Mary N. Layoun. Wedded to the Land?: Gender, Boundaries, and Nationalism in Crisis (Post-Contemporary Interventions). Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001. xii + 225 pp. $74.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-2507-9; $21.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-2545-1.
Reviewed by Marilyn Booth (Department of Comparative Literature, Brown University)
Published on H-Gender-MidEast (September, 2002)
Fictions of a Nation or, Who will be the Greek?
Fictions of a Nation or, Who will be the Greek?
In her first book, Travels of a Genre: The Modern Novel and Ideology (1990), Mary Layoun took up the early postcolonial novel in Egypt, Greece and Japan as local response to European imperialism, viewing the novel as the appropriate(d) cultural form through which national intellectuals exposed--if quietly--the contradictory historical circumstances with which emerging nations outside of Europe and North America struggled. In Wedded to the Land?, Layoun journeys further but on a related set of paths, interrogating a wide range of texts (written, oral, visual) for equally difficult-to-hear notions of community, ones that pose alternatives to dominant narratives of nationally defined sociality.
This time, Layoun centers her search on the interface of gender as social discipline and nation as primary identity. This topic is such a popular magnet for humanities and social science scholars these days, that one can almost not help wondering how much more there is to say about the gendered structures and processes of national affirmation, though of course the historically and culturally specific permutations are nearly endless. Rehearsing recent feminist and postcolonial scholarship on the gender/nation interface, Layoun gives what are by-now-familiar insights a distinct focus, setting her sights on "nationalism-in-crisis." That is, she chooses three historical moments in the eastern Mediterranean when boundaries--physical, political, metaphoric--around "nation" were tested by expansionist claims of regional political centers and no less by imperialist writ, producing heightened tension between ethnic/linguistic/religious collectivities who had lived together in one locale. Separated in time, three moments of political crisis yielded not only physical displacement and suffering for populations on the ground but also crises of belonging, of citizenship, i.e. the Greek state's attempt through invasion to claim the Greek population of Asia Minor following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I; the 1974 coup in Cyprus and ensuing Turkish invasion; and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and rout of Palestinians there. Layoun offers succinct and detailed histories of each crisis as a prelude to her analysis of cultural texts, while refusing an easy as similation of "literature," "history,"and "experience".
Negotiating her own histories as scholar and participant in these communities, Layoun takes a page from recent anthropological self-questioning (while avoiding the pitfall of centering the scholar as the major subject of the work): she acknowledges the profound impact of her fieldwork on her own perspective and methodology. A literary scholar, Layoun had headed for libraries and archives. She had not planned to use oral testimony in her work, but the encounters of daily life that she allows us to view attest not only to the danger of containing "the imaginary" within the literary text but also to the continuing power today of alternative as well as dominant narratives. Without pressing the point, Layoun's weaving together of these various voices adds harmonic depth to her conclusion, a hopeful plea that to attend to the possibility of "unheard" narratives is necessary to human--as opposed to merely political--freedom. Eloquently analyzing fiction, poetry, newspaper articles, cartoons, murals, film, and oral testimony, Layoun asks how creative interventions--not the least of them memories--have acknowledged the power of dominant national narratives but have also challenged the nation-as-narrative by creating their own alternative narratives. Central to her analysis is the question of how iterated gender boundaries inscribe and enclose nations, and how the puncturing if not erasure of those boundaries is essential to the imagining of new communities. She notes:
"No subsidiary category or secondary concern of nationalism, particular and specific boundaries of gender and sexuality are, rather, its sine qua non. They are fundamental to its very emergence and formulation. So, for example, to speak of 'the woman question' in nationalism is, after a fashion, to miss the point. The question of woman--and of women, and of men--is the foundation of nationalism" (p. 14).
With this insistence on gender's foundational, almost generative, role in shaping (and creating?) nationalism, does the author risk hollowing out nationalism, emptying it of specificity? (Her insistence also raises the unanswered, perhaps presently unanswerable, question of whether nationalisms could exist in a world where gender identities had become at least malleable, if not irrelevant.) Is nationalism a handmaid to the present dominance of gender hierarchies in the world as we know it? Layoun would probably, wisely, say "yes, but not only so," and the provocative material she marshals nuances her theorizing of the always-already-gendered nation paradigm. For if gender and sexuality are crucial to the contours of nationalisms as we know them, the ways in which they work are not always predictable. And while these linked essays attend to gender as both an organizing metaphorical presence (as in the trope of the national territory as "woman") and as a principle of social organization that maps the outlines of the putative nation, some of the most suggestive texts that Layoun discusses seem more to emphasize gender in a sense that has also been widely theorized: as a figuration of power relations wherein the "feminine" is the site occupied by the less powerful, the outsider, the subaltern, the speechless-of whatever social gender s/he may be.
