Jadde — Starting off — the Mission

6 Apr


The Valley of Dropoli, the pass up to the Pogoni plateau near Libochovo, and in the distance, the snowcapped peaks of Nemerčka, from the Monastery of the Taxiarches in Derviçani, Easter 2014 (click)

When my father used to say “ta mere mas” (literally “our parts”) he was referring to the thirty or so Greek-speaking villages in the valley (shown above) and surrounding mountains of southern Albania where he grew up.  It was a term that, before I had gotten too deep into my childhood, before I could even name those places, I had understood instinctively, almost oppressively.  I knew who these people from our parts were, these landsmen, exotic even to me in certain ways.  I knew how they comported themselves, knew their body postures; I knew how they spoke, how they treated a guest.  I knew how they danced, how they sang; I knew their weird, haunting music before I could articulate why it stirred me so deeply.  I knew how they prayed; I knew how they grieved.  They didn’t laugh much.  Or smile easily.

Later, in graduate school, students from Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, Iran, the Arab Middle East and even South Asia seemed to instinctively gravitate towards one another, and not just because they were all working in the history or the politics of the area but, well, mostly because we partied well together.  I started using my father’s “our parts” semi-ironically, a little guiltily as well because it was without the Appalachian tone of mystery with which he used it, to indicate the region that all of us were somehow connected to – the region that, however vast and varied, and where, however viciously we treated each other in past and present — seemed to bring us together in an automatic comfort and feeling of ease.  The term inevitably caught on and without irony.  I guess it was bound to.

This blog is about “our parts.”  It’s about that zone, from Bosnia to Bengal that, whatever its cultural complexity and variety, constitutes an undeniable unit for me.  Now, I understand how the reader in Bihać, other than the resident Muslim fundamentalists, would be perplexed by someone asserting his connection to Bengal.  I can also hear the offended screeching of the Neo-Greek in Athens, who, despite the experiences of the past few years, or the past two centuries, not only still feels he’s unproblematically a part of Europe, but still doesn’t understand why everyone else doesn’t see that he’s the gurgling fount of origin and center of Europe.

But set aside for one moment Freud’s “narcissism of petty differences,” if we have the generosity and strength to, and take this step by step.  Granted there’s a dividing line running through the Balkans between the meze-and-rakia culture and the beer-and-sausage culture (hats off to S.B. for that one), but I think there’s no controversy in treating them as a unit for most purposes; outsiders certainly have and almost without exception negatively.  And the Balkans, like it or not, include Greece.  And Greece, even more inextricably, means Turkey, the two being, as they are, ‘veined with one another,’ to paraphrase the beautiful words of Patricia Storace.  Heading south into the Levant and Egypt, we move into the Arab heartland that shares with us the same Greek, Roman-Byzantine, Ottoman experiences, and was always a part of the same cultural and commercial networks as the rest of us.  East out of Anatolia or up out of Mesopotamia I challenge anyone to tell me where the exact dividing line between the Turkic and Iranian worlds are, from the Caucasus, clear across the Iranian Plateau into Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Granted, the descent into the suffocating Indo-Gangetic plain and its polytheism, from the suffocating monotheism of the highlands, is a cultural and most of all perhaps, a sensory rupture.  But one has to know nothing about the “dazzlingly syncretic” civilization of north India to not know how much of it is Islamo-Persian in origin or was at least forged in an Islamic crucible, and if you do know that then the Khyber pass becomes what it always was, the Khyber link.

Are the borders of this zone kind of random?  Maybe.  But to step into Buddhist Burma is somehow truly a leap for me, which maybe I would take if I knew more.  And in the other direction, I stop in Bosnia only because for the moment I’d like to leave Croatia to Europe – mit schlag – if only out of respect for the, er, vehemence with which it has always insisted that it belongs there.  Yes, I guess this is Hodgson’s “Islamicate” world, since one unifying element is the experience of Islam in one form or another, but I think it’s most essential connections pre-date the advent of Islam.  I’ll also probably be accused, among other things, of Huntingtonian border drawing, but I think those borders were always meant to be heuristic in function and not as hard-drawn as his critics used to accuse him of, and that’s the case here as well.

