Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
‘Nomadism’ refers to the practice of wandering or perpetual journeying. It derives from the Greek nomas, meaning to roam in search of pasture but, as John Durham Peters (1999) has pointed out, it has a range of other suggestive etymological affiliations. Nomad is also related to nomos (law) and nemesis, the root of which (nem-) has to do with allotment or sharing; the English term noma, meanwhile, which denotes an ulcerating sore, also invokes a sense of grazing, albeit harshly, across a surface (25–26). Such origins and associations are useful in distinguishing this practice from other germane experiences, such as exile, both in terms of the motivation for departure and the idea of home. Exile, insofar as it ‘often occurs in relation to some looming authority figure who wields power over life and death’ (20), is a form of wandering that is typically, though not always necessarily, involuntary. By contrast, nomadism is usually informed by an antagonism that resides in an active evasion of or resistance to stasis and the fixity of state authority and society. Thus, if the exile longs for an impossible home/coming (see Said 2000; Chambers 1994), nomads carry their home with and about them, it is ‘always already there, without any hope or dream of a homeland’. As Durham Peters (1999, 21) puts it, nomadism is about ‘being homeless and home-full at once’.
While nomadism has ancient roots, it has undergone several modern and postmodern reiterations and reinterpretations by travellers, travel writers and theorists alike. Indeed, it would seem that there is ‘nothing more nomadic than the concept of nomadism’ (Durham Peters 1999, 18). The Ancient Greeks disapproved of nomadism, deeming it inhumane to live without the benefits of the community or polis: for them, a wandering life was the sorry lot of society's undesirables and outcasts. Odysseus is the archetypal abject wanderer here, expressing a conception of this particular modality of travel as a test, ‘a driven state of existence, a necessitated, even prophesied suffering’ (Leed 1992, 8).