Being Greek and Albanian: The “No Man’s Land” of a Double Identity in the Balkans

My silence in this blog is due to my trip to Boston, US. 
The Kokkalis Program on Southeastern and East-Central Europe invited me for a lecture at Harvard University. The title of the lecture: “Being Greek and Albanian – the “No Man’s Land” of a double identity in the Balkans”.
Below you’ll find the text of my essay and you can also watch the video from the event. Comments, as always, are more than welcome.
Thank you in advance for your attention and patience. 

Being Greek and Albanian:
The “No Man’s Land” of a Double Identity in the Balkans

Harvard University
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Kokkalis Program on Southeastern and East-Central Europe
Southeastern Europe Study Group, Center for European Studies

November 9, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I feel extremely honored being with you today. I want to thank the Kokkalis Program on Southeastern and East – Central Europe and especially its director Elaine Papoulias for the honor she made me with her invitation. I want to thank the Southeastern Europe Study Group, Center for European Studies for supporting this meeting. Thank you very much indeed to Ilyana Sawka and Andrew Hall who took care of all the preparations. I feel honored from your presence and especially honored also because among the audience there are academic personalities whose work I really admire. I have had the opportunity in less than 24 hours to meet and exchange ideas with wonderful people and taste the rare hospitality of Kokkali Program.

The last ten years, it has been my aim and effort to become a good storyteller. Nevertheless I choose to begin my speech with a poem in Greek. This way you can witness for yourself how the Greek words sound in my Albanian mouth: «Δεν θέλω τίποτε άλλο παρά να μιλήσω απλά// να μου δοθεί τούτη η χάρη… Κι είναι καιρός να πούμε τα λιγοστά μας λόγια// γιατί η ψυχή μας αύριο κάνει πανιά». I know, it’s all Greek to you and therefore I have to translate it into English: “I want nothing else but to talk simply/ I wish this favor be given to me/… it’s time to say our few words/ because tomorrow our soul will take sail …” – this is a poem from the Greek poet Giorgos Seferis.

Talking simply about a complicated issue, double identity, especially in the Balkans, is not an easy thing. The first time that I began asking myself seriously about the identity of my identities was when I found myself faced with the question “do you feel Albanian or Greek?”. I faced this question when I began acquiring a kind of public visibility, a kind of public recognition as a writer and journalist in Greece. Truthfully, it was a question that had not occupied me before. My state of mind before acquiring public visibility in Greece was close to someone who is still crossing the border from Albania to Greece. Even if the actual crossing of the border had happened some ten years ago and I was by then living in Athens - far away from the borders.

The interlocutors who used to ask me this question looked at me a bit like a paradox. Like someone who had escaped a predetermined space. For them I was the only immigrant writing newspaper columns in the biggest Greek dailies. The only immigrant becoming a bestselling writer in a country where immigration, in the public discourse, was treated like a constant threat and almost a “historical accident”. I heard this question in Greek, as well as, in Albanian. Even literary critics, in Greece especially, with few exceptions, had difficulties giving me a label in a national identity sense. And as I understood, they encourage labeling.

I was writing my novels and columns in the newspaper in a language that was not my mother tongue. I was writing in the official language of the country where I was living, Greece. When my book was translated in several European languages the question “are you Greek or Albanian?” became a dilemma. How should I be categorized? Was I a Greek writer of Albanian origin or an Albanian writer writing in Greek? Maybe the best solution in this case was to label me as a Greek-Albanian or an Albanian-Greek writer. But this was not the case.

I noticed that, sometimes, people asking this question– “do you feel Greek or Albanian?” - were more than curious: they were anxious. Sometimes they managed successfully to convey their anxiety to me. In the beginning I use to answer: “I guess that maybe I’m both”. I noticed that the expressions “I guess” and “maybe” provoked discomfort to my interlocutors. “I guess” and “maybe” conflict with “faith” and “adherence”.

