It’s immigration, “stupid”: the United States’ best-kept secret…streams of thought on a hot Sunday afternoon

17 Sep

From the Economist: Poles depart: The beginning of the end of Britain’s biggest episode of migration


It’s when immigrant/migrants/refugees are leaving that you should worry.

My often-stated opinion that the West has both the resources and the historical obligation to take in every-body that needs and wants to come still holds.  That the European Union’s migration agreement with Turkey marked people fleeing a country in the condition of Afghanistan’s as “economic migrants” was a scandal.  But when you’ve got a problem with Poles — whit-er, better-educated, harder-working, more Christian, cuter, better-mannered and less binge-drinking than you — then you really do have a problem.  (See my Is England ready for fresh Irish blood on its hands?)


America’s best-kept secret, despite what Donald Trump, cretin, and his crew tell you, is that immigrants are a self-selecting group of already highly motivated people who are connected and aware enough to have heard that things are better where you are.  And they’re not coming to take that from you; they’re coming to improve it.  They’re the A-list crew that crashes your party because they’ve heard your parties are the ones to crash and in the process makes them even more of the hottest ticket in town.  It’s a self-fufilling, auto-re-perpetuating process.

New York, in other words.

Or: go where the Jews go, in other words.

barrio imageGarry Winogrand, New York, 1969

I’m glad that there has not been much hand-wringing much less any rage here about the 65,000 refugees from the past couple of years who seem destined to stay.  Still proud that Roger Cohen could write the piece that he did about Greece in 2015:

Greece has made me think about everything statistics don’t tell you. No European country has been as battered in recent years. No European country has responded with as much consistent humanity to the refugee crisis.

Greater prosperity equals diminishing generosity. Device distraction equals inability to give of your time. Modernity fosters the transactional relationship over the human relationship. The rules are not absolute, but they are useful indicators.

More than 200,000 refugees, mainly from Syria, have arrived in a Greece on the brink this year, almost half of them coming ashore in the island of Lesbos, which lies just six miles from Turkey. They have entered a country with a quarter of its population unemployed. They have found themselves in a state whose per-capita income has fallen by nearly 23 percent since the crisis began, with a tenuous banking system and unstable politics. Greece could serve as a textbook example of a nation with potential for violence against a massive influx of outsiders.

In general, the refugees have been well received. There have been clashes, including on Lesbos, but almost none of the miserable bigotry, petty calculation, schoolyard petulance and amnesiac small-mindedness emanating from European Union countries further north, particularly Hungary…

I asked Alexis Papahelas, the executive editor of the Greek daily Kathimerini, what Greece could teach the world: “That dignity and decency can be preserved, even through the hardest times.”

What Roger Cohen doesn’t say is that in the years after the fall of communism in eastern Europe, Greece took in almost a million migrants, nearly all of whom stayed.  Granted, a large number of these were — supposedly — ethnic Greeks from the Caucasus, Ukraine or other parts of the communist bloc: ‘supposedly’ because a lot of them were about as Greek as the Soviet Jews who flooded Israel at the same time were Jewish; the Soviet passport’s famous “fifth point” that listed your nationality was often an indication of very little in terms of who you truly were culturally or linguistically.  But the largest group were from Albania, of whom only a tiny fraction were actually ethnic Greeks from the south like my father.  Like Mark Twain’s quip about the Holy Cross being a Holy Forest, if all of these Albanians were Greek, then Albania, a country then of about 3 million, must have had 4 million Greeks.  Maybe a slightly disproportionate number were of Albanian Christian background, but the majority were Albanian Muslims, who usually shed whatever water-color memories of Islam they had upon arrival, and usually hid behind assumed Christian or conspicuously non-denominational names.  “O re? back in Premete your name was Ismail; when did you become Sammy?”

Today their children are totally indistinguishable from the rest of the population.  I can almost always tell because we can usually sniff each other out.  But to most other Greeks, these tall, attractive, smart teenagers or twenty-somethings, with their perfect Athenian accents and Crossfit bodies and tattoos and with the huge amount of genetic matter we already share, are just other Greek kids.  My assessment is that the radical improvement since the 90s in produce, food and restaurant quality — the whole retail food industry — is due to Albanian energy and work ethic.  They weren’t — or didn’t have the choice to be — too proud to go to Corinth and buy apricots from the producers and sell them in Athenian farmers’ markets.  They weren’t too spoiled or arrogant to work as a bakery employee or waiter in a restaurant; they now own the bakeries and the restaurants.  They have a lower overall unemployment rate and they are better performers academically than the rest of the population on both secondary school and university levels.

