Global Diasporas: An Introduction (Robin Cohen)

Rather serendipitously, my supervisor handed me Robin Cohen’s Global Diasporas: An Introduction earlier this week and I have been at it since, through late nights and early mornings. I had been meaning to read it sooner rather than later as I think of how to frame my research within the area of Diaspora Studies. I started my research just lookiing at ethnic identity, but soon realised that I cannot talk about ethnic identity without addressing the issue of diaspora.

I had been introduced to the term diaspora some while ago when I started reading and engaging about the Hadrami diaspora. I always thought of it as the dispersal of people from an origin Point A across different parts of the world. But apparently – according to Cohen – that’s only part of the story.


Photo: Internet

The origin of the word diaspora is explained by Cohen in his Preface to the Second Edition (the first edition of the book was published in 1997):

Looking meditatively (or was that vegetatively?) at the garden out of my window, I suddenly thought how migration scholars were increasingly using gardening terms like ‘uprooting’, ‘scattering’, ‘transplanting’ and the then newly-fashionable word ‘hybridity’. My interest mounted when I found that ‘diaspora’ was derived from the Greek work speiro (‘to sow’ or‘to disperse’). (p.xiv)

That extract explains the cover of the Second Edition. Yet, prior to reading this book, I didn’t really think that there was more to a diaspora than just a dispersal. Cohen presents nine common features of a diaspora in Chapter 1:

1. Dispersal from an original homeland, often traumatically, to two or more foreign regions;

2. alternatively or additionally, the expansion from a homeland in search of work, in pursuit of trade or to further colonial ambitions;

3. a collective memory and myth about the homeland, including its location, history, suffering and achievements;

4. an idealization of the real or imagined ancestral home and a collective commitment to its maintenance, restoration, safety and prosperity, even to its creation;

5. the frequent development of a return movement to the homeland that gains collective approbation even if many in the group are satisfied with only a vicarious relationship or intermittent visits to the homeland;

6. a strong ethnic group consciousness sustained over a long time and based on a sense of distinctiveness, a common history, the transmission of a common cultural and religious heritage and the belief in a common fate;

7. a troubled relationship with host societies, suggesting a lack of acceptance or the possibility that another calamity might befall the group;

8. a sense of empathy and co-responsibility with co-ethnic members in other countries of settlement even where home has become more vestigial; and

9. the possibility of a distinctive creative, enriching life in host countries with a tolerance for pluralism. (p.17)

I think most of us would have thought of diaspora in terms of point nos. 1 and 2, perhaps even no. 8. But what about the homeland (point nos. 3 and 4)? With regards to those who have roots in Singapore since the colonial days, do Singaporeans Pakistanis think of Pakistan as their homeland? (Do they think of it at all? Do they even think of themselves as Pakistani to begin with?) Given the negative image of the country and concerns about safety, I doubt that Singaporean Pakistanis would consider returning to Pakistan (point no. 5) This was fairly common in the 1950s – 1970s where second generation Pakistanis would spend months back home, often because their fathers (who were Policemen) were granted paid leave every five years to return home. But what about now?

My research shows that points no. 6 and 7 possibly feature in the community (see what I just did there? Community – in the sense of a shared identity, however imagined.) But it is worth noting that the early Pakistanis, like other Muslim migrant communities – namely the Indians and Arabs commonly married into the larger Malay society as well as adopted Malay language and customs to some degree. In that sense, they came in contact with an ‘open’ (accepting) receiving community.

So this brings us the question – Is there a Pakistani diaspora in Singapore?

Because judging by Cohen’s definition, then it is contestable. Furthermore, Cohen discusses the concept of creolization vis-a-vis diaspora:

However, as is clear from Safran’s comments about political participation and the growth of exogamy, many in the diaspora have adapted to a form of dual consciousness – poised between virtual Zionism on the one hand and interculturality or creolization on the other. (p.15)

Nearly all the powerful nation-states, especially in Europe, established their own diasporas abroad to further their imperial plans. The Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, German, French and British colonists fanned out to most parts of the world and established imperial and quasi-imperial diasporas. ‘Quasi’, because in a number of instances, localization or creolization occurred, with the new settlers marrying into the local community or turning against their homelands. (p.69)

Thus, whatever the sophistication and complexity of the black Atlantic thesis, at root it is a historical simplification, which cannot fully explain the process of indigenization and creolization in the Caribbean. (p.138)

Perhaps this is where I introduce the book I will likely be reading next:


Photo: Internet

Yup, there is an entire book on creolization.

But just based on the three extracts from Global Diasporas, then we can tease that creolization has close connections to interculturality, localization and indigenization.

So to summarise and conclude this post, I bring forth another question: Is the Pakistani identity in Singapore a diasporic or creole identity?

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