Ultimately what unites us more singularly than anything else, and more than any other one part of the world, is that the Western idea of the ethnic nation-state took a hold of our imaginations – or crushed them – when we all still lived in complex, multi-ethnic states.  What binds us most tightly is the bloody stupidity of chilling words like Population Exchange, Partition, Ethnic Cleansing – the idea that political units cannot function till all their peoples are given a rigid identity first (a crucial reification process without which the operation can’t continue), then separated into little boxes like forks after Easter when you’ve had to use both sets – and the horrendous violence and destruction that idea caused, causes and may still do in “our parts” in the future.

What I hope this blog accomplishes, then, is to create even the tiniest amount of common consciousness among readers from the parts of the world in question.  A very tall order, I understand, maybe even grandiose.  Time will tell if it all ends up an unfocussed mess and I end up talking to myself; it’s very likely.  But hopefully readers will respond and contribute material or comments even if they don’t feel the entire expanse of territory as their own.  I hope it’ll be a place where one can learn something, including me; in fact, I expect most of my posts will end with “does anybody know anything more about…” or “can anyone explain…” I’ll be using vocabulary and making references from all over the place, sometimes footnoting them with an explanation, but if not hoping that readers will be interested enough to please, please ask when a word or topic is unfamiliar.

Clearly my intentions are more than just explicitly anti-nationalist, but please feel free to contribute even if you consider yourself ardently opposed to those intentions (just refrain from vulgarity please).  Feel free to tell us how you’re the origins of civilization or how you saved it or how you restarted it or that you speak the first language that came from the Sun or that we don’t understand that you’re surrounded by enemies or that — in the language of a grammar school playground — you were here first and they started it, or how everything beautiful about your neighbors is ripped off from you and how everything ugly about you is the unfortunate result of your neighbor’s polluting influence.  Feel free to express legitimate concerns and disagreements as well.  Please.

I’m also sure that sooner than later the subject matter will spill over into neighboring areas (the rest of eastern Europe and southern Italy immediately come to mind), and that there’ll be occasional comments on American socio-political reality, which for better or worse affects us all. And there will probably be the more than occasional post on New York, because that’s where I live, that’s where I’m from, because it’s only from a vantage point that’s both heterogeneous and external that the phenomena I’ll be talking about can be apprehended in their fullness and because that’s where, more than any other single place or any single time in history, the cosmopolitan ideal that motivates me has manifested itself in one actual, throbbing, hopelessly chaotic and deeply sure of itself city.

I’ve been collecting material for this blog for a long time before actually sitting down to start it up, partly because life got in the way, as it tends to do, and partly cause I’m a technological spaz, so some stuff will be old (including some journal entries from a couple of years ago when I took a trip through the region), but my comments will be contemporary.  If there’s any one out there in NYC who is inspired or interested enough to help me out with things like the blog’s design or things like Greek or Arabic fonts or Turkish letter markings (sorry, on a volunteer basis for now) please feel more than free to contact me at: nikobakos@gmail.com

3 Responses to “Jadde — Starting off — the Mission”

  1. Tina May 1, 2012 at 5:43 am #

    Kali arhi!!

  2. annathrax September 7, 2014 at 12:50 am #

    Found your blog via your latest posts about the us open and im so glad i have! Your blog is so well written and informative. As an aussie of croatian origin i love to learn about “our region” as well. Looking forward to spending many more hours trawling and reading your work!