Albanian cellphone adAlbanian cellphone ad and close-up belowAlbanian cellphone ad close up

I’ve had the privilege of hanging out with lots of the ovenload of kids born to those immigrants in Greece through the masochistic process I’m putting myself through of trying to get a Greek driver’s license.  I’m by far the oldest sitting for the endless hours in the pre-exam room (an exam so ridiculously technical that I’ve flunked three times) and I am fascinated by watching them interact.  The Filipinos and Cameroonians are immediately identifiable even before their names are called.  Then when the others are called you realize that a good half of the white kids are non-Greek ethnically too.  Then they suss themselves out and soon start throwing Albanian words and clauses into the mix; then they switch to whole-passage code-switching between the two languages; then they’re just speaking Albanian.  Meanwhile the Ukrainians and the Georgians are off and running in Russian, their lingua franca, which they speak along with perfect Greek and Ukrainian or Georgian.  Watching them, I remember one of the seditious thrills of being a first generation Greek-American: that the rest of society never really knew where your loyalties lie.  If you asked these kids, they certainly wouldn’t tell you.  Aside from the more important point that they probably have better things to think about than whether they care about one state organizational structure over another.

The Right-wing Old Fart, which is what he likes to call himself — I’m not being mean — would be pulling his hair out and screaming at this point.

Maybe the coolest thing is that the middle-aged Greek bureaucrats handling them are just as fascinated.  Don’t they get tired?  I’m stunned at how up on things they are.

“Papashvilli? Cool, Georgian… Like Iliadis…”

…one says, striking a bicep pose, referring to Jarji Zviadauri (below), the Greek-Georgian gold medalist judoka who changed his name to Ilias Iliadis and held the flag of the Greek team, which always marches in first, at the Peking Olympics in 2008 (since I’m boycotting “Mumbai” for the 70th anniversary of Partition and “İstanbul” as long as Erdoğan is still in power, I’ve decided to apply it all around).  The Georgian kid, who has some pretty nice biceps himself, smiles.


Jarji Zviadauri

The names keep getting called.

“Cameroon?  Things good in Cameroon? no war, right? not like Congo…”

The Cameroonian smiles sheepishly and nods his head: “Yeah…no…good.”


“Camhi!  That’s a big Sephardic clan…”

“How do you know?” smiles the pretty Jewish girl, giggling.

“Ehh, how do I know….”

More than humor, I think to myself, more than hospitality or “humanity”, curiosity, the prerequisite for any intelligence, is what’ll save Greece and Greeks.  “What eats away at me and what will save me too is that I dream like Karagözi,” Savvopoulos sings.

Annia Ciezadlo’s beautiful “Be Like Water” in Guernica.  Mytilene and the refugees.  Boundaries of Nations: The Nonviolent State of Iraq and Syria. The Republic-in-Motion of Lovers Not Fighters. The Government-in-Exile of People Who Just Want to Go to School.”  Ciezadlo likes that the Greek word for hospitality is “philoxenia” (φιλοξενία), literally, the love for the stranger.  Olympian Zeus, king of the gods, will tear your head off if you’re unwelcoming to the stranger — or worse, for a Greek, make you ugly — so you better watch out.  He comes in disguise to test you.  Like the angels to Abraham.


Wonder if she knows another piece of Greek etymology.  Like all the Arabic in Farsi, I often wonder why loanwords come into a language when there’s already a word for it.  Ok, Turks on the steppe didn’t have a word for lauraki because they didn’t have any laurakia, so, like most of their seafood they use the Greek-derived “levrek.”  But عشق ?  Didn’t whatever the Sassanians speak (Pahlavi?) already have a word for love that they use the Arabic “isqh”?  Ah, but “isqh” has a slightly different, more longingly erotic tone than, say, the Prakrit-derived “piyar”, which still exist side by side in Urdu.

MajnunMajnun in the wilderness

So why did we ditch the classical word for door, when we still use it in our word for window, which is literally “para-door”, and start using the Latin “porta”?  And where does “spiti” (σπίτι), our word for house come from, when we had “oikos” (οίκος), which gave the world oecumenical and economy and ecology and which we still use if we’re talking about houses like Dior or Chanel.  I’ll tell ya.  “Spiti” comes from the Latin “hospitium”, the chamber in a Roman’s house where you received guests, and which also gave us hôtel and hostel and hospital and of course hospitality.  That means for Greeks — meaning Romans — your house is not a place whose primary function is to house your family.  Its primary function is receiving guests…strangers.