Layoun's profound readings of politically transgressive texts arising from each of her crisis situations suggest ways in which gendered identities have both served and undermined official nationalisms. Strikingly, her rich offerings of testimony--whether in the shape of orally recounted memories or in the form of written fiction or in that of publicly available murals--show the crossing of national/ethnicized boundaries through the selective embrace and rejection of gendered expectations as pivotal to resisting the dominant nation-as-narrative, particularly in the cases of Smyrna's Greek population and the displaced Greek Cypriot populace of northern Cyprus. Within hierarchies of gender, age privilege, and class, Layoun's texts show subjects resistant to communal and family authority as they reject, if temporarily and partially, the boundaries that official nationalisms have declared.
For the Asia Minor Greeks, it is the problem of supposed assimilability to "brothers and sisters" of Greece "proper"--and the consequently requisite suppression of notions of community within the multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-tongued society of Ottoman Asia Minor-that occasion narratives of "impossible" community. The same problematically generated insistence by the Greek state on a world of homogeneous populations where "homogeneity" not only denied the possibility a multi-ethnic society but masked the differences among "Greeks" of different regions--while the refugees from Smyrna found themselves spurned in the Greek "motherland." Individual resistance to labels assigned by official discourse yielded small acts of resilience and loyalty, subaltern responses in the face of an inexorable state nationalism supported by the postwar Great Power "consensus." The "militant gendering of the national" (p. 50) situates the symbolic weight of territorialized identity on muted women's bodies, yet in fixing gendered places in the nation, this operation gets caught in its own contradictions as it tries to (yet cannot) represent the Asia Minor refugees, those "caught between positions in the national story" (p. 53). For the Cypriots, Layoun sees the disallowable imagining of an undivided Cyprus as yielding narratives wherein the trope of rape exposes intracommunal divisions as it supposedly expresses intercommunal violence. The author is quick to note that the literary deployment of this trope is not an inevitable consequence of an historically attested incidence of rape; rather, to historicize this deployment is to recognize the power of--and resistance to--an official discourse: "The central role of fictions and poetic expressions that articulate vexed categories of nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender are a register of the official political and social discourse of the Cypriot state that cast the island of Cyprus under Turkish invasion and occupation as the woman raped" (p. 83). It is a fresh approach to focus on Palestinian culture following the 1982 invasion and expulsion rather than that emerging after 1948 or 1967. Yet the chapter on Palestine seems least successful in suggesting the specific historicity of texts and presences that question a dominant (re)formulation of boundaries. Mahmoud Darwish's poetry and Michel Khleife's well-known film Wedding in Galilee do indeed posit "inside" and "outside" and notions of (un)bounded community in ways that question dominant narratives of national closure and of gendered acquiescence to "nation" as primary focus of belonging and of honor. Yet, if 1982 posed new configurations for the Palestinian struggle, it is less clear to this reader at least how these texts are specifically rooted in that moment rather than in the ongoing and tragic narratives of Palestinian experience as a whole.
Layoun's elaborated readings of the texts she has chosen are admirably attuned to the whispered implications of narrative detail in closely historicized moments of cultural production. For if alternative images of community issue from these moments of crisis, they are, as Layoun notes, discernible mostly between the lines. They may be impossible of achievement. They are in a sense utopian, yet Layoun insists that they arise from, while not mirroring, grounded experience and thus are, in a sense, realistic. Impossible they may be, and nearly inaudible, but they are also inescapable. By way of three Western thinkers (Olympe de Gouges, Karl Marx, Julia Kristeva) who address the limits of citizenship in a world configured by gendered hierarchies and by an imperialism fueled through capitalist "mobility" which (Layoun notes) does not necessarily imply "freedom," in her final chapter the author urges responsible recognition of these sites of transgression, where women, men, and children have practiced boundary erasure, even if fleetingly. Layoun retells the devastatingly moving dream of a Palestinian refugee boy, of a future in historic Palestine. All goes according to plan, on the dream-bus ride "back" to Palestine (the boy has always and only known his refugee camp). And then his companions scatter to go to their various points of "origin." Bewildered, the boy (who is both in the dream and telling it) wonders why the companionship of their camp must now be dissolved to achieve the ultimate "return" that is (is not) home. For this notion of "return" offers a dreamed-of "national" community that must occur at the cost of demolishing present communities "outside" the nation both territorially and conceptually. Within the hierarchies of the envisioned national community, which are ordered by gender and by other assigned categories, it is the marginal and the vulnerable-in this case a young boy and refugee camp resident--who have dreams that transgress the nation-as-narrative.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-gender-mideast.
Marilyn Booth. Review of Layoun, Mary N., Wedded to the Land?: Gender, Boundaries, and Nationalism in Crisis (Post-Contemporary Interventions).
H-Gender-MidEast, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2002 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.