In high schools, especially, where I was invited to discuss my books with the students there, the affirmation “I’m both” provoked a kind of mental and  sometimes sentimental disarray. Firstly to the “true blooded” Greek students. And then to the children of immigrants. I understood that what I was saying didn’t match with the narratives that they were taught about national identity. Furthermore, it was in these visits to the schools that I began to hear, more and more often, a new question which in the beginning caught me by surprise: “are you more Greek or Albanian?” or “do you feel more Greek or Albanian?”. After some embarrassing reaction on my part, I found, finally, a constant answer: “it depends on the person who asks me this question. If he’s a Greek nationalist and racist than I’m more Albanian and vice versa”. I noticed, nevertheless that the students were never fully satisfied with my answers. In their eyes I was like a man standing in a “No Man’s Land”.

With time I have become accustomed to that kind of  vision of me. A vision which places me in the “No Man’s Land” of identity. At the end,  as others’ visions of us, - whether we want them to or not - influence and sometimes determine the way we look at ourselves, I began questioning myself: “Are you really standing in a “No Man’s Land”?

When you gain public recognition in a “foreign” country, then you make a decisive transition: from the position of “outsider” to that of the “insider”. Even if the limits between them are fluid and shifting all the time. Nevertheless, in my case, the more public recognition I gained and the more of an “insider” I became socially, in the matter of identity I was finding myself, more and more, in a “No Man’s Land” position. I felt sometimes that there was a gap between me and my audience which made me feel uncomfortable. So much so, that at some point I began to think very seriously about leaving Greece for a third country but only under one condition: the country of my new immigration should be a country where neither Greeks or Albanians would exist. One day I stood in front of a world map looking for this third country. I must confess that I couldn’t find a country of my preference where neither Greeks nor Albanians existed.

Looking at the map and realizing that Greeks and Albanians were almost everywhere I began questioning myself:  why do people who travel so much and have a huge Diaspora, and furthermore, people living in the Mediterranean under multinational Empires for centuries – why are they so troubled  by the idea of a mixed identity? I was also part of this “universe” I was questioning, so investigating it was also a  process of self-knowledge.

I gave a, theoretical but partial answer to my questions during my doctoral research. Its subject was: images of Albania and Albanians in the Greek written Press and images of Greeks and Greece in the Albanian  written Press. In truth, the research was not only a  process of academic maturity and self-knowledge for me but it was also  a process of masochism par excellence -because of the plethora of overwhelming reciprocal stigmatizing images.

In the matter of identities, I tried to analyze the narratives of national identity  on both sides of the border. I found the narratives on immigration especially interesting. During the last part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, while trying to shape their new nation-states, Greeks and Albanians were immigrating to industrialized countries, especially to the USA. Boston, for example, was a city where plenty of Greek and Albanian immigrants used to live in the beginning of the 20th century.

In both cases, immigration in the media’s narratives was not described as an opportunity or an act of choice but rather as a curse. The descriptions and perceptions of the “good immigrant” were of particular interest to me. There was a strong sense of victimhood which permeated the narratives on immigration. The “good immigrant” was described as someone who is attached to his national roots. By his stance he remains unchanged and uninfluenced from the contact with the culture of the foreign land where he had immigrated. In these narratives, where, between the lines you could localize the constant fear of assimilation, the “supreme intention” of a “good immigrant” was to return to his national home, to his “Ithaca”. The most epic pattern of this longing for returning was obviously the epic of Odysseus. In the meantime, in these narratives, national identity was mainly described in terms of blood and was projected as an “irreducible, insoluble nucleus”. The great virtue of an immigrant, in his struggle against oblivion and loss, was to maintain this “nucleus” pure from external influences: the purest possible.

Going further into my research I  realized that these descriptions on immigrants and immigration were projections and extensions of the main national narratives developed in the homeland - narratives that  can be condensed to one phrase: “you are born a Greek/Albanian, you cannot become one.”

