Comparative Literature Studies 41.1 (2004) 173-175
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Wedded to the Land? Gender, Boundaries, and Nationalism in Crisis By Mary N. Layoun. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001. xv + 225 pp. $18.95; $54.95.
The cultures of the nation and of nationalism are the timely topics of Mary Layoun's compelling book. The plural "cultures" has to be used deliberately here, since one of the eloquently argued points of Layoun's book is the frequent incommensurability between the culture of nationalism and the culture of the nation, which nationalism, in collusion with state apparatuses, would narrate into sustainable discursive formation. As to the originary point of whether the nation engenders its nationalism, or vice versa, the history of the three cases Layoun takes as examples for her study moot any clear and indisputable order. The three instances that serve as the author's case studies figure among the most baleful examples of the twentieth century's tragedies in human displacement: the pursuit of the messianic "Big Idea" of irredentist Hellenism by the liberal regime of Eleftherios Venizelos in Athens, the subsequent creation of Greek refugees in Asia Minor, and their ruthless dislocation in 1922; the 1974 right-wing Greek Cypriot coup, in pursuit of the same "Big Idea," which led to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus; and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel, motivated still by no less a "Big Idea" and the racialized sanctification of territory for purposes of a real-estate land grab, which resulted in the expulsion of Palestinians and the PLO from Beirut, only to have them "come home" in closer defense of their "emptied out territories," reminiscent of the "terrae nullius," the "no-man's lands" which justified their appropriation and the decimation of indigenous populations in the New World in the course of the European Renaissance. The latter two products of the law of unintended consequences continue unabated still, the twentieth century's intractable legacies to the twenty-first.
Layoun examines the literatures, official documents and decrees, poetry, songs, cinema, public monuments, and journalism, in addition to conducting [End Page 173] interviews and conversations with exiles, refugees, and public officials tied to these events. In doing so, she aims to answer a series of key questions dealing with the culture of the nation and the crazed constructs of nationalism in the historical moments of crisis each of these tragic events represents: "Do boundaries [. . .] persist in times of nationalism-in-crisis? [. . .] Whether the boundaries hold or not, does the fixation itself on boundaries persist? Can fixation still compel attention in the absence (or transformation) of the boundaries that are the object? [. . .] What if boundary fixation is generated not prior or subsequent to but precisely in times of crisis? And, further, what if that fixation and its concomitant borders are only one of multiple positions or spaces generated in times of crisis, even if they seem to constitute the dominant position?" (165-66).
The dynamic that propels Layoun's study, like the stresses and disjunctions that precipitated, and, in the latter two cases, still drive events, is nationalism's and ethno-nationalism's centripetal, homogenizing impulse that would unbound diverse peoples into deterritorialized displacements in order to achieve the goals of utopian, messianic, or zionist ends of those fixated on the homogeneous "boundaries" of nationhood and racialized ethno-nations. Even as we read Layoun's eloquent and painful reminder of this tragic history through her diligent exegeses of the cultural products that issue from these events, the baneful processes she describes continue unabated, especially in the last of her book's case studies, the Palestinian. Thus, the self-convinced and the cynically opportunistic, who prey on such human misery, continue subjecting particularity to exclusions and brutal domination where political expulsion, territorial expropriation, and outright ethnic cleansing prove insufficient or politically untenable.
One of Layoun's most engaging contributions to this cultural history of nation and nationalisms is the examination of the gendered inflections in the narrative of the cultures of nation. Layoun's insistence on "narrative as nationalism" (10) takes narrative to...