Greek-Balkan encounters in culture

“Greece and the Balkans» is the thoroughly conventional title of an appealingly unconventional volume of studies (2003, Ashgate Press) whose subtitle, «Identities, Perceptions and Cultural Encounters since the Enlightenment,» better describes its contents. It features up-to-date scholarship, focused studies around broad themes, and a wide historical sweep. While not the most obvious or exciting introduction to the region or its Greek ties, it offers a wealth of insight for those willing to dig. The selection opens with a chapter on the pre-modern Balkans and closes with the 1990s and current realities. But the arrangement is more thematic than chronological. The 18 chapters range from religious and ethnic identities and national perceptions, to cultural dialogues, musical themes, linguistics and literary imagery. While falling under «nationalist» studies, the book uses the region’s changing politics as a backdrop rather than a (distressingly familiar) theme in its own right. Greece has long represented the region’s portal to the West and Europe: its language preferred by cultured classes and its political and economic orientation increasingly Western. Because of this, its renewed attention to its own backyard, according to editor Dimitris Tziovas in his lucid opening essay, «seems to arise out of a sense of superiority and not solidarity» (p. 8). Greece has its unique classical tradition to balance its later, Byzantine-era ties. Yet a shared Orthodoxy under the Ottomans long bound the region, including Greece, which went by such pre-nationalist descriptions as the «European Turkey»; the term «Balkan» dates only from the late 19th century. The book focuses on the post-Enlightenment period, and the «encounters» or cultural interactions that flourished even through the nationalist and ideological upheavals of the past two centuries. What’s left of these encounters now that the politics have been transformed? In the quest for answers, the volume jumps right in at the deep end. A searching essay by Paschalis Kitromilides on loyalties, identities and anachronisms is followed by Raymond Detrez on Greek-Bulgarian pre-nationalist-era relations. In Part II, Johann Strauss (really) writes with authority on the Greek impact on Ottoman intellectual history, not least through personal and family connections. Dimitris Livanios vividly describes the Balkans in the Greek historical imagination as «Christians, Heroes, and Barbarians,» and the search for the heroic peasant against a deteriorating backdrop. Gerasimos Augustinos looks at interwar Greek-Balkan relations via selected Greek writers. He emphasizes the contradictory nature of human collective self-identities, especially given the Balkans’ «historical burden.» In Part III, K.E. Fleming and Eyal Ginio take up questions of religion: the former contrasting the experiences of two Jewish rabbis, one on Crete and one in Sarajevo, the latter examining 18th century Thessaloniki and its (usually overlooked) importance for Muslim culture. Diana Wardle probes Sarakatsani culture’s «five faces, one people» through its traditional costumes. The aptly titled middle section, «Cultural Dialogues and Crossroads,» examines metaphorical and physical linkages. Maria Lopez Villalba discusses a remarkable attempt, by political translator Rigas Velestinlis (Feraios), to import French revolutionary ideas via a «new political constitution,» to provide an «ideological map» for the region. He was executed in 1797 for his pains. Olga Augustinos focuses, literally, on Balkan bridges, where «the bridge looms both as a physical marker and as a metaphor that spans the fissure without closing it.» Ellie Scopetea looks briefly at the notion of «crossroads,» whereby the Balkans were initially «assigned» to the East by Westerners, yet became a «makeshift borderland» between East and West. Part V has three chapters on musical interactions ranging from 18th century Bucharest to Crete, by John Plemmenos, Vassilis Nitsiakos, Constantinos Mantzos and Chris Williams. Part VI covers the literary and linguistic angles. Brian Joseph argues that the modern Greek language has been mainly influenced (in structure, not just vocabulary) by Balkan, more than Western, interactions. Two others, by Yiannis Karavidas and Georgia Farinou-Malamatari, look at the region through Nikolaos Engonopoulos, a Greek surrealist of the 1930s, and through contemporary Greek fiction. The trenchant final chapter by Vassilis Lambropoulos holds that the term «Balkans» is not just derogatory – a place where «nobody admits to being Balkan but thinks everyone else is» (p. 265) – but fictional, at least in its thematic power; it is locational and static, without «transcendent significance.» We can refer to «balkanization» as a (violent) political dissolution but not to «Balkanness»; there is no «Balkan theory» translatable to other contexts. «In that sense,» he says provocatively, «there is nothing to say about the Balkans except, obviously, how inimitably, stubbornly, self-destructively Balkan they are» (p. 267). It is a discordant ending for a volume on non-confrontational themes. But it does point up the fluidity still marking the region’s identity and Greece’s ties to it, oscillating between aloofness and assimilation. The process of engagement continues still – except that Greece is now far from the Balkans’ only window on the West. EU expansion and ongoing US overtures have made sure of that.