A perception that not only reduces and bases the national identity on the element of blood but at the same time excludes any kind of political mediation and contract. The acceptance of “Others”, is not possible. They are perceived as “eternal foreigners”. In these terms, the nation is perceived as a closed clan whose  members are linked exclusively by  links of blood. The modern nation is not perceived as a political community made up of citizens on the basis of a social contract which is based on equal rights and duties. The citizen, in this case, is identified and confused with the member of the pre-modern “clan” -  rather close to the conception of “fis” in Albanian or  “genos” in Greek - which is in this case nationalized and modernized. It is clear that someone taught to perceive national identity in these terms will look at those declaring being “cultural hybrids” like suspects, bizarre and uncomfortable guests.

In my case, I was not only declaring  myself as a “cultural hybrid” but as a Balkan “cultural hybrid”. And I noticed that declaring myself a Balkan cultural hybrid was considered some sort of extreme identity- trouble. Declaring the coexistence of two Balkan identities in the same person was considered unnatural and even abnormal. In my research I was struck by the predominant ambivalence towards the Balkan national Other. In one hand there was a tendency of revendicating ownership over the same geographical regions, the same cultural traditions and even the same national heroes. On the other hand, especially in the Greek Press, in the narratives I analyzed, there was a tendency to suppress any kind of cultural or historical similarities between Greeks and Albanians. I would say that similarities produced anxiety which as a reaction produced efforts and arguments to impose not only a schema of antagonism but of absolute difference between these two identities: the Greek and the Albanian.

Personally, one of the main cognitive privileges of living between two Balkan identities was having the opportunity to understand what I call the “Balkan syndrome”. I try to explain it by the Freudian idea of the “narcissism of small differences”, according to which our hatred, fear, and contempt are often directed at people who resemble us, while our pride is attached to the small markers that distinguish us from them. Based on this perception, in my second book titled “My name is Europe”, my protagonist maintains that the “clashes of civilization” in the Balkans are provoked not by the differences of the Other but mainly from the “Unbearable Similarity of the Other”.

If you ask me to describe or analyze what that means, then I’ll give this short description: “The unbearable similarity of the Other” is a kind of psychological mechanism which triggers a kind of ambivalence toward the national – Other. It is activated when the Other is not the “perfect Other” but provokes the anxiety of the non-difference. It is activated when you are supposed to prove your absolute difference from someone with whom you share common memories of the past and common cultural routes.

That’s why, I think, the concept of a double identity in the Balkans sounds so uncomfortable: it provokes memories of a preposterous coexistence and exchange in the framework of pre-national Empires, where nationalities, clans, ethnicities, languages, rituals and religions used to exist, clash, coexist and exchange between them for centuries. Mainly, because, the concept of “double identity” hurts the hardcore of the modern national narratives - according to which, someone is either born “Greek” or “Albanian” thus excluding or suppressing  political building procedures regarding national identity in the modern era of the nation-state.

There is no doubt that for everything previously stated, we can find explanations in history. One of them is the fact that in their attempt to build solid and totally homogenous national identities, the narratives promoted in the new Balkan nation-states, concerning national identity, exclude or in the worst case demonize any emergent element of previous coexistence and mixture.

These procedures are not unique. You can find similar narratives in other parts of Europe or in other nation’s narratives. When I talk about political procedures and narratives which shaped the new modern Balkan nations I should stress that they are never univocal or hermetically closed. They always leave space for broader interpretations, contradictions and exceptions. In any case it is important to have always in mind the historical prospective, to investigate the key - moments when the narratives of the “closed, homogenous, pure national community” prevailed. Such a key – moment in the Greek case are the years after 1922, that is the end of the “Megali Idea” (the Greek political project of “Great Idea”, according to which the “physical” destination of the European modern Greek national state was to become the inheritor of the Byzantine Empire, in glory and lands). The “Megali Idea” was defeated after the tragedy in Minor Asia, associated with the population exchange (of Orthodox who were obliged to leave Turkey for Greece and of Muslims obliged to leave Greece for Turkey). This is a crucial moment for the prevalence of official narratives about a “homogenous, pure national community”. Another key moment is the Greek civil war and its consequences: the way that the Greek state shaped and used “ithagenia” – which is the equivalent of naturalization and citizenship, implying the belonging to the Greek “genos”, that is a community based in links of religion and blood - as a weapon against what it had declared as enemies, depriving often the citizenship from them. Another key- moment and more recent has to do with the presence of immigrants in Greece – which challenges the narratives of a “closed, homogenous, pure national community”.

