Community based on diversity

What makes a group of people constitute a community? The most common definitions focus on similarities of place, interest, or practices. For example, Wikipedia says,

Human communities may share intent, belief, resources, preferences, needs, and risks in common, affecting the identity of the participants and their degree of cohesiveness.

The standard view thus sees cohesion growing out of sameness. Can we even imagine a community emerging out of difference?

Imagined communities

In his book on nationalism, Benedict Anderson writes that a nation

is imagined as a community, because regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings (p. 7)

For Anderson, all nations, indeed, all communities are imagined; they are distinguished by the “style” in which they are imagined.  In many countries, the imagining consists of defining a personal archetype, a single language, a religion, and a national mythology, which extends the nation’s history to a time long before anyone did imagine a nation.

Nepal ethnic groups

Nepal ethnic groups

But comradeship is neither guaranteed nor does it require, more objectively measured, or even imagined, similarity. Instead, Anderson’s imagined community is more akin to Anthony P. Cohen’s (1985) idea of community of meaning, in which the community plays a crucial symbolic role in generating a person’s identity and sense of belonging. A community is, because we conceive it to be.

Community based on difference

If we shift from defining a community based on shared attributes (religion, interests, age, place, etc.) to thinking of it as something that its members construct, we begin to see an answer to the question posed above: Yes, community can emerge out of difference, even because of difference.

The country of Nepal is so diverse in terms of geography, history, human physical features, language, religion, arts, and more, that it’s difficult to say what constitutes a Nepali, or Nepal as a nation. What makes all Nepalis the same, yet different from people in India, China, or elsewhere? Imagining such a sameness for people Nepal is more a stretch than it is for most other countries. How might Nepalis imagine their community, if such can exist?

Instead of focusing on sameness, many in Nepal conceive of their nation in terms of its diversity. What sets Nepal apart is not that everyone looks, dresses, talks, prays, or acts the same, but that people there seek common ground through recognition of and genuine valuing of their differences. This otherwise vague goal is enacted in many concrete ways.

Celebrating and building on diversity

For example, there are 123 recognized “national languages.” Following Section 32 of the Constitution, the Language Commission aims that

every person and community will be entitled to use their language, participate in cultural life… and promote their language, script, culture, cultural civilization and heritage. Similarly, the state has a policy… to promote national unity by developing… mutual harmony, tolerance and solidarity between different languages

There is active research to find and preserve languages that may have been missed before, but now need to be recognized and protected. Contrast that with the efforts of some in the US to make English the official language.

Nepal flag at the top of Shivapuri

Nepal flag at the top of Shivapuri

Consider also how many Nepalis view their flag and anthem, conventional symbols of nationalism. In many countries flag waving serves to inculcate a belief in nationhood based on imagined sameness. This is not so in Nepal.

Nepal’s flag has a unique double triangular (or double pennant) shape. As such, it’s the only non-rectangular national flag. The national anthem is also unusual in both music and lyrics. “Sayaun Thunga Phool Ka” was adopted in 2006, with music by Amber Gurun. The BBC places it third on its list of “most amazing national anthems” and described it as “the only anthem normally played on a Casio keyboard.” An English translation of the lyrics by Byakul Maila includes

Woven from hundreds of flowers, we are garland Nepali… millions of natural beauties, history like a shawl… races, languages, religions, cultures incredible… progressive nation, I salute Nepal.

Echoing ideas from many others, politician Biraj Bista says, “Most people feel proud to have such a unique flag. Personally, I look at it as a symbol of unification in diversity we have in Nepal” (Nosowitz, 2018). This idea of community in diversity provides a powerful resource for the current work there on progressive education.

Implications for the US

The US is currently conflicted over the notion of community. For some, there is a desire to imagine a “deep, horizontal comradeship” based on shared language, religion, ethnicity, and social values. This leads to actions against immigrants, racial oppression, imposing sectarian religious views in public life, and absurd efforts to institute assumed, or desired, commonality of language use. In support of this sameness aim, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services recently changed its mission statement to eliminate the description of the US as “a nation of immigrants.”

