blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


CAMILLE ZAKHARIA  |  Elusive Homelands

Displacement and Disapora: The Modern Nomad
Curator's Commentary by Jochen Sokoly

Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.
                                                                                    —Edward Said

Man has always moved from one place to another in search of better places to live—greener pastures, more water, and more agreeable geographical and meteorological conditions. Sometimes, societies had to compete for these resources. Conflict was the result. Man has spread all over the small planet earth: from icy and sandy deserts, to humid rain forests, to fertile continental plains and ocean islands. In the recent past, man has ventured into space and is attempting to go further. Humans are adaptable to almost any situation. Their minds allow them to solve problems and communicate with fellow wanderers. Their drive to survive, thrive and nurture future generations gives them the impetus to go on. History tells us that we have always been on the move. Yet the 20th century is the one in human history that has brought with it radical changes in the scale of global migration. Two world wars that saw the introduction of hitherto unknown methods, technology and might of warfare and genocide shook the world to an extent that established empires. Alliances fell, new ones were born, and the global, political and economic landscape was never to be the same.

Oum Koulthoum Singing Al-Atal (detail)
 Oum Koulthoum Singing Al-Atal (detail)
 Gouache and pastel on paper
 76.2cm x 101.6 cm

This legacy is still haunting us today. Never in history have so many people been on the move: to escape war, famine, persecution, extermination, subjugation, and economic hopelessness. They are looking for places peaceful and prosperous to work and live where they will have a future and gain the freedom of speech, education, and human rights. Every day, news broadcasts tell us of people dying for this vision on small boats crossing the Atlantic from Africa to Europe, in the cargo cabins of airplanes, and in vegetable trucks from the Balkans trafficked by the migration mafia to reach the fortresses of the First World. They are willing to give up whatever little they have for something they cannot be sure they will gain. Their drive is often pure desperation. Once they have successfully entered the fortress, they are faced with acculturation a societies with language, customs, and bureaucracies alien to them. If they are lucky and are accepted as residents, their journey is somewhat easier, as they are eligible for financial help, health care, and training. For illegal immigrants, the trials and tribulations continue as none of the latter are available and the demon of discovery and deportation looms always and everywhere. Surely this is the most extreme form of immigration, but it is a reality that surrounds us in developed countries, albeit almost invisible due to its illicitness.

The exodus of Arabs from their homelands in the Near East to Europe and North America is just one example of mass migration in the 20th century. It is particularly poignant because it is the result of multifaceted political and social developments in that region caused by both external and internal factors. For example, the effects of Ottoman imperialism or post-Ottoman colonialism of European powers can be regarded as external factors. Internal factors, often in some way a result of the external factors mentioned here, can be defined by racial, cultural, and religious conflicts within Arab countries, by the oppression by totalitarian regimes in the Arab world. Studies concerning the immigration of Arabs to the U.S. have identified three distinct waves. In the first wave, between 1878 and 1924, mostly Christian Arabs from the Levant escaped Ottoman imperial politics (Orfalea 43-107).  In the second wave, between 1947 and 1966, a large number of displaced Palestinians arrived in the U.S. as a result of the aftermath of the division of their homeland; also Egyptians came whose property had been nationalized under the country’s first president, Nasser (Orfalea 151-188). The third and largest wave, between 1967 and 2005, saw the arrival in the U.S. of a large number of Lebanese refugees fleeing their country’s civil war but also Iraqis fleeing the regime of Saddam Hussain and Iraqis and Palestinians exiled from Kuwait after the first Gulf war, 1990-1991 (Orfalea 189-212). Although the chronology of immigration of Arabs to the U.S. might not be completely transferable to what happened in Europe, South America, and Australia, it can nevertheless provide a model for an investigation of Arab immigration to other parts of the world. In Europe, for example, Arab immigration to France and the United Kingdom was fundamentally different from that to Germany. Large numbers of Arab immigrants seem only to have arrived in Germany in what would correspond to the third wave, largely from the 1970s onward. 1

Most contemporary Arab artists in the diaspora probably can be placed within the framework of Arab emigration described above. Looking at the biographies of such artists, it becomes clear that most fall into two groups: they are either first-generation descendants of immigrants who would qualify as wave two or three (sometimes they are children of mixed marriages), or they themselves left the Arab world as part of wave three. 2 In their work, many of them reflect on their Arab identity, their cultural roots, and the effects of displacement or acculturation on them, or they present a critique of current political developments internationally that affect them. In a recent article focusing on Arab-American artists in a multicultural American context, Salwa Mikdadi Nashashibi has suggested three categories of Arab artists in America. In the first, they identify with their cultural heritage, have ties with the Arab world, and are politically active. Their works are inspired by their experiences in either or both cultural contexts. In the second category, artists are culturally assimilated and prefer to be known as American artists without specific ethnicity, albeit with the option to use acquired references to Arab culture in their work despite being disconnected from the Arab world. In the third category, artists are multiple immigrants, with hybrid multicultural identities that are shaped by migrations from one country to another before arriving in the United States. Artistically their work relates either to that of the second category, discussed above, in that it can be devoid of Arab references or use them out of context, or they have developed their own individualistic expression (Nashashibi 33-41).