In the same time, in the Albanian case, the prevalence of a national narrative on the Albanian identity based on blood, land and language, according to me, has to do with the efforts of Albanian nationalists to overcome religious fragmentation in order to shape the modern Albanian national identity.  Moreover, what is interesting is the fact that the narratives of a “closed, homogenous, pure national community” were forged in Albania especially during communism - in parallel with a discourse about working class internationalism.

In any case, the narratives on national identity condensed in the sentence “someone is born Greek or Albanian and not become Greek or Albanian”, are incarnated in the Constitutional code of citizenship of both countries – in both cases citizenship is based in the “jus sanguinis” while the “jus solis” is predicted only for exceptional cases. It is very interesting to see how, in the new conditions created from globalization these narratives, in their official or unofficial version, are again challenged, reemerge, resist, change or readopt themselves to the new realities.

I feel the need at this point to clarify that I’m not proposing my personal experience and my choice on identities as a model. I recognize that double identity is not the destiny of every human being and furthermore that it is not easy to live for a long time between two anta’gonistic identities, it’s not at all pleasurable to live in a “No Man’s Land”. Sometimes it looks like an extreme game. Sometimes you feel that you are spending a lot of energy fighting against  windmills. What I’m trying to do is to offer an individual story and perspective as well as a personal narrative.

I should say that I’m attached to personal narratives. Maybe due to the fact that I grew up in Albania, under totalitarianism where the personal and the individual were totally despised and suppressed. In a totalitarian narrative there is no room for personal and individual voice. You are just a fragment of the solid and homogenous mass. What you should say, choose and think is predetermined by others. You should live others’ lives, you should tell others’ narratives, otherwise you will be excluded, crushed and destroyed.

The individual who tries to take responsibility for his choices and his life is the nightmare not only of totalitarianism but of any authoritarian power and narrative which projects itself as “untouchable”, “unchallengeable” and “saint”. Talking about the “saint narrative”, my stance toward my dual Balkan identity resembles  the description of the German philosopher Odo Marquard “If – examining a saints text – two interpreters who belie declare: I have absolute right, my understanding of the text is the only true and concurrently is the only road to redemption – this will lead to conflict. But if they agree that the text can be understood in a different way, and in another way and so on then they will give negotiation a chance, and one who negotiates doesn’t commit murder”.

Existing between two Balkan countries I have overdosed on Balcanicity. Existing between two antagonist Balkan identities I often have felt these two interpreters, these two sights and voices existing and even clashing inside me. It was their constant murmur, their antagonisms, their conflicting narratives, their cruel games of power, which helped me to develop a strong sense of individuality and individual choice. Individuality as an ethic choice, as an intellectual stance and thirst for investigation and knowledge, but also as a shield and “emergency exit” during my passage through “No Man’s Land” where the sights of the “familiar others” managed to place me. At the same time, these antagonistic voices enhanced in me a third “interpreter”, a third dimension, which didn’t exist before: my Balkan identity which is made up of  a plurality of voices.

When I say that by living between two Balkan identities I feel more and more that I belong to a plural Balkan identity, I should say also that it is very difficult to define exactly what a “Balkan identity” means. It is difficult to define, because such a thing is not recognized or institutionalized. As a political narrative you can find it time after time in the discourses of intellectuals who were born in or foreigners who refer to the region. You can find the notion of the “Balkan identity” in literary narratives, by different writers and essayists. And then in the narratives of travelers, especially in the 19th and the first quarter of the 20th century, most of them coming from Northern and Western Europe, describing the Balkans as an ultimate refuge of romanticism or as the “internal Other” of Europe, a kind of bridge between East and West, between pre-modernity and Modernity, between Islam and Christianity.