All that neurological research now coming out about how being bilingual (or tri or quatro-lingual like some of these kids) and bicultural from the start makes you smarter.  That must explain Indians.  Even not being actively bilingual but just hearing the sounds of other languages around you, apparently, sets you out with a sturdier hard drive that you can load more software onto for the rest of your life.  So that explains it.  Greek at home.  English on TV.  Weird Greek in church.  Greek and English and French at school.  Something called Albanian with lots of umlaut-ed “ë”-s on the envelope of the long-awaited letter from Zonja Martha Baku.  Cantonese for dinner every night in elementary school because that’s what was spoken at my friend’s table where I ate until my mother could get outta work and come pick me up.  Spanish in the music on a summer night and on the street later on and me and Julio down by the schoolyard in Corona and on my first girlfriend’s tongue, literally.

That’s why the exasperating Macedonian is not as smart as I am.  He didn’t like all that:

“I didn’t like it.”

After a long pause in what I thought had been the merciful end of the exasperating conversation…

“Huh?  What…”

“I didn’t like it.”

“Didn’t like what?”

“I didn’t like it that my mother spoke Vlach with her sisters and mixed up Greek and Vlach with us and pidgin Bulgarian with the gypsies next door.  I didn’t like it.  It confused me.”

Aha!  There you have it.  Nationalism and its blood-letting.  All about the male need for purity and orthogonic control.  Like the Right-wing Old Fart: “VATANDAŞ YUNANCA KONUŞ!!!”  Too bad he didn’t like it.  But it’s too late now.  He’s not as smart as me.

Balkans-ethnique“Macedonian don’t like it!”

Those kids getting their driver’s license who speak three languages perfectly.  That’s who you want coming into your country.  They like it.  They don’t care really.  And me.  We’re smart.  We’ll make your countries more interesting.  And interesting means stronger.  And strength means freedom.

Beards.  It’s absolutely clear to me that no men in the world have benefited more from the current beard fashion than young Greek men — and, of course, young Turkish men, since we share so much genetic matter.  But along with making them look more handsomely classical, or more soulfully Byzantine, whichever eroto-historic imagery turns you on more (that beards make Turkish guys look more Byzantine is what really riles me up), the beards make Greek kids look much more Levantine.

YusefYusef, the son of my neighborhood çiğerçi in Cihangir, the morning of Bayram/Eid after he broke my heart…and shaved.  And St. Nestor below.  What really broke my heart though was that when I went back in November, the çiğerçi’s had closed, to be replaced by another pretentious Çukurcuma antique store.

Άγιος Νέστωρ 2

The bartender with the neat beard at my favorite raki place in Jiannena could be from anywhere between Niš and Herat.  He’s friends with the Hazara kid whose Albanian girlfriend also works as a waitress at the bar.  Turns out he’s Syrian.  “Oh!” I say, surprised that my radar was off.  But then I started realizing how integrated into Greek society Syrian immigrants have already become that I need to take a second look each time a bunch of kids in this university town walks by.  In Jiannena, where, to my surprise, there are two helal butchers, while Athens only has one.  He’s a specialist on the wines and rakia of Epiros.  He speaks — aside from an occasional Jianniotiko “oooy” — perfect unaccented Greek.  And he’s been here for less than two years.

The Hazara kid entertaining his buddies at the raki bar till his girl gets off work

Hazara kid

So…wooops…there they are.  Here they come!  They’ve arrived.  And they’ve instantly made Greece a more interesting place.  And interesting is strong.  And strength is freedom.

2008_Summer_Olympics_-_Opening_Ceremony_-_Ilias_IliadisIlias Iliadis (Jarji Zviadauri) at the 2008 Summer Olympics.

A poster below from the Workers’ Union of Vyrona, my old ‘hood in Athens, originally an Anatolian exchangées/refugee settlement from the 1920s, now still one of the most solidly leftist neighborhoods in the city:

“I don’t forget.  Our grandparents were refugees.  Our parents — and children — emigrants.  Imperialist wars, conflict, poverty and degradation create refugees and emigration and the uprooting of peoples.  Solidarity with refugees and migrants.”Δεν ξεχνώ


2 Responses to “It’s immigration, “stupid”: the United States’ best-kept secret…streams of thought on a hot Sunday afternoon”


  1. Riz Ahmed, Immigration, Suketu Mehta and me, Identity Politics | Jadde-ye-Kabir - September 21, 2017

    […] Suketu Mehta’ conclusions in “This Land is Their Land” (see: “Suketu Mehta in Foreign Policy addendum, whole text“) echo some of my points on immigration in Greece, Britain, U.S. and everywhere (see: “It’s immigration, “stupid”: the United States’ best-kept secret…streams of thought on a ho…“). […]

  2. Never was a more perfect climate wasted on so undeserving a people: how Greeks drive you nuts | Jadde-ye-Kabir - September 24, 2017

    […] “I like my mediaeval ideas, ok…” says the Right-wing Old Fart, the I-don’t-want-to-s of someone argued into a corner.  Like the “I didn’t like it” of the Macedonian. […]

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