union. Professor Isayev has a particular perspective on this inflow, as an expert in the ancient history of the Mediterranean area. The difference between now and then, the Professor first highlighted, lied in the fact that there were no 'borders' and passports back then. In actuality, migration was only permitted depending on the refugees' status and reason to be in the land they were displaced in. And when these refugees did flock, it created problems. However, it did not necessarily create problems in terms of getting rid of the refugees, but rather how to keep their own citizens from leaving. These factors have remained still to this day. To help Illustrate her points further, she looked towards ancient texts, such as Homer's The Odyssey and Aeschylus' The Suppliant Women (two prominent texts used by the Professor) and others. The former is seen as an example of migration as it tells the tale of Odysseus (known as Ulysses in Roman myths), king of Ithaca, as he sets on his journey home after the fall of Troy. The theme of wandering is evident as Odysseus wanders from place to place and encounters humble and sinister hosts after another on his ten year journey back home. The same applies to the latter text as it follows The Danaids as they flee to Argos to escape their forced marriages to their Egyptian cousins.

This has created a contradiction in the predicament of such seemingly helpless groups like the Suppliants in Aeschylus’s tragedy. We find these helpless victims clinging to an altar between sea and polis – trapped in a liminal space. They are at the mercy of their reluctant protectors and have become stateless, even though they are not actually. Therefore they are without any rights whatsoever. Such a state of exception has been the center of every situation regarding displacement from the ancient Mediterranean to World War II to the Dadaad Refugee Camp in Kenya. The latest refelctions on the current predicament shows the inability in the articulation of displaced people in terms of rights and agency. Instead a re- investigation of scenarios both ancient and modern, reveals the potential, and arguable necessity, for continued action and self-determination – leading to a politics that challenges the helplessness implied by exceptionalism.

To shed some light on last nigh’s speaker, Professor Isayev, in addition to being a historian and a Professor, is also a practitioner investigating human mobility, constructions of place, and the potency of displaced agency. She also works in current refugee contexts including with Campus in Camps in Palestine; as a trustee of Refugee Support Devon; and she is founder of Future Memory, which co-creates initiatives with artists in communities where there are tensions. In addition to her published work Ancient Lucania (London 2007), and currently co-editing Displacement and the Humanities, her latest published work Migration, Mobility and Place (Cambridge 2017) will be released in June.

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