The current predominant narratives, to my knowledge, regarding the “Balkan Identity” also imply something different from what I mean. Some of them imply a kind of common Balkan identity based on Byzantine or Ottoman times. Others imply a Balkan identity based on a common religion or on the tolerance between different religions. And some other narratives which were shaped during the civil war in Yugoslavia use the term in a pejorative way, distinguishing the “Balkan identity” with regression and wilderness. With the recent economic turmoil in Greece the term “balkan” is used also in a pejorative way, trying to be an explanatory principle for what is happening.

Let’s say that I understand my self-imagined “Balkan identity” in terms mainly of today than of yesterday, in terms of present and future more than of the past. Mine is not an essentialist cultural approach where the Balkans are something essentially different for the rest of Europe. I would define it more as an awareness of common cultural routes and lifestyles as well as similar procedures concerning the construction of modern identities and nation-states which emerged in this European part of the Ottoman Empire called and defined as “Balkans”.

The raw material of my “Balkan identity” is awareness of the historicity of the term Balkan – of how for example its simulacrum emerged and was forged from and in the narratives of Western Europe. It is at last, and at least for me, a re-vindication of the cosmopolite(an) elements which were marginalized, denied or repressed in the main public narratives of the new Balkan nations.

Without the coincidence or choice in my life called “immigration” I would have never, perhaps, been here talking about my Balkan identity and identities. I crossed the borders from a Balkan country belonging to the communist East to another Balkan country which belonged to the liberal West. The “meeting” between these two parallel and separated “European worlds” for me happened in its Balkan version, in the Greek-Albanian borders. Greece was a neighboring Balkan country of which I knew almost nothing. Besides the narratives I had been taught in the history classes of communist Albania according to which Albanians were as old as the Greeks are in the Balkans, that in ancient times Greeks were great and in modern times they had an evil appetite to swallow Albanian lands.

Nevertheless, in my imagination Greece was not identified completely with the West and my desire was to continue my journey toward countries that were more identified with the West; toward countries where I had managed to learn the languages of, in my time of full isolation in Albania. My first plan was to stay in Greece for 20 days. I have already completed 20 years. My intention today is not to talk about immigration as I have talked a lot about it in my books. In the epilogue of the first book I write that in spite of the fact that I’m an immigrant I dream of a world without immigrants. Don’t get me wrong. I love traveling. I’d simply prefer people to travel in the real sense of the word. To travel with dignity. I do not want people to travel in the way that so many Greeks once travelled and the way so many Albanians are forced to travel today. 

I have to say nevertheless that personally thanks to the immigration and the conditions that it is associated with , I developed not only a dual identity but also, I guess, a dual vision: That of the “insider” and the “outsider” at the same time. From this point of view I have become accustomed to being an “insider-outsider” or an “outsider – insider”: it depends on the conjecture. This is a position of privilege and of extreme unpleasantness at the same time. If I can describe it in terms of narratives I would say that the dual vision gives you the ability to look at yourself with the other’s eyes and to avoid the absolute identification with any given, unilateral and predetermined narrative. I have to accept that often the person who develops and identifies with a unique absolute narrative usually finds himself in a more comfortable position. 

What I call a “dual vision” helped me a lot in my writings. I write my books in a language that is not my mother tongue. I hadn’t imagined it that way. I hadn’t imagined that a language which I didn’t know a single word of until I was 24 years old, could become the vehicle by which I would have to make a living and above all would be, the instrument by which I would try to charm the others, most of whom look at me as a foreigner or intruder. In my book, “My name is Europe”, the protagonist makes a confession on the matter of language: “So, yes, it was back then that I fell in love with the Greek language and mastered it. I mastered the language of people, many of whom looked down upon my origin and my mother tongue. On the other hand, I think that is most likely the reason that my relationship with the Greek language became so special…  Language gave me this ability to capture, to charm, to amaze within the environment of rejection. Our relationship became so special because it offered me the means to evolve from being a “scapegoat” and an “undesirable” to an interlocutor and storyteller. I wanted to be heard. I wanted to tell stories, my own, as well as the stories of others”.

