Oliver Joncus in conversation with Professor Elena Isayev: A historian who uses the ancient Mediterranean to explore migration, belonging, displacement and spatial perception

By Oliver Joncus

Edited by Josef Moore

What is your interest on the subject of migration?

The work I do is essentially on ancient migration, hospitality and asylum, trying to contextualise contemporary issues within this broader historical continuum. Societies in most periods think they are exceptionally unique: we hear about how people have never moved as much as they do now. This may be true in terms of raw figures but not in terms of rates. This way of thinking about migration as not only exceptional but also as negative – especially considering the nation state, territorial citizenship and physical borders – is something that is very new, only a couple of hundred years old. There are times where it goes up and down. In the late antique period, for instance, immobility was associated with virtue.

So there is a massive gap between the way current issues around migration have manifested themselves and the period in which you look, but the historical perspective still bears a great deal of relevance? Did societies with a strong sense of community, like the Romans and Athenians, have a more developed notion of the other?

Every community will have someone they identify as the ‘other’. For instance, with the Rohingya in Myanmar : they’ve been part of that community for hundreds of years and over only a few decades they have been ‘othered’ – perceived as outsiders and intruders. When we think in terms of citizenship, and its importance for the ancient Athenians for example, yet its legal standing was less important than living ‘as a citizen’. This is especially true in a society like that of the Romans where territory and citizenship didn’t overlap: you could be a Roman citizen who has never been to Rome, and lives in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).

A lot of modern correlations spring to mind, don’t they? Especially with this false relationship between national identity and place. I was thinking of the ‘Maiden Square’ revolution and how that was a nationalistic reaction to the challenge of identity posed by Russian revanchism. And, in a similar way with the Arab Spring, with the reclaiming of public space. How positive or negative can this be?

It’s interesting you bring up public spaces. In those examples, people are challenging the publicness of a space. It brings up problems like: who can use it? what kind of things can be said in it? During the Arab Spring uprisings, the big challenge was taking over these vast spaces, like Tariq square, which challenged the ruling authorities. But sometimes those spaces can be used by the government to make an opposite point. If we take the notion of place as ‘relational’, that is not constituted by geographical location but defined by history and memory, then we are left with question of whose stories can exist there? Again, what we are seeing in Myanmar is that all these stories are being written out over the space of a few years. As a result, places change, both for the majority and the Muslim Rohingya.

How much does this denying of space destroy the community?

One of the notions I’ve been exploring is ‘de-placement’, which goes beyond displacement. I began thinking about this when working with colleagues and artists from Palestine. The camps are complex in terms of being ‘a home’ to which memories can be tied, while the city or village from which people were exiled, the centre of collective memory, may no longer exist. Similarly, the borders in the region that created Myanmar, a product of colonialism, were drawn by outsiders roughly along religious lines: Muslim and Buddhist. By 1948 Myanmar claimed independence as a nation, and in 1950 Rohingya were given citizenship, but in 1982 they were stripped of their citizenship. In 2012, hostilities escalated because of the murder of a Buddhist woman for which three Muslim men were charged. The response was complete ghettoising of the whole, already heavily, oppressed community.

It’s incredible that it’s not been in the western consciousness for that long, and how the UN workers there report how still seeing people at the refugee camps from 15-20 years ago. Does that absence of reportage, until things reach breaking point, have to do with ‘de-placement’?

Well, we must ask what lead to that 1982 taking away of citizenship? Part of me wonders, if you’re saying ethnic minorities have certain rights based on that ethnicity, what are the side effects of such a perception – the consequences? By indicating that ethnic minorities matter, the implication is that ethnicity has a tangible reality, rather than recognising it as a powerful cultural construct. The key is to ensure that no one is oppressed, but we need to refocus away from ethnicity to do this. So, the reification (and vilification) of certain ethnic groups in 1982, is what allowed for the isolation of the Rohingya and stripping them of rights, even erasing them from texts: re-writing the history of the region.

And I guess the motivation behind this is religious?

Well it’s the politics that motivates the religion. What is happening with this, and it is genocide, perpetrated by extremists (in this case under a Buddhist label), is similar to how, for instance, ISIS treats the Yazidi communities in Iraq. It’s horrific and the methods are similar. Yes, it’s under the flag of religion on the outside, but really governed by politics on the inside. It’s almost like there is a text book example of how you do things to get power today. Migration is obviously a very big part of that if the ‘wrong’ people are in your space.

It is a general trend. Concerning the European anxiety around migration. Ivan Krastev’s (a Bulgarian political scientist) recent book talks about it as an issue of cultural longevity for those who feel threatened, anxiety around migration really rests on questions like ‘who will be left to read Bulgarian poetry?’ How much does that idealisation of a culture works against these liberal values?

Well not everyone would agree that migration is a necessarily a liberal value (laughs) . But that’s interesting, I haven’t read it. Going back to the ancient world and the importance of history. The most vibrant sites became vibrant because of a constant flow of different kinds of people. The people that choose to pass through these sites and form communities – this is what is important. With regards to this example, if people want to read Bulgarian poetry, well that’s great, maybe there’s lots of people who want to. But they won’t necessarily allow those people into Bulgaria because they won’t necessarily say that at the border. If there are certain trends, like Bulgarian poetry, maybe like Scottish poetry, Carolingian poetry, that die out, why is that necessarily a bad thing? What if different communities form and have something else they’d rather read? I mean how many Bulgarians want to read Bulgarian poetry? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, maybe one day nobody will read Shakespeare. The question is how to protect diversity without falling back on the exclusionary discourse of ethnicity, race or religion.

