World view - Michela Wrong overhears diaspora gossip

In a diaspora, there is no such thing as privacy. Everyone knows everyone else's business, whose fat

The other day, I gave a speech at the Royal African Society to launch my book on the Red Sea nation of Eritrea. As the speech progressed, followed by questions, I began to get a feel for my audience.

Artfully scattered across the hall were a few men who made sceptical remarks and denounced the "purely anecdotal" nature of a book they could barely have had time to read, given that most bookshops hadn't yet got round to stocking it. "Oh, they work for the Eritrean government," a friend later told me. "They always position themselves at these meetings to make it look as though it's a spontaneous crowd reaction."

But the government men did not have it all their way. Quietly and politely - Eritreans are so polite that they make westerners look like trolls - various Eritreans working for opposition radio stations and websites lifted their hands to welcome the book as both useful and timely. The greater mass of the audience sat in tense and watchful silence, seemingly soaking up every word. At the end we sold our 60 copies in five minutes flat: my publishers said they had never seen an audience hoover up a book with such appetite.

The evening reminded me what a complex, tortured and incestuous thing a diaspora can be. As westerners, we tend to assume that the most challenging experience confronting a migrant worker or asylum-seeker arriving in Britain will be his relationships with the local people and officialdom. In fact, the most difficult relationship to negotiate is the one with his own community.

A friend of mine is married to an Iraqi, who fled to Italy more than a decade ago. He told me that when he was struggling to scrape a living in Florence, the one group he would never turn to for support was the Iraqi diaspora. Why? Because at one stage, virtually every Iraqi living in

Italy had been approached by the embassy and asked to turn informer. Because you could never be sure which of your compatriots had taken up the offer, it was impossible to relax in their company. As other Iraqis harboured exactly the same niggling suspicions about you, the whole situation was best avoided. Any dealings with the one community that might have been expected to provide succour were poisoned from the outset.

Eritrea's diaspora used to be one of the most united anywhere in the world ever. Year in, year out, Eritreans working in Canada and the US, Europe and the Middle East, registered at shabby local offices to contribute the dues that eventually made it possible for the country's rebel movement to win independence from Ethiopia. It was the most effective tithing operation ever run by an African separatist movement, and it relied upon an extraordinary sense of communal solidarity.

But all that has changed, since President Isaias Afewerki arrested his critics in government, closed down the independent press and turned his back on a promised multi-party constitution in 2000. The diaspora has shattered, and what was once a mutually sustaining relationship has soured.

Many Eritreans abroad are anguished by the slide to one-man rule, and jib at contributions once made with patriotic pride. Most continue to make them none the less. Some do so because they feel a beleaguered nation, braced for possible Ethiopian assault, cannot permit itself the luxury of internal dissent. Others because severing this relationship could mean waving goodbye to the yearly trips back home, the right to buy land and build a home for their retirement in Eritrea. No one relishes being stripped of his birthright.

In a diaspora, there is no such thing as privacy. Everyone knows everyone else's business. Each member knows his fellow's "back-story" and can recite chapter and verse on what so-and-so did in the war, whose father worked as a collaborator, which cousin was a guerrilla fighter, whose uncle committed adultery or is getting divorced, whose sister is on good terms with the government, whose brother has been blacklisted.

Rather than setting it free, this knowledge keeps the diaspora trapped in the most stultifying of relationships. Lost in western societies, its members long to talk their native language, eat food cooked the traditional way and meet people who don't have to have every reference explained. But when they do meet, they can exchange only the most anodyne of banalities. A frank exchange of views might lead to friends not returning your calls, relatives cutting you in the street, or damaging rumours circulating back home.

This is where a book written by a western outsider can, I hope, play a small but helpful role as pressure valve and catalyst. By discussing the author's views - rather than one's own - it is possible to escape the burden of self-censorship. In effect, it becomes possible to stage a political conversation by proxy, without self-exposure or embarrassment.

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The nuclear fat is in the fire