from the diaspora

Zeese Papanikolas


I never fail, when I am in Athens, to visit the Historical Museum just off Syntagma Square. Even if it is for only an hour, I walk through those rooms with glass cases full of silver-chased flintlock pistols and gunpowder boxes and murderous yataghans while the heroes of ’21 gaze down at me with their fierce eyes. With their fezzes falling over their necks, long drooping mustaches and shoulder-length hair, they are from another world. Yet one of these men is a distant ancestor. I look up at the face of Theodoros Grivas, which has nothing in common with my own, and hurry off to visit Grivas’s sword and elaborately embroidered capote behind the glass of one of the exhibiton hallways. After all these years I know just where to find it. Theodoros Grivas is the only faint connection linking my family to that heroic past: our line, on both sides, goes only as far back as our great-grandfathers (one of whom married a woman of the Grivas family) then disappears into the impoverished villages of Arkadia, Nafpaktias, Macedonia. Except for that thin filament connecting us to the Grivae, we were nobodies. It might make one consider, such a visit to the Historical Museum, with its gunpowder-stained flags and its heroes, in these days of angry reaction to the immigrants flooding Greece, just what is a Greek. For of the handful of things that I know about the Grivae, that line of fighters and mercenaries and freebooters, the most important, I think, was that they were originally Albanian.

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It is probably because I don’t go constantly to Athens that scenes such ast these at first surprised me: I stop at a peripteron near the University to buy a phone card. The clerk is rummaging below the counter and asks how many minutes do I want? When the clerk comes into view I see that she’s a young Japanese woman, yet she speaks in Greek, a far better Greek than my own poor, halting specimen. On Ermou Street young African men are selling knock-offs of designer handbags. In all my previous trips to Greece I had never seen a single black face, except for one night in Plaka in the early 1960s – that of an American flight attendant. I see more of the Africans on Iperidou Street, near the folk art museum, this time selling toys. Late one night, coming home from a restaurant in Exarchia, our Greek companion assures us that the beautiful black woman talking on her cell phone is speaking a fluent, slangy Athenian. I wouldn’t have immediately recognized as Greeks any of the Albanians, Slavs, Iranians, Afghanis who crowded around me in the subway trains and trolley cars. Greece, which had been a site of mass emigration in the years before the First World War, so much so that whole towns were virtually stripped of their young men and boys, has become a center for immigrants.

Of course most of them have not come to settle in a country undergoing what must be the worst hardships since World War Two. They are, in fact, in the main trapped, halted in their desperate attempt to get to the rich countries of Europe, countries that might use their labor, countries where they might find some temporary or even permanent place to settle. I have read something of the conditions in which they live in Greece. They arrive already brutalized, both by the countries they are fleeing, ripped apart by war and sectarian violence, and by poverty that has grown worse in these days of drought and globalization; brutalized also by the smugglers who have hidden them and robbed them and then abandoned them. They have not come to enjoy the orange groves and the sun and to sit in a taverna by the sea. They have come because they have no other choice.

It was with particular outrage that I read, then, of Golden Dawn opening an office in New York City, where so many immigrants, including my own grandparents, first set foot in America. I do not wish to compare the recent immigrants to Greece with that first generation of Greek immigrants to the United States in the years before and just after the First World War, for there are many differences, and the situations that drove Iraqis and Iranians and Afghanis, especially to flee their homes are much more dire than those that impelled those first Greek immigrants to the United States. Yet there are some similarities: grinding poverty, fear of being snapped up by the army, family pride that needs to provide dowries for sisters, aid so that parents do not become beggars, the need to have a future. My grandfathers lived in the kinds of places in which the recent immigrants to Greece live. They lived in stables and unheated mining towns shacks and tents along the railroad lines. They did not live in jails or barbed wire enclosed camps, but like Greece’s immigrants of today they accepted incredible privation and danger so that they might dream of a day when they could go back to their homes with a little money, a little dignity.

Greeks have by and large prospered in the United States. They have built businesses, educated their children, entered the professions and political life. But anyone who imagines it was an easy task is badly deluded. They forget the almost two hundred thousand Greek men who came back to their native land by 1930 many of them broken by industrial life in the United States, the ones who had lost their health or even their mental capacities, the ones with missing limbs from accidents in mills and mines – these are not the mythical “Brooklises” returned to their villages to shower the gold of America on friends and relatives and marry a girl twenty years younger than they; there was a name for these broken, returned Greeks: the kounesemeni – the shaken ones. They forget too, the Greek immigrants buried in unmarked graves along western railroad lines or in mining town cemeteries. I called my first book Buried Unsung to honor those young Greek men whose great fear was just that: that they would be shoved in a hole in the earth with no one to sing the liturgy over them, and to honor one of them, though he was in fact sung by a Greek priest, who remains like so many of America’s immigrants of all nations, unsung. Louis Tikas, a Cretan who came to the United States in 1906, was killed in a violent coal mine strike in southern Colorado eight years later, when the Colorado National Guard invaded the tent city of striking coal miners, shooting Tikas and other strikers and setting it on fire. He died with men and women and children from Italy and Mexico and other lands, but this outrage was just one of many before and after in which immigrants suffered and were killed in a land that wanted their labor but not their presence: German trade unionists and political radicals, Irish miners, Russian and Polish steel workers, Jewish shop girls. The moment of such violence against the Greeks in the United States was mercifully brief by comparison to the years of terror and discrimination suffered by the Irish or the Chinese and by especially that group of involuntary immigrants, the Africans, who were brought to this country in chains and whose descendants still face discrimination despite the election of an African-American president and their prominence in all fields. Yet Greeks in this country too, had their businesses broken up, their children taunted. In 1909 a whole section of Greek shops and restaurants was burned to the ground by a racist mob in Omaha, Nebraska. In the Utah towns where my grandparents settled white-hooded men marched against the Greeks and other immigrants: my parents clearly remembered those marches, a cross burning on the hillsides. 

The America my grandparents came to before the First World War is different from America. Towns that were once all Anglo Saxon in ethnicity now find themselves Hispanic. Cities that denied Asians entry have Asian-American mayors. In my state of California in a few years whites will be a minority group. This is no tragedy. It is history and no one gets to stop history in its tracks. In the future Greece may be less Greek, more ethnically mixed, perhaps because of that even more interesting. Athens, Thessaloniki, Patras might resemble those multi-ethnic, poly-lingual cities of the Hellenistic or Byzantine eras. Will that be better? Worse? Those categories seem almost meaningless. Athens, Thessalonki, Patras will simply be.

To return to Golden Dawn: what does it expect to get in New York? Sympathy? They won’t get mine, nor will they get any dollars from any Greek-American who knows his or her history. To beat a Pakistani or a Congolese on the streets of Athens only expresses the rage and impotence of people who must know, under it all, that they have no solution to Greece’s financial and political crisis. Must know that the immigrants to Greece have not come to steal jobs from the Greeks, when there are no jobs to steal, to ask for charity when there is no charity left to give. Greece is just one point on the map that is experiencing the mass global movement of whole populations because of war, poverty, violence, drought and other conditions we do not know now and perhaps never will. Surely the flood of desperate immigrants to Greece is a problem Greece has neither asked for nor has, by itself, the capacity to solve. This is a global problem and needs an aroused, global militancy to equitably and compassionately resolve it. It will not be solved by clubs and by the rallies of motorcyclist thugs.




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