  3. Giannis October 22, 2019 at 6:02 pm #

    I think that “Heretic” views like this one of this blogger, usually come from the combination of generalizations (for example, “my father’s experience in a specific region in a specific period (epirus of early 20th century) is generalized to all of modern Greece etc) as well as misconceptions, distortions and misinterpretations of historical entities, facts etc. The greatest distortion (which is not a “lie”, i mean the author of the blog is not
    aware of his “mistake”) is where and with whom he associates Byzantine empire: Byzantine empire, is technically perceived by him as an Asian/West Asian entity like ottoman empire or Arabic states are, for a combination of two reasons: Its geographical location into the same area that Ottomans built their empire later, and the fact that it was not Roman-Catholic.

    Geography is just geography, USA is built on the same lands that native Americans once used to live, but it hardly has anything to do with native Americans. Europe, as it is perceived technically after 7th century, is a combination of the three criteria
    that Paul Vallery mentioned: Christianity, Roman law and Greko-Roman heritage. From this aspect yes, there were great differences between Charlemagne’s empire/its succesors and Byzantines, but in the end, what was Byzantine empire if not the Christian Roman empire, and what was Charlemagne’s Europe if not another Christian Roman succesor?
    The basic criteria of Paul Valery that i talked about before. Yes Orthodox differ from Catholics, and Catholics differ from Lutherans. But in the end, all of them are equally Christian, and distant from muslims.

    Were the Ottomans and Arabs “Christian Roman succesors”? The answer is JUST NO, and no further details are needed about that. As for the rest that he says, it has to do with personal experiences of the author, which sometimes are regional rather than “panhellenic”, and it’s no coincidence that 9 our of 10 examples here on how Greeks are supposed to belong to a supposed zone from Balkans to south Asia, are examples of Greeks who either lived in Northern regions near Balkans and Turkey and wasted time under ottomans until late 1913 and from early 15th century or Anatolian Greeks or even Romani Greek people. The majority of Greeks, who come from regions with deep and long contacts with Southwest and sometimes central Europe, like Southern Greeks or Greek islanders are almost ignored.

    I have met Greek-Americans who according to themselves “partied better” with Irish, or with African Americans. The only sure is that both my personal experience, and if i am not mistaken according to what polls have shown, Americans of South Italian and
    Portuguese ancestry are those who interact with Greek Americans more than anyone else. Not Turks (who aren’t even numerous in America, to start with, so the way the author had so many experiences with Balkan and Turkish people is a mystery) not Balkan-Americans. In my family i have not even one (Greek) American person married or related to any Turkish or Balkan American, I rather have relatives married to Italians,Irish and in one case ulster Scot American, and interactions are not limited to marriage of course.

    Add to this the fact that Americans of Arabic and Turkish descent were far closer to Americans of any ancestry (from Black to Scandinavian and of course Greeks included) than their original countrymen are to people from other countries
    in the world (because of Americanization of middle easterners in America, it’s obvious), and you can see how distortions are created. In Fact, Greeks in Smyrna and even in Istanbul who are stereotyped as more “oriental influenced” than other Greeks, had more reactions and intermarriages with other European communities of these cities than with Turks.

    As a conclusion, if people today, and to a lower degree back then, do not consider Greece as “less European” than they consider Sweden, instead of considering it anything like Arabic nations, this has to do with what people see, that Greeks live
    like Europeans, act behave like Europeans, have European attitudes, that Greeks in the end are Europeans. The fact that Greeks were oppressed by Ottomans 200 years ago (it’s not me saying that, it was Greeks themselves, who revolted for almost
    150 cases before the 1821’s revolution) will not make Greeks “non-European”, let alone modern Greeks. 200 years ago, we didn’t belong to a world “from Bosnia to Bengal”, we were OPPRESSED to join this world, and we revolted 150 times to join the world to which we felt closer to, the world to which you put Croatia, the “damned” Western world. Today, 200 years later, we clearly belong to this world, there is no common consiousness
    with people from “parts of the world in question”. In the case of Greeks from South and the islands there was no common consciousness back then,
    you can’t expect from people even from multi-ethnic Istanbul (greek community) or Salonica or Ioannina to have common consciousness with these countries today

    not to mention that your thinking isn’t even Huntingtonian: Huntington never even thought of such a “zone” and putting Orthodox Christians among muslims, he rather separated Orthodox countries from Catholic and Protestant, (in constrast to most of Authors who consider orthodox Europeans as part of modern west)