For others, there is acceptance of diversity, and an understanding of how it enriches the life of society. However, that difference perspective is often accompanied by unease over perceived changes in society, and a difficulty in defining what constitutes nationhood.

Nepal provides a strong refutation of the sameness conceit and a clear articulation of a pluralistic or multicultural view of community. It shows a way in which the unity of a people, or a nation arises, not in spite of, but precisely because of the willingness to embrace difference.

References

Languages of Nepal

Nepal ethnic groups

Nepal ethnic groups

In an area about the same size as Illinois, smaller than New England, Nepal boasts an amazing array of languages.

The 2011 National census lists 123 mother tongue languages. Nepali is the official language, and is spoken by nearly half of the people (although with multiple dialects). The others are all “national languages,” which are accepted as official at the regional level.

These languages can be quite different. In fact, they belong to at least four major language families. Most of the languages are in the Tibeto-Burman group, but only 18% of the people speak these. The largest population percentage is for languages in the Indo-Aryan family. There are also a number of Dravidian languages and Austroasiatic languages.

Courtyard friends

Courtyard friends

Nepal also has several indigenous village sign languages, as well as the official Nepali Sign Language (which is unrelated to oral Nepali). I actually learned a few words of the latter while waiting for a friend at a restaurant where the staff were mostly sign language speakers. When they asked what I wanted to order, at least I could say “I’m waiting for my friend.”

Lava Deo Awasthi

Lava Deo Awasthi

My friends in the photo above are signing “peace” and either “Spiderman is great” or “I love you” (I didn’t ask). These are not necessarily in official Nepali Sign Language.

Along these lines, I was fortunate to meet Lava Awasthi, the Chairperson of the Nepal Language Commission. He said that although there are 123 national languages, the Commission suspects that there are many more. And in addition to the four well-established language families, there may be at least one, maybe two more. So, this is an active area of research. The terrain of course makes it difficult to study for the same reason that there are so many languages in a relatively small territory in the first place.

Welcome to Nepal

Tourist Police NepalIt’s hard to imagine a more welcoming place than Nepal. People of all ages greet each other and visitors with a big smile accompanying a “Namaste.”

Tourists are still rare enough in many areas that little children are fascinated–staring, giggling, and waving. Their parents show then how to bring their hands together for “Namaste,” and get a big smile when you reciprocate.

There are welcome signs everywhere, on mats, doorways, posters, wooden carvings, and painted cloths. The signs are in Sanskrit (svāgatam) or Nepali (swagat cha), although those welcomes usually employ the Devanāgarī script (स्वागतम्).

There are also many welcomes in English. These often use two words, “wel come,” or hyphenation, “wel-come.”

Officialdom, even the police, also displays a welcoming attitude. Listen to the poem below, from a card distributed by the Tourist Police.

Always at your service

If you are lost or confused, we provide clarity.
If you are nervous or scared, we encourage strengthening your confidence.
If you need information, we provide them.
If you don’t know where to go, we guide you.

We are there when you need us.

Dial 1144.

Let us serve you.

A Day of Languages

From the European Day of Languages website

From the European Day of Languages website

Today is the European Day of Languages. It was proclaimed by the Council of Europe at the end of the European Year of Languages and has been celebrated ever since (2001).

There are about 225 languages indigenous to Europe. However, nearly half of EU citizens do not speak a language other than their mother tongue (EU, 2006). With a growing population of immigrants and refugees, European cities have become even more multilingual. For example, in London about 300 languages are spoken.

The European Union has now set a target for children to learn at least two foreign languages from an early age, both to enhance intercultural understanding and to improve the European economy.

The European Day of Languages

In that context, the aim of the European Day of Languages is to encourage language learning, specifically, to

  • highlight the importance of language learning and diversify the range of languages learned,
  • promote the rich linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe,
  • encourage lifelong language learning in and out of school.

