Words of a silenced people

The book by Vassilis Nitsiakos, «Testimony: Albanian Immigrants,» (Odysseas Publications, 2003) is part of the academic output generated by Albanian economic migrants as a topic of public debate and which entailed rethinking and rearranging axiomatic views on racism and xenophobia. Nitsiakos’s aim is not, of course, political, though this does not mean he does not have a political stance. Quite the contrary. This book is a clear political statement that lies within a broader context: the trials and tribulations of each and every immigrant in the world. To achieve this, Nitsiakos, an associate professor of folklore in the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of Ioannina, shifts viewpoint, letting the migrants tell their own story. Until now, the predominant discourse on Albanian migrants – with a few exceptions – has been composed by the institutions of the host country, which contributed to a stereotypical narrative in which prejudice reigned supreme. The narratives that Nitsiakos presents demonstrate the writer’s skill at ethnography (ethnography being the scientific description of specific human cultures). Generally, the interviews with Albanian migrants smack of confessions of what they did not do in the past. The here and now becomes the loom on which they craft the silence of the Hoxha years. «I couldn’t turn on the radio, because if I turned it on, somebody would hear it outside and you would go straight to prison. And so you didn’t listen [to the radio] out of fear,» says one (p. 176). The flow of stories functions redemptively for the narrators. It’s precisely this atmosphere that enables the Albanians to use the particular ethnographic setting as an opportunity to confess their «sins,» and the silence that was reinforced by the absence of material goods. One such sin was the repudiation of siblings. Costas relates one occurrence, seeking expiation on his father’s behalf: «And after 10 years, they came to the house. My father laid the table and they ate and drank with only one aim: to stick my father inside. And they said, ‘Let’s drink to the sister’s health.’ (…) He behaved very cleverly. If he’d drunk to the health of the sister, he would have gone to jail the next day.» Their stories helped them talk about their illusions and fears when the television each night would delineate the line between legality and illegality, between support for the regime and questioning it. But Albanian migrants have not been delivered from silence. The most important motif of their narratives remains their enforced silence. One form of it is their exploitation by employers, which fueled part of their law-breaking behavior. Their narrative is drenched with their sufferings, in unrewarded sweat, which has fattened the purses of their bosses. They discovered a different kind of silence, belonging to another world. The motif of silence in the discourse of Albanian migrants might also give Greek readers a chance to deal with their own guilt, setting in motion a cathartic process with respect to the ease with which an economic migrant is consigned to a dangerous, impure netherworld. However, the most shattering form of silence is renaming. «There are lots of Muslims in Konitsa. They’ve all changed their names. All of them. I say as a joke, ‘They all crossed the river and were baptized in the river.’» This might be the most important transformation that has taken place with the coming of Albanian immigrants into Greece. Specific cultural and religious structures facilitate the inclusion of migrants on certain conditions – the adoption of at least one Christian name. This shows how unprepared Greek society was to receive such a mass migration, but also how stereotypes served as a system of classification, concomitantly, using exclusionary terms. This led migrants to opt for the tactic of the double name. The narrations that were chosen by Nitsiakos are open to many interpretations. But beyond them, the words of such a number of narrators reveal the vacuum in which so many debates about Albanian immigrants in Greece are often held. What now predominates are cries for clear-cut identities. The bewildered words of the migrants themselves are not heard. All the clamor and fearful smokescreens do not allow us to see the changes taking place in Greek society. (1) Evangelos Avdikos is an associate professor at the University of Thessaly.

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