The Country Where No One Ever Dies
by Ornela Vorpsi
Since the fall of Soviet communism 20 years ago, the transformation of national borders that were previously tightly defined and generally closed has confounded local identities in Europe, typically through controversy about the character of immigrants. This discourse most frequently concentrates on the challenge of a growing Muslim population in Western Europe, and includes opposition to Turkish membership in the European Union, as well as the recent Swiss ban on construction of minarets, and other episodes.
But the new wandering of peoples across the old continent is not limited to the Islamic influx. The discontent of established populations toward new aspirants to residence extends past religion and terrorism. Rapacious Russian oligarchs, now free to invest and spend in the West, and cruel Balkan gangsters, dealing in drugs and women, are seldom associated in the media with radical Islam, although many such individuals may be Muslim in origin.
Resentment of the newcomer has no obvious limits. One newspaper column in Britain after the 2008 Bombay atrocities protested that there was no room in the United Kingdom for "little Pakistans" or "little Polands." But South Asian enclaves have been features of British life for decades, and nobody suspects that Polish immigrants sympathize with terror. Nevertheless, in Britain, France, Germany, and elsewhere, a grievance against the figurative "Polish plumber," allowed to work outside his homeland by Warsaw's accession to the EU, and competing to undermine local wage standards, may be as common as rejection of an expanded Muslim presence. This xenophobia has already increased as a byproduct of the European financial crisis, and some Polish immigrants to Western Europe are reported to have repatriated themselves because of the downturn. In the Netherlands last year, just as the anti-Islam political candidate Geert Wilders scored a major gain in votes, I was astonished to hear a Dutch-born Muslim woman of Moroccan background declare that she had voted for Wilders! This was not because of his stand on her religion, but because he might satisfy her fear of entry into Holland by low-paid Romanians.
Before the walls came down, the émigré to Western Europe from Communist countries was typically a noble dissident rather than a professional felon or trafficker in women. Still, movies featuring Russian mafiya villains, such as Eastern Promises and We Own the Night, both released in 2007, granted a certain perverse honor to the criminal organizations and leaders produced by the Soviet gulag. This was manifested in their protagonists' refusal to go down on their knees before any authority—knees tattooed, in Eastern Promises, with stars indicating a refusal to obey.
Of course, Russia was not the only country to institutionalize a prison system built explicitly on extreme brutalization. But Soviet prison camps housed so many millions of people that a subculture of depravity was easily maintained, and even expanded. The gulag was a school for criminals as, in czarist times, the prison had been a school for revolutionaries. In the smallest and least fortunate of the European Communist states—Albania under Enver Hoxha—the numbers of imprisoned were large in proportion to the country's size, but the prisons themselves were smaller and the victims more easily and more thoroughly reduced to a kind of ambulatory nullity. Many previously unknown facts about the Albanian gulag are now being released, as official archives are opened; but anybody who has spent time in Albania recognizes that the weight of the regime and its ideology was so great that it erased or demolished the personalities of the imprisoned.
The annihilation of individual character is vividly depicted in these two books, both of which describe Albanian emigrants to neighboring countries (Greece and Italy, respectively). These are neither dissenters overcoming all obstacles to gain freedom nor energetic entrepreneurs eager to establish themselves nor deranged lawbreakers. No, the refugees from Albania here are something else: They have been so degraded by the specific form of communism in their small and isolated homeland that they seem deprived of any normal feelings. They are self-hating immigrants, numbed by their experience and blindly seeking another life of which they know, and from which they expect, very little. They lack the hubris of Russian mobsters no less than the fanaticism of Muslim fundamentalists. They have been reduced to nothing, and seek only to find a way to become something.
Gazmend Kapllani, author of A Short Border Handbook, is a distinctive case in that, notwithstanding deep national rivalries between Albanians and Greeks, he has gained considerable stature as a print and radio journalist in Athens. "There is something heroic about the way a migrant abandons his native land," he writes. The self-hating immigrant cannot easily learn the language of his new country and finds his misuse of it annoying to locals, and so he becomes silent. "Better mute than annoying," the author says. If driven to protest the irked reaction to his poor spoken Greek, the self-hating immigrant wants to ask, "What are you all so afraid of? I love this country."
Kapllani describes the reach of immigrant self-hatred when he notes that Africans attempting to get into Europe burn their identity papers to prevent repatriation if caught. For them, "death has lost its sting"—which is a way of saying that they have lost the will to live. Such people still try to cross borders, sometimes trying so often that (as Kapllani relates) an acquaintance who unsuccessfully entered Greece 34 times in seven years calculated that, counting all the time he had spent in failed crossings and detention facilities, he had spent two out of those previous seven years on the border. In 1991 communism finally collapsed in Albania, and migrants to Greece suddenly had to contend with only one set of hostile guards. In addition, where Albanian Communist guards would kill prospective migrants, the Greeks would simply process and deport them. Some, like Kapllani, were lucky enough to find friends and patrons.
In both books, sex is a source of shame, humiliation, and further abasement. Once settled in Greece, the Albanian migrants in Kapllani's chronicle find that they are welcome to spend time in porn theaters, but houses of prostitution bear signs reading "Greeks Only"—in Albanian as well as in Greek. Of course, women refugees are sexual prey for drivers and others who help move the degraded back and forth. Ornela Vorpsi's chronicle is one in which the corruption of human instincts has become nearly total. It is a sequence of episodes in which several girls and women, whose stories are strung together as if they were the story of one person, are continuously molested by men, relatives as well as neighbors. The Country Where No One Ever Dies begins with all Albanian girls being raised to think that they are prostitutes by nature: If they grow up and marry, and their husbands are imprisoned, they sew up their sexual organ to preserve themselves for their incarcerated mate.
Vorpsi evokes a self-hatred that permeates the being of the female immigrant. In one story, girls are sent for military training and placed in the famous defensive bunkers built by the Hoxha regime, and which still cover Albania. They find that the bunkers have been used as lavatories; but they also learn that practicing with their weapons produces a deafening concussion that "is normal after firing a rifle from inside a bunker." During their military training some girls discover that the grave of a Sufi mystic has been regularly tended with fresh flowers in the hope that the "wondrous dervish" would grant favors to devotees. To maintain such a grave would normally have resulted in a long prison stay under Hoxha, but like vegetation that can break stone, evidence of human spirituality cannot be completely eliminated. Yet even these girls are so conditioned by self-hatred that they, too, are driven away from their country.
The lesson here—and it is a crucial one—is that immigrants from poor countries may not migrate simply because of lack of opportunities but from lack of self-respect. Whether by communism or by nationalism, they were promised everything and received nothing good. Demoralized by their rulers, they feel no capacity to revive the spirit manifest in their histories. In developed countries we may still need, even after economic shrinkage, immigrants for jobs our own citizens, aging and with declining birth rates, will not fill. But there is nothing wrong with telling these immigrants that hard work at home, repairing their own country, may prove a wiser choice in the long run.
Note: The Albanian-language text of this article is accessible at http://www.islamicpluralism.org/2041/te-pa-kenaqur-ne-ekzil.
Shënim: Teksti në gjuhën shqipe i këtij neni është i arritshëm në http://www.islamicpluralism.org/2041/te-pa-kenaqur-ne-ekzil.