Lessons in Greek prejudice

Combat of the Giaour and the Pasha by Eugène Delacroix'I never thought I'd go to Albania,' said a member of an Australian tourist group during the crossing from Corfu. I never thought I would, either, but while his reasons for doubt involved not being in the right place at the right time, mine were different, coming from transplanted race memories that meant little to me, but much to the Greek family into which I married.

My generation of Australians grew up with bigotry: the cordial loathing that existed between Catholics and Protestants has faded only recently. But when I began moving in a Greek world I discovered old prejudices that were, however, new to me. I took the Greek hatred of the Turks for granted, but the bitter and complicated antipathy for Albanians I had to learn about.

It came as a shock, for example, to realise that it is a deathly insult for a Greek to call another an Albanian. Albanians have been in Australia since the 1920s, but I was totally ignorant about them, and about Greek attitudes towards them.

Prejudice may well be hard-wired into our systems: certainly we tend to be automatically suspicious of difference. (As an immigrant myself, I learned this lesson very personally.)

And we dislike being in the power of others, especially when that power is used against us. The Greek War of Independence, which started in 1821, was not over in the Peloponnese, where I live, until 1828. In 1825, attempting to crush the revolution, Ibrahim Pasha invaded, bringing 20,000 Albanian mercenaries with him. They pillaged, killed and raped, devastated the land, and sold thousands of Greeks into slavery. Being Muslim, they also often tried to force the Orthodox to convert. Greeks have forgotten none of this.

In our time, the Albanian border was the scene of the gallant defence of Greece against the Italians in the harsh winter of 1940–41, events of great suffering commemorated every 28 October. When the Greek civil war ended eight years later, Albania was one of the destinations for the victims of the notorious paidomazema (the gathering of the children) in which retreating Communists kidnapped approximately 28,000 Greek children: they were taken to the countries of the Eastern bloc, with the hope that they would eventually form a new Liberation Army.

During the 50-year Communist control of Albania, the country was sealed off: rumours of bandit tribes and unremitting barbarity swirled about monotonously. And when Communism crumbled, poverty-stricken Albanians swarmed over the border into Greece, to the fear and displeasure of most of the population.

Even my mother-in-law Aphrodite, widow of a Greek priest, had nothing good to say, though I doubted she ever met an Albanian in the flesh.

I have always had a long travel list, but for years Albania was out of bounds. Definitely.

Things have changed dramatically, of course. The first sign the tourist drawing close to Saranda sees now is the bright red Vodafone one, so common in Greece. Passport checks are free and easy, whereas in the past they were greatly to be feared, if one were so foolhardy as to want to visit the place. The roads are narrow and terrifying in their disrepair — I shut my eyes every time our bus met a truck — but work on infrastructure seems to be going on at a great rate.

The main focus of the excursion was a visit to Butrint, an archaeological site set in a forest, surrounded by stunning land and water-scapes, and with the usual Mediterranean layers of Hellenistic, Roman, Middle Ages and Modern, all surrounded by Cyclopean walls so solid that one feels they could have been built last year.

The excursion began to take on symbolic value, at least for me. There are magnificent mosaics throughout the site, our guide explained, but they are covered with sand, as you see, because they have to be protected. She scraped away the sand from a tiny portion, watered the surface, and there, suddenly, was an intricate and very lovely design of interlocking loops in ochre, black and white. One can never tell.

About anything. The guide herself was a charming woman with perfect English, bottle-blonde curls, a pink top and floaty leopard-skin print skirt, and the bow legs that are evidence of rickets, the malnutrition-caused bone-softening that I had often seen in older Greek women. I glanced at her name-tag. Aferdita. My black-clad, bescarved mother-in-law had been reincarnated as an educated, bareheaded free spirit in the land of her enemies.

And pottery from the Corinth of the eigth century BC has been discovered at Butrint.

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 29 years. She has had eight books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. Image: Combat of the Giaour and the Pasha by Eugène Delacroix.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, greece, albania, peloponnese, Butrint



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Existing comments

Thank you Gillian for this information and insight. My daughter married into a family from Samos here in Adelaide.My son in law suggested marriage in the catholic church which happened. Their son was baptised in the catholic church and then my daughter said he would be baptised again in the Orthodox Church. They gave him a special blessing because they believed in his baptism. My introduction to this family led me to learn a lot, and the greek language. I have your books Gillian and I appreciate your sharing your experience, the greek experience has enriched my life enormously
margaret o'reilly | 25 November 2009

Gillian Bouras,ill start with this,,Im from northern tribes of albania but also live in australia,albanians an greeks fight because albanians tell truth of whom greeks are most of greeks today are orthodox albanians,much has happen with albanians an greeks the war in 1821 were mearly albanians fighting albanians their many greek pashas came to my area up north an failed to take our tribal areas,their is more than just war with eachother,its about albanians being free to speak albanian an not assimulate the albanian arbanties take this bouras burra the real surname not a silly assimulated name means men in albanian,sulits in greece means mountainers,arta mean golden,etc,wake up an understand the truth,
ukaj | 11 March 2014

Dear Gillian, I guess we still have not learned to live next each-other, albanian and greeks only started fighting eachother around 1900, Arvanitas people were manipulated with other Asian or middle east Arthodox greek, which they call themself greeks. we need to forget hour past and live for the future.
Elis Epuris | 23 March 2014

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