People are encouraged to study a new language, or to take special pride in their existing language skills. There is also emphasis on learning a language other than English. Events are organized for children, on TV and radio programs, and in language classes and conferences.

A Day of Languages for the US?

The US has a linguistic diversity similar to Europe’s. It’s not a trivial task to count how many languages are spoken in any region, but it’s clear that there are well over 300 languages spoken in the US (Ryan, 2013), including at least 134 indigenous languages and many more spoken by more recent immigrants, such as the English.

Shouldn’t the US, or perhaps, North America, also have a Day of Languages? As in Europe, it would be good for the economy. It could help remind us all of the wonderful resource in our rich linguistic and cultural diversity. And, most importantly, it might also help us be less prone to lump people in categories of “the other.”

I have to add that it would be nice to have September 26 as a national holiday.

References

European Union (2006, February). Europeans and their Languages Special Eurobarometer 243.

Ryan, Camille (2013, August). Language use in the United States: 2011. American Community Survey Report.

Lee M. Hollander

Icelanders

Icelanders

I thought about Lee Hollander while returning to the US via Reykjavik.

Professor Hollander lived across the street from the house that three law students and I rented for a year while attending the University of Texas in Austin. He was 88 years old then, but still very fit and active. He would walk to campus every day, a distance of a mile and a half, when many younger residences insisted on driving.

He received many honors for his translations and studies of Scandinavian literature, including being made Knight of the Order of the Icelandic Falcon. One book I treasure is his translation of the the Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse poems, which were preserved in the Icelandic 13 C manuscript Codex Regius.

The Poetic Edda

The Poetic Edda

Hollander lost his academic job during WWI because he was a German teacher. In 1920, after the war, he came to the University of Texas, and contributed there for the rest of his life.

Hollander was forced to retire officially because of old age during the year that I was born, but he continued his research and teaching of Germanic studies, publishing many works on Old Norse and translations of sagas. His work continued until after I had received my PhD and left the University.

He died on his way home from the campus on October 19, 1972.

The Way of the Lycians

Our neighbor

Our neighbor

If I could rank civilizations in terms of how important and interesting they are divided by how much I know about them, Lycia would be near the top. Of course, that works only if I leave out the many I know nothing about.

Lycia is a region along Turkey’s Mediterranean coast between Antalya and Koycegiz. Its rivers, including Xanthos and Alakir drain the Anatolian plateau and are among the largest in the country. The entire region is mountainous, with some peaks rising over 10,000 feet. The mountain ranges encroach on the sea, pausing only enough to allow for beautiful beaches.

Barley in the Bezirgan yayla

Barley in the Bezirgan yayla

Our B&B is in a yayla (summer pasture) about 3000 feet above the sea. Nearby, the Kaputaş beach provides a good example of the topography.

It’s at the base of Kaputaş canyon, a narrow cleft at the foot of the Taurus mountains. The beach is 200′ wide and 70′ deep, with a scarp rising 80′ straight up behind. You can reach the beach by boat or by a staircase with 187 steps (seemed like more to me). Off its eastern end the sea has eroded the Blue Cave, nearly 200′ across, and a favorite of small tour boats and inner tube riders.

Kapitaş beach at the base of the canyon

Kapitaş beach at the base of the canyon

The Lycian civilization developed within this region. They probably came from Crete around 1400 BC. They had their own language and unique script, still not fully understood. They had unique customs and funerary architecture.

Even though they lived in mountainous terrain with seemingly inaccessible villages, the Lycians formed a union while the rest of the Greek world was warring city states. They had representative government when Greek cities still had rule of the whole body of citizens. In the later Lycian League, they had a bicameral legislature, panels of judges, and other complex civic structures.

Lycians used matrilineal lineage: People identify themselves by their mother and their mother’s mother, not the father. Moreover, offspring of a Lycian woman are automatically legitimate, whereas those born to a Lycian man and a foreigner are illegitimate. Herodotus thought that this was unique, but many other cultures employ a similar system. Our B&B host cites it as evidence that the Celts derive from Lycia.