    As for Greece being Balkans or not, that’s something more complicated, and many authors give different answers and for different aspects

    In my opinion, the answer which is closer to reality is that of encyclopedia Britanica: ” Greece, because its northern regions of Epirus and Macedonia are often considered parts of the Balkans, also appears on many lists of Balkan states, but it is arguably better characterized as primarily a Mediterranean country.” https://www.britannica.com/place/Balkans

    We can not ignore Slavic invasions, neither the Ottoman rule in Greece, or the influences that these events left. But Equally we can’t ignore communism in Balkans vs capitalism in Greece most of 20th century, the medieval Frankish, Venetian etc influence in Greece, when most of Balkans (and northern Greece) were ruled by Balkan principalities, like Serbian and Bulgarian empire, the Bavarian and later Danish rule since early 1800’s at the same time that most of neighboring Balkan countries didn’t gain independence before 1912 etc and the influences that these events brought to Greece

    Greece is not a pure balkan country, neither a pure “southwestern” European country, it’s a country intermediate to Christian countries of Balkan Europe and Southwest European countries. Some regions, especially northern regions, are closer to Balkans,
    other regions closer to SouthWest. We can’t ignore Metsovo in Epirus and its architecture which is Ottoman and very similar to the equally Ottoman architecture of Berat, but we can’t also ignore Anapli (Nafplio) or Corfu and their Italian looking architecture. We can’t
    ignore Dolmas, but we can’t ignore Pasticcio, or Strapatsada (from italian uovo strapatsate) or Makarounes. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that today Christian countries of Balkans belong to the Western world, meanwhile muslim countries of Balkans or muslim minorities or even Romani minorities do not. This is something that I experience every day (in terms of Romani, as in my birthplace there’s no muslim minority, but only muslim immigrants)

    Now let me make a guess: As you said, you are not a nationalist, i respect that, but tell us honestly, are you a non-nationalist because of being a “humanist” or because nationalism is an anti-imperial product of European enlightenment, which (enlightenment)
    fully affected Greek society through education and arts, gave an end to Greek-Ottoman “co-existence”, an end to the ottoman empire itself and many other west asian entities and made Greece European?

    In any case, enlightenment is part of Greek civilization, and we are not going to give up our heritage, as much as Spain has no reason to return to any “moorish” status

    Sincerely yours


    And one more thing, this time about “And Greece, even more inextricably, means Turkey, the two being, as they are, ‘veined with one another,’ to paraphrase the beautiful words of Patricia Storace.”. You can’t accuse “nationalism” and enlightenment, as this is where the “interconnection” between these two countries come from, and let me explain what i mean:

    I guess the “link” between Greece and Turkey, which makes the two countries “veined with one another” are the “Orthodox Greek speakers” of Turkey who, without enlightnement and the idea of “nation” which is a product of enlightenment, wouldn’t considered themselves the same nation as Greeks from, let’s say Peloponnese or Cyclades, they didn’t have so many things in common with them to do. In case that I wrongly guessed and the link between Greeks and Turks in your opinion is mainland Greeks themselves then i am sorry, but not only you are wrong, but, with all Turkish influences in mainland Greeks, mainland Greeks are less Ottoman influenced than people from other Southern Balkan countries, due to a smaller period of Ottoman rule in Greece (northern regions excluded) than Southern Balkans.

    There is no other link between Greece and Turkey, than people who lived as east as Cappadokia and started thinking that they are the same nation with Orthodox Greek speakers of Greece only after enlightenment’s influence and the idea of nation this influence brought.

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