Letter from Athens

David came to Greece from Tbilisi, Georgia. «What! Are you Jewish? From now on your name will be Alekos!» his first Greek employer instructed him. Chris came from Russe, Bulgaria. When asked where he comes from, he replies: Rafina. The blond boy does not want people to consider him «xenos» – a stranger. Enkelent is from Pogradec, Albania. At a drama school in Athens he was asked to improvise. «Be an Indian!» Afterwards his instructor praised him before the whole class: «You see how perfectly he performs! That’s the way it is! You can never deny your roots!» It is not only in the musical «Chorus Line» that drama teachers talk this way. Over the past decades, Greece has become a popular haven for emigrants, many of whom cross the border illegally. How many are there at this moment? That’s a difficult question to answer in a country with a lack of concrete immigration policies, proper institutions and dialogue with the immigrants’ countries of origin. Nevertheless the total number of immigrants, both legal and illegal, is 2 an estimated 10 percent to 20 percent of the Greek workforce. «One Out of Ten» is the title of the first theater premiere of Athens’s drama season. It is being performed at the Neos Cosmos Theater. Needless to say, the title of the play refers to the immigrants in Greece. It is a docu-drama focusing on three young men from Albania, Bulgaria and Georgia who try their luck in this country. It is a hard path. There are hardly any moments of respite for them. The play is a result of remarkable team-work between the three actors. The final presentation and direction is by 32-year-old Laertes Vassileiou, an artist with roots in Albania. The director relies on a time-shifting narrative: David Maltese’s life is played as a fluid moment, with his past and present coexisting in grotesque harmony. Enkelled Fezollari gives disturbing depth to the well-wrought scenes of alienation. Chris Radanov as a down-on-his-luck street boy is a charismatic performer and – up until the end, when he becomes a bit self-righteous – his performance has the insightful grinning hostility of a migrant in a not-so-friendly country. Inexorably, this artful and moving recreation of some immigrant’s life in Greece hits you like an electric shock. Though there is also plenty of humor and biting social criticism, these genuine «Private Lives» have very little to do with Noel Coward’s salon-play of the same title. It is a criticism based mainly on the fact that the Greek State – considered until two decades ago a net «exporter» of population – was not prepared to accept such an enormous influx of migrants. To this day, crime is closely identified with immigrants in the collective social consciousness. «One Out of Ten» is a genuinely penetrating play, so forget about subtlety. Although obstinately denied, Greek feelings toward immigrants are, let’s face it, overwhelmingly negative. The gloomy truth is that racism and fear of the «Balkan other» is an everyday reality for the Greek population. With the quite manifest tendency to look at the outside world primarily from the perspective of their own culture, many Greeks live in the firm belief that their own race and ethnic group is the most important of all. After the – alas, predictable – success of the anti-immigration party called LAOS (the Popular Orthodox Rally elected 10 members with 3.8 percent of the vote) – it now remains to be seen whether George Georgiou, a former ambassador, who is to take the European Parliament seat in replacement of LAOS leader Giorgos Karatzaferis, will continue urging the government to set a limit for immigrants of up to 5 percent, and turn away the rest. In the realm of immigration morality – if such a thing exists – all things take on a twilight aspect. Needless to say, Greece sees itself as being in the front line of a European immigration crisis. With its land borders, unstable neighbors and long coastline it is unlikely to be able to stem the influx, despite border controls and police crackdowns. Without any recent polls, it is anyone’s guess to what degree xenophobic feelings arouse disgust in the public. But public concern is now mainly focused on the question as to who will be the Cinderella of PASOK. And this is the irony of the situation. For at a time when the LAOS extremists are crowing over their victory in getting into Parliament, and their leader Karatzaferis is giving interviews to advance his anti-immigrant agenda, the PASOK party, which has taken the immigrants’ plight to heart, is caught up in such turmoil. How pleasurable can it be for PASOK’s current leader George Papandreou to tread on other left-wing toes? Both candidates are very likeable, decent and well-informed. Yet few citizens are quite sure where they stand or what they want – apart from the evident desire to be PASOK’s next president. As there were no clear answers at yesterday’s most crucial national council in PASOK’s 33-year history, we will have to wait until November 11.

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