With this culture fixation. It seems even more irrational to see the fearmongering in the US in relation to immigration, since it is itself a country of immigrants.

It comes out of the same thing. What interests me is why, in certain periods, people use this to gain power. Immigration, for its own sake, seems to become a problem quite needlessly. I should also add in America, when the German communities were coming over in the 18th century they were saying ‘no, we have no space’. Immigration as a term comes in exactly at that time, and it’s an American term. The first time it appears in Webster’s dictionary is in the first decades of the 19th century. It’s odd, at what point do you say a culture belongs to a people who inhabit a physical space? I read about this recently in relation to the Scottish referendum. What the SNP managed to do very well is to sell Scottish identity and culture as something very expansive. Whether that would have remained had it gained independence is a different question. But, for the purposes of the vote, if you had moved in to Scotland from somewhere like Bangladesh, you had every right to feel that you were voting for independence as someone who is Scottish. Now that’s interesting because they were in some ways saying that: our power is governed by physical territory, but our sense of community doesn’t rely on ancestry, doesn’t rely on something that goes back thousands of years which is very refreshing. Therefore, you had places like Glasgow, a very cosmopolitan city, voting overwhelmingly for independence. (On Populism) There is a good article on Pierre Trudeau, one of the questions being asked was ‘how has Canada managed to not have this problem of populism?’ it seems to have all the ingredients because it’s so multicultural you would think there would be all these ethnic frictions. One of the reasons given was that Trudeau, instead of pitching different ethnic groups against each other, was trying to get support from all communities – with the premise that all are equally Canadian. His support groups were not divided based on ethnicity. Any populism that does occur there is not constructed on ethnic grounds.

Does that work against a monistic notion of culture that defines a place?

Maybe Canadians are not too bothered about having something so restrictive. Saying: ‘if anything is truly Canadian it is the fact we are so multicultural’. That’s not necessarily true when you leave big cities like Vancouver and Toronto. But nobody fosters this ‘fear of the other’, guess what’s the most spoken language in Toronto? Cantonese. Nobody seems to be threatened by that. There’s nothing to say a politician can’t pick that out of hat. But what are you going to have? People from rural Ontario coming and throwing eggs at people who are Chinese? I mean I don’t know. If there’s anything approaching that kind of problem in Canada, it would be coming to terms with its troubling history of the treatment of First Nations People.


Do you think this absence of voice is a big issue?

If you look at what’s reported about Myanmar, there is a lot of information about suffering bodies rather than people – whose human rights have been suppressed for decades. There is a big question of responsibility, which continues unresolved (shared amongst Aung San Suu Kyi, the UN and of course the militia forces carrying out these atrocities.) Not a lot of information has been released about the history of persecution that the Rohingya have faced, nor about how Bangladesh is dealing with this huge influx of people. You see reports coming out about how this is no longer sustainable, and Bangladesh is being encouraged by India to return Rohingya back to Myanmar. In the middle of all this is the term ‘voluntary return’, how many of those fleeing will want return is a big question that no one is asking. When I looked at the Daily Mail reporting of all this, one of the things they focused on was precisely this return. That is very much western language: when are the refugees going to go back? The other thing no one is talking about is the effect on Bangladesh. They are now accommodating a population of a large city, we in the UK can’t even get 200 unaccompanied minors who have a right to claim asylum in the UK to come from Calais. Bangladesh is not a wealthy country, yet taking in a huge amount of people while having to create a new infrastructure. Another thing you don’t hear anything about is the refugees themselves, except through instances of rape, death or malnutrition. As you mentioned, we don’t hear about these things until they reach breaking point, but the world community should have been reacting back in the 1980’s . These suffering bodies are the last element of something much worse. What are their voices? Why are they making the decisions they’re making? Yes, we want them reinstated and given citizenship, but how have they been coping within their own community?

Do you address this issue in your work?

The biggest thing I’m looking at is the agency and voice of people who are displaced. Working with colleagues, some who exist in contexts of displacement, students and other institutions asking if we  can understand better and enhance the potential for politics outside the nation state. It goes back to Hannah Arendt but I won’t go into that.

Without straying too much into theory, what role does academia play in these world issues?

No matter how many facts you have or how many things you know, you must ask yourself at the end of the day what is going to lead to a change in perception and behaviour? Knowing the historical context is important but not everything. People with other expertise and lived experience, not least students, will be able to understand, catch something that the historian may not. Lived experience is always different and that’s what’s important, not age or necessarily official knowledge. Academia is a privileged position that allows you a lot of time to examine the world intricately. Having that time means one has a responsibility to share findings and continue to strive for an understanding, not least with those who don’t have that time or privilege.


Regarding ancient world and displacement: for example, what ancient tragedy and other texts show is an awareness and interest in the paradox and challenges of the agency and victimhood embodied by those seeking refuge. Much more so than is recognised by the current responses which focus primarily on the victimhood and suffering body alone, and in many ways continuing to deny voice. Hence, the historical perspective perhaps allows the recognition of this complexity and a different approach to displacement and those implicated by it. It also shows that at certain times in history immigration was not an issue used by politicians to gain power, preventing outsiders access to one’s city/nation is not a persisting norm through history.

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