Xanthos

Xanthos

The Lycians resisted domination, being the last in Asia Minor to become a province of the Roman empire. They won some of their battles, either by force or diplomacy, but the losses were dramatic and tragic.

In 540 BC, the Persian commander Harpagos attacked Xanthos, the largest and most prominent city. Finally succumbing to a blockade, the Xanthians gathered all the women, children, slaves, and household goods and set fire to them, then fought on until every Xanthian had been killed or committed suicide. Every item of value had thus been destroyed. Later, 80 Xanthian families who had been elsewhere during the fighting returned and rebuilt the city. The poem below, found at the Xanthos site, describes this event:

We made our houses graves
And our graves are homes to us
Our houses burned down
And our graves were looted
We climbed to the summits
We went deep into the earth
We were drenched in water
They came and got us
They burned and destroyed us
They plundered us
And we,
For the sake of our mothers,
Our women,
And for the sake of our dead,
And we,
In the name of our honor,
And our freedom,
We, the people of this land,
Who sought mass suicide
We left a fire behind us,
Never to die out…

Poem found on a tablet in the Xanthos excavations, translated by Azra Erhat

Keçiler (goats) on Lycian Way

Keçiler (goats) on Lycian Way

This scene was repeated when Brutus sacked the city in 42 BC. He offered a reward to any Roman soldier who could save a Xanthosian by preventing his suicide. But only 150 survived.

Despite these tragedies, in most cases the Xanthians succeeded against plunderers, until their artifacts were finally conquered by the British Museum in 1838.

Much evidence of the Lycian civilization still remains, as do, I suppose, descendants of those early peoples. The 300 mile long Lycian Way, which runs through our village, near Kaputaş beach and Xanthos, is Turkey’s first long-distance, waymarked path. Along the way one can see endless structures from the Lycian era and imagine its history stretching back 3400 years.

Kemal Hakki Tor’s Lycia is a good introduction to the area.

The Black Citadel of Opium

Afyon citadel

Afyon citadel

Afyonkarahisar (Turkey) is a cool name for a town.

To start, it’s seven syllables. How many towns can claim that? In the US, Philadelphia has five, Indianapolis has six. The full name for Llanfairpwllgwyngyll (Wales) has around 15 syllables, and there’s a town in Thailand with even more. However, among towns that people regularly say and name on signs, Afyonkarahisar must be in a select group.

Poppies (Papaver somniferum)

Poppies (Papaver somniferum)

The meaning of Afyonkarahisar is striking, too. “Hisar” means citadel or fortress, and refers to the stunning rock/castle in the center. It’s 570 steps up, which should convey a sense of its height.

“Kara” means black and “Afyon” means opium, which is widely grown in the area. So, Afyonkarahisar is the Black Citadel of Opium.

Ottoman era houses

Ottoman era houses

You can see poppy growing in many places around Afyonkarahisar. This is essential for one of the regional specialities, Kaymak, a creamy dairy product, made from the milk of water buffalos. The water buffalo are fed the residue of poppy seeds (haşhaş) after it has been pressed for oil. Kaymak is often traditionally eaten with honey as a supplement to breakfast.

Opium seed paste

Opium seed paste

Haşhaş (or opium seed paste) itself is sometimes served at breakfast. I learned that it is given to children to calm their stomachs and to help them sleep through the night (hush-hush?). Since my own stomach has been queasy lately, I’m hoping a generous serving will benefit me as well.

Down at the bottom of the citadel is an old town, with many houses from the Ottoman era. We stayed in one that’s been converted into a charming hotel: Şehitoğlu Konaği. Other than bumping my head, which seems to be a problem everywhere I go, I enjoyed the step into the past, with elaborate woodwork, long sofas, and many pots, pitchers, and plates made of copper or silver.