As part of our Greek offerings this month, we’re featuring a number of pieces written by Gazmand Kapllani, an extract from whose Short Border Handbook is available on WWB. The pieces all deal with the immigrant experience in today’s Athens, one of the most diverse cities in southern Europe.
I started to write these “Athenian Stories” before my book came out. In a way, though, they comprise a sequel to the book. Myself an immigrant, I decided to track down the stories of other immigrants in Athens and to publish them in the Greek press, where unfortunately I remain one of few immigrants—perhaps the only one—who writes on a regular basis. My decision to search out other immigrants’ stories may have been a symptom of my own case of “border syndrome.”
We live in a time when personal histories and confessions are common currency. But not all histories. The few stories of immigrants that actually reach the Greek press do so only through third parties, and in the third person. When someone speaks in the first person, tells his story in the first person singular, he is transformed into a subject, emerges from his anonymity, has the chance to define himself, to become a witness, with a memory, and with the right to take part in the writing of contemporary history. That’s why I felt that these stories should be in the first person. The second rule that I set was that the stories shouldn’t be anonymous, but should be accompanied by a photograph of each of the immigrants who were going to trust me with their stories. I wanted each of these immigrants to have a face, his or her own face.
It’s already been three years since I started the series “Athenian Stories.” Athens has been the theater of my life for the past eighteen years. If anyone were to ask me about my identity, I would say, “I’m Athenian.” Athens is a unique city, and not just because of the Acropolis, the noise and the absence of green spaces. It’s a city that’s inhabited by almost half the entire population of Greece. Most importantly, contemporary Athens is the result of continual migration, both within the country and from abroad. In the less than twenty years since 1990, it has become one of the most multicultural cities in southern Europe. Seventeen percent of its current population at some point came from “elsewhere.” And others continue to arrive. This new presence provokes disbelief, admiration, and conflict, as well as new urgent solutions to problems that just twenty years ago existed, for Greek society, only in the realm of the imagination. The Other is a mirror that magnifies the virtues and the nightmares of the Self. At any rate, few in Athens are true “natives.” The inhabitants of Athens, in one way or another, are “foreigners,” old ones and new, like me and the people in these “Athenian Stories.”
Photograph courtesy Stavros Andriotis
My name is Kingsley. I was born in Nigeria in 1966. I am descended from a royal family in the Olia region. My father had three wives at the same time. He had seven children with my mother, five boys and two girls. I was raised by all of my father’s three wives. Don’t let that shock you. Polygamy in Africa is something normal. It’s a tradition. My childhood was very happy. But now I’m against polygamy. The African immigrants who want polygamy to be recognized in Europe are stuck in the wrong time and place. At one point, polygamy was a means of survival in Africa. Today, with overpopulation, it’s become a source of devastation. Besides, it’s degrading to women. “But it’s tradition!” they say. Well, times have changed, and tradition needs to change, too. Otherwise tradition won’t be wisdom any longer, but suicide…
When I was a kid I dreamed of becoming a policeman. I really like the policeman’s uniform. But life had other plans in store for me. After high school I studied in the School of Philosophy at Edo State University. My student years were the happiest of my life. After university I taught high school for six months. But then I lost my job. I looked for work for two years. Nothing. It’s very humiliating to be young and unable to support yourself. And so I decided to emigrate. My four brothers had already emigrated. At first I wanted to go to an English-speaking country. But it was very hard for me to get a visa. Finally I greased some palms and got a visa to Russia. I was shut up in Moscow for four months. It was very cold and I couldn’t stop shivering. Then I went to Ukraine, where I managed to get a visa for Greece.
“You’re finally in Europe!” I said to myself when I first set foot in Athens. It was a very emotional moment for me. I didn’t consider Russia to be part of Europe, in the real meaning of the word. At first I lived with a relative and was still planning on leaving for another country. But within a few weeks, the dreams and the money started to run out. I had to find work right away. But what kind of work? In the end all I could do was sell CDs on the streets. It’s very difficult, very humiliating work. People ask me why all the Africans in this country sell CDs and don’t get some other kind of job. Quite simply, it’s because there are no other jobs. If you’re black, just try applying for a job at a café and you’ll see what I mean. And selling CDs is better than selling drugs…
I worked mostly in the provinces. I was impressed by how kind and hospitable the people there were. But I ran into problems with the police. And just imagine, my childhood dream was to become a policeman myself! [Laughter.] I decided to quit my job. And then I met another immigrant from Nigeria who was a cab driver. He’s the one who gave me the idea of driving a cab. I didn’t speak Greek—when you sell CDs you don’t really need to—and I didn’t know how to drive. I didn’t have a license, or a cab. But I decided to get them all at once. Two things helped me: my determination and the excellent memory that God blessed me with. I learned to drive, I passed two exams, I got two diplomas. All in just a few months…
But I still needed to find a cab. For weeks I called around to cab companies. They would ask where I was from, and I would answer, “From Nigeria.” Then they would say, “We don’t want foreigners.” I started to lose hope. One day I called Spiros Makriniotis’s company. He asked me where I was from. “From Nigeria,” I answered. I was expecting to hear the same old, “We don’t want foreigners.” Instead, I heard: “I think I’ve got a job for you.” I went there and met a wonderful man. He had lived many years as an immigrant in London. He entrusted me with a taxi the very first day. I’ve been working for his company for four years and I’m very happy.
I’m one of two or three black cab drivers in Athens. How do the other drivers see me? Some of them are taken aback. Others say, “Good job, man, you make me feel like I’m a cabbie in New York!” The same goes for the passengers. The younger folk strike up conversations with me. The older ones are sometimes shocked. I don’t think it’s racism, I think it’s the shock of the new. People need time to get used to it…
What happened to my dreams of going elsewhere? I think in the end I’ll stay here. I got married seven years ago and this year my daughter is in first grade. Now my country is the country where my child is at home. My wife, Yolanda, is from the Philippines, I’m from Nigeria, and my daughter, whose name is Mary-Ann May, is a mixture of both but feels that she’s Greek. That’s life, my friend! Greece is her homeland. The issue is for them to make her a Greek citizen, so she’s not a foreigner like us, so she doesn’t have to go through so much trouble for a residence permit. Speaking of residence permits… I have four brothers who are immigrants. One in Great Britain, another in Austria and two in Italy. They’re all citizens of the countries where they live. But I don’t even have a residence permit to my name. When my father died, I was the only one of my siblings who didn’t go to his funeral. Because I still hadn’t been issued a residence permit. I’m still waiting for it, I walk around with nothing but a “certificate.” But this is where I work, where I pay taxes, where I exist, where I’m raising my child… I belong to this city, and it belongs to me.
The accounts in this series were originally featured, in Greek, in Ta Nea and the Athens Voice and on Gazmend Kapllani’s blog at http://gazikapllani.blogspot.com/
Links to other posts in this series: