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​“Syrian youths need access to education”

interview with Elena Isayev

Professor Isayev

Professor Isayev humanities.exeter.ac.uk

Elena Isayev has performed excavations for many years in Italy, proving that glass used by the Romans was partly Syrian, that normally 30% of the people in any community come from outside and the concept of citizenship has changed many times over time. She has just written a book, Migration, mobility and place, that states two things: that since very ancient times there has been a primordial tendency of humans to migrate and this feature of the human kind, its being “always on the move”, has been the object, for instance in the political language, of some fictions, which are expounded and critically explained in her book.

Would you like to tell us about your book and your research about Italy? According to your studies, is the identity of a country like Italy defined by ethnic or political criteria?

The book clarifies two things. Firstly, mobility in the ancient world was very high and there is a primordial tendency to migrate, which has been made the object of some denials and fictions, which I documented and criticized. One data about Italy, from excavations in Etruria, is that about 30% of the people in each studied community came from the outside. In the Roman world there was no Italian identity, there was an attempt to affirm one but then what happened was that Rome won a “social war” and the Roman identity was created, not the Italian one. Citizenship is not territorial, and could be extended to some people and communities beyond Rome and Italy. But in terms of where people feel to belong, the communities, we must remember that the Roman empire let hundreds thousands or even millions people become citizens overnight.

Would you like to explain the origins of the idea of “migration”, and the connotations it has in everyday language? Are there any particularly negative connotations that amount to xenophobia?

The word “migration” is often meant as a “moving from a place to another and remaining there forever”. It is very ancient, but the use we make of it is contemporary. Usually by “migration” we mean this kind of movement from somewhere to somewhere else “forever”. In the past, 1.500 years ago, people’s movement were surely from a town or a region to another, but they happened differently from today: there were no borders, nor passports.. I do not talk of movements of armies or the military. Migrations the way we understand them now, are viewed accordig to a frame of mind that developed in America in the 20th century: people asked themselves where migrants came from and somehow questioned if arrivals would lead to overcrowding or overpopulaton, with a growing fear that too many people may arrive.

As to xenophobia in ancient Italy, there are two things to say: first of all many people think that ethnicity and origins are connected to a city, with blood and soil tied to each other in a way. Thus the problem is how to prevent people from moving to somewhere – or leaving. Trying to keep the people connected to a territory and an ethnicity is something like a boundary that is artificially created by power, culture and other features of our society. Today now we presume the connection to soil is ethnicity, while one of the few things we know for sure is that humans are connected to their families. In many eras and cultures, the way people conceived themselves and their communities was different. People felt connected to a culture for example. This results for example from the examination of Etrurian relics.

You say in institutions like those of the Roman empire, mobility was accepted, while citizenship was the issue. Would you like to explain this important difference?

In our culture citizenship is connected to territory and land. The difference we are talking about instead is particulary apparent in the Roman Empire. The entrance into different territories was something very different from citizenship. The latter did not represent at all a connection with territory. It was only with the Westphalia Treaty in 1648, which set the principle cuius regio, eius religio, that such a connection was established and a concept of citizenship close to ours was born. Earlier, people had no problems with people’s movements.

How can you define citizenship today? What can happen to our date if the criteria for citizenship are broaden or, on the contrary, if migrants are welcome upon the condition that they somehow do not change their social and legal status?

A first step for a better integration in my opinion is the strengthening of people’s belonging to Europe, which today is being discussed. We should deal with the fear towards immigration that stems from 19th century America and decide that it is completely political. On the one hand citizenship is a matter of identity and boundaries, on the other hand though it is made of duty and loyalty. We must invest on this, on the number of people who are connected to a European identity today. This is a side of the problem, but it has to do with politics. Concerning the case of “non integrated” or “second class” migrants we must bring about the situations in which foreigners contribute, buy good and services, and fully support society. Instead it seems to me as though we were creating angry people living among us.

In what relation are those arriving from Syria today with us? Do archaeology, history and culture suggest that we have a common civilization?

Archaeology tells us that the populations of the Middle East or North Africa were very important cultural centres. Syria in particular was a cultural and commercial space of the utmost importance in the Roman Empire and for example a kind of glass which is very common in Italian archaological sites comes from there. We have a story of a Syrian prince who lived in a ward of the State of Rome and was a friend to famous historian Polybio.

What could you do for peace in Syria and to ensure horrors such as the murder of Khaled Asaad will not happen many more?

This murder shocked the archaeological community very deeply. I have no political solutions, but I can say part of the problem is that young Syrians today grow up knowing only war, without any access to education, in other words they survive only. How can these people understand the value of cultural heritage? How can this generaton, which is part of our society and soul, grow up in dignity? We must work to grant them education, to help them become able to make the difference, nurturing the value of universal society.

8 October 2015

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