Writing, in your mother tongue or not, requires a continuous “hunt” of language and images, imagination and curiosity; an overthrowing of  a priori finalities, a multiplication of the possibilities; it involves inventing identities from scratch, facing the slouchy attitude of your narcissism with patience, and undermining the univocal “WE” or “US” in singular narratives of “me”, “you”, “he” and “she”. From this point of view, writing requires a dual vision and a plurality of voices. Literature and fiction is the opposite of the predetermined narrative.

Looking back at what I have said until now I recognize that I have wandered through promiscuous paths and experiences: totalitarianism, the Balkans, Greek-Albanian borders, Europe, West, immigration, the mother tongue and the non-mother tongue, literature and imagination. In the end, don’t we build up our individual and collective identity and identities in a continuous interaction with these promiscuous elements by selecting, rejecting, repressing or projecting their aspects according to our moral values and to our existential anxieties and purposes? If I was to describe identity I won’t compare it with a collage of promiscuous element but rather with a prism which refracts the light in different between them colors and reflections. 

I’m conscious that talking about identities I have not said something extraordinarily  original. Its centricity in the public discourse today is due also to the fact that identity as a concept ceased being something self-evident. When I was writing about my dual identity my thought went to a book that I read recently, written by Jean Amery, a German speaking writer, whose original name is Hans Maier. Jean Amery formerly Hans Maier lived the first half of his life in Germany. He was Jewish and faced prosecution and death in the Nazi extermination camps. At some point in his book he asks himself (more than the readers) if, as a human being, do we need a homeland? Because someone, he writes, cannot be or cannot be only what he managed to accomplish himself. Afterward he describes how his homeland, Germany, became hostile towards him because of his origin and religion. The language in which he wrote and dreamed was transformed then into the language of his nightmares. Amery refers to a fellow writer, Alfred Mombert, who died in a Nazi camp in Southern France. Amery remembers how Mombert, before dying, wrote a letter to a friend of his and among other things used the phrase “we the German writers”. “A German writer is not someone who simply writes in German – says Amery – but someone who writes also for those who read and understand German… But there was no German hand there to protect Mombert, who was writing in German, from the Nazis. This “missing hand” expelled him from being a German writer” he concludes.

It is a very harsh description. What touched me more was the image of the hand which was missing in the crucial moment. At the same time it made me feel lucky that in my trip between two countries I met a lot of hands, - of Greeks and Albanians, that were there not only to protect me when I needed it but also to offer me courage, admiration, friendship and love. Without these hands this would have been a different text.

I began this discussion  with some verses in Greek. I want to conlude  with some verses in Albanian. There was a time when I used to write poems as well, in Albanian. Afterward, my life became quite prosaic it seems, so I keep writing only prose now. I’ve chosen a poem from these poetic years. I want to read it in Albanian – so you can witness how Albanian words sound in my Greek adopted mouth

Pas çdo melodie
fshihet një heshtje
qe kerkon mëshirë,
mbi pragun e ndërrimit
të stinëve
mbi pragun e shkëmbimit
të territ dhe dritës
kur një vajzë e brishtë
lojën e pamëshirshme të shqisave dhe
kur seicili jep llogari para fatit të vet
lypsar dhe mbret, se
e dashur
arti më i vështirë
të dish
të jesh i lirë
mandej vijnë të tjerat
çatitë dhe qelitë
kufomat dhe pajtimet
kangurët dhe guackat
ora e mirë dhe ora e ligë, oratorët
dhe kjo muzikë
me shtatë shpirtra
si macet...

and the translation

Beneath every melody
lies a hidden silence
it begs for mercy
on the changing seasons’ doorstep
at the break point where dark and light
change guards.
The place where, an innocent girl
the heartless game of fingers and senses,
The moment when, beggar and king
each is responsible
in front of its own fate.

Don’t we all know, my dear;
Art is the most difficult endeavor,
it is
to know
how to be free
and only then comes the rest
the roofs and the prison cells
bodies’ remains  and the reconciliations
kangaroos and seashells
the good hour and the bad hour, the orators
            and this music
            which, like cats
has nine lives…

Thank you very much…


Ian said…

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