As an artist, Camille Zakharia could be grouped into category three of Salwa Mikdadi Nashashibi’s model. His biography is that of a multiple immigrant with a hybrid identity. Born in Lebanon, he left as a result of the Lebanese civil war and lived in the non-Arab Mediterranean and Central Europe before moving to the United States. He then returned to the Arab world, this time to the Arabian Gulf, from where he moved to Canada, only to return to the Gulf once more after becoming a Canadian citizen. But even his childhood was marked by multiple cultural experiences. Already as a child, Zakharia was torn between his native Arab identity, expressed by the use of Arabic at home, and an imposed foreign identity, underlined by the exclusive use of French at school. In the series Elusive Homelands shown here, Zakharia uses the documentation of and reflection on the experience of immigration of fellow Arabs in his new Canadian hometown of Halifax in order to reflect on his own experience of diaspora and displacement. The work reflects a high degree of sympathy for some of the individuals he interviewed for this project, but it also contains criticism wrapped in cynicism. He has accepted his exile as an opportunity to gain professionally, but he also cherishes his opportunities for personal growth and freedom. Yet he misses his past in Lebanon, about which he has romantic feelings. He finds many of these contradictions in the stories of the Arabs of Halifax. For Camille Zakharia, memory of his own past and of their past is important. 3  Elusive Homelands is a work that encapsulates the memory of Zakharia’s mythical past and his memory of the memory of fellow Arabs in Halifax and translates it into his own visual language. His choice of pastel and gouache to represent the mythical past and of photographic collage to represent the stories of Arab immigrants is not arbitrary. Both allow him to juxtapose the two entities but at the same time free himself from the dictate of realism.

Camille Zakharia’s work can speak to a variety of audiences. It provides a reminder of the diaspora and fate of Lebanese Arabs during the Lebanese civil war, as well as other ethnic groups who had been exiled to Lebanon from other parts of the Near East. On another level it communicates the psychology of emigration, the loss of home, security, cultural belonging, and the process of acculturation, its contradictions, disillusionment, or its refusal. It is also a metaphor of an inner diaspora that many people experience within their own societies, estranged by and disillusioned about cultural or political developments in their own countries or in the world at large. Many of us are wanderers in an ever-changing world, willingly or unwillingly. As globalization has increased its pace, the world and its cultures are brought to us wherever we may call home.

1 Since Germany has never officially acknowledged the idea of institutionalized and monitored immigration of persons of non-German descent, unlike countries such as the U.S., Canada, or Australia, its policies towards immigrants have been haphazard and have made immigration for economic reasons and naturalization very difficult. For example, it actively sought immigrants of non-German descent between the 1950s and early 1970s on the premise that they would one day go back to their home countries, the so-called “guest workers” mostly from Turkey, Italy, Spain, and the former Yugoslavia. After the consolidation of the German economy in the late 1970s, one of the few ways to enter Germany as an immigrant was as a refugee. It is in this way that probably the largest numbers of Arabs entered Germany, escaping the wars and regimes in their homelands.

2 For a collection of artists’ biographies, see: Nazar: Photographs from the Arab World. Exhibition catalog curated by Wim Melis. New York: Aperture Foundation, 234-250; Gannit Ankori. Palestinian Art. London: Reaktion Books, 2006; Fereshteh Daftari. Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking. Exhibition catalog. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2006, 90-107; Fran Lloyd, ed. Displacement and Difference: Contemporary Arab Visual Culture in the Diaspora. London: Saffron Books, 1999, 157-180; Venetia Porter. Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East. Exhibition catalog. London: The British Museum Press, 2006, 128-142.

3 See Fran Lloyd. “Re-making Ourselves: Art, Memories and Materialities.” Displacement and Difference: Contemporary Arab Visual Culture in the  Diaspora. Ed. Fran Lloyd. London: Saffron Books, 1999, 139-153.

Works Cited
Nashashibi, Salwa Mikdadi. “American-Arab Artists and Multiculturalism in America.” Displacement and Difference: Contemporary Arab Visual Culture in the Diaspora. Ed. Fran Lloyd. London: Saffron Books, 1999. 33-41.

Orfalea, Gregory. The Arab Americans: A History. Northampton, Massachusetts: Olive Branch P, 2006.

Said, Edward. “Reflections on Exile.” Granta 13, 1984: 159-172.   end of text