What makes a real Greek? Who is more Greek: Nery Mantey Niangkouara or Jennifer Aniston?
Just in case you don’t know, Nery Mantey Niangkouara is an Olympic swimmer who has won two silver medals at the Mediterranean Games and has represented Greece in various swimming events and contests. She won the first medal for Greece in the European Swimming Championships in Madrid in 2003.
Is it ironic that the century marked by the greatest racial and ethnic diversity is also the one marked by a rising tide of fascism, ultra-conservativism and xenophobia. (Or is it understandable that one should be a reaction to the other?) In this post we are thinking through the big question: What does it mean to be Greek? Are you a citizen by blood or by soil? It is a question that is crucial not just for Greece, but for any nation struggling to come to terms with globalization within its borders, and multiculturalism wresting with its national image.
A real Greek is born, not made.
If you asked a party member of the Golden Dawn, they would vote for neither. Neither Jennifer nor Nery Mantey. Why? Because they are not “pure” Hellenes. They do not have 100% Greek blood on both sides. According to the legal statue of citizenship known as Jus sanguinis citizenship is not determined by place of birth, but by genetic descent; in other words blood and blood only confers real citizenship. According to this view, it does not matter if you do not speak Greek, if you have never set foot on Greek soil, or have no idea how to bake koulourakia. As long as you have a drop of Greek DNA in you, that is enough to claim Greekness. Genetic descent is what is important. These folks consider a Black Greek like Nery Mantey an impossibility, a mistake, and at the worse extreme an anathema. It does not matter that other illustrious Greeks of the African Diaspora such as the “Greek Freak” or his brother have garnered lots of fame and glory for the Greek banner. They should not be considered Greek as they have no blood that makes them so.
Greece is not alone in seeing citizenship this way. Germany is notorious for not allowing immigrants, however many generations they have spent inside its gates, to become citizens. Meanwhile a long-distant German immigrant in California who can trace his descent to a great-great-great-great grandfather can make a claim to citizenship. Like that magical substance Odysseus held in his veins, anchor, that je ne se qua that made him irresistible to both mortals and immortals alike, its “Greek” DNA that gives you the official stamp of “real Greek.”
A Greek is forged by place
On the other side, you have the folks that believe that you have a right to claim citizenship by birth or place. In order words, jus soli, the legal reasoning that states those born on the soil of a place makes them bona fide nationals. Curiously, countries that offer birthright citizenship are located almost exclusively in the Western Hemisphere. No country in Europe or East Asia, for example, has a similar citizenship policy. (Among those 33 countries that offer birthright citizenship, the United States admits the highest number of immigrants per year.)
What that means in practical terms is that somebody like Nery Mantey is more Greek than Jennifer Aniston. Aniston is not born in Greece and perhaps rarely goes there. Like many of us in the Greek Diaspora, her ties to the motherland have faded. While her blood carries some ancient DNA, she is in all intents a true American girl. No one identifies her by her Greek heritage anymore and (I dare say) not even herself.
The issue becomes more complicated for those of us, the go-betweens. Those who spend physical space in one place but psychic space in another. What happens when you are born in the USA but dream of Greece?
Should your identity be measured by how Greek you feel? Or by how much you love Greece? Can citizenship and identity become a matter of choice? Perhaps like me you were not physically born in Greece but feel like you belong there. In that case, Lord Byron, Thomas Jefferson and Sam Chekwas, and other philhellenes should be given Greek honorary citizenship. (In case you don’t know, Sam Chekwas is a Nigerian American bookseller and writer. He writes books in Greek, speaks Greek fluently and is a mayor of a Greek town.) For Diaspora Greeks, the issue is magnified by as many times they have moved and settled into a new country. (I claim citizenship to three different countries as does Sam and my Greek-American friends who moved from Alexandria, Egypt).
Greece, like other European countries, has been dealing with the changing demographics due to immigration. In the 90s and 2000s, a fairly large number of African migrants from Senegal, Nigeria and Biafra came to the country and stayed. They worked in Greek establishments, sent their children to Greekschools and slowly assimilated. In other words, they became Greek. Is it fair to deny them citizenship because they do not look “Greek”? Is it fair, hypothetically speaking, to give citizenship to Jennifer Aniston’s daughter who carries less than 1/8th of Greekness in her?
When those who identify with a particular place are threatened by the xenos, the outsider, they tend to clutch to each other. They stiffen the boundaries to make sure their group remains intact to penetration from other groups. Those not perceived as sharing certain “essential” characteristics are shunned. The issue is more polarizing when race and not just culture are in the mix. Perhaps it is easier to accept an Albanian as Greek or a German, eventually, over a black Senegalese.
But the changing reality of Greece might make a change to its face. In a NY Times editorial, Nikos Konstandaras of Kathimerini, wrote, “Deaths are outnumbering births, people are leaving the country, and the population is aging so fast that in a few decades Greece may be unable to produce enough wealth to take care of its people and may cease to be a viable nation state . . .The most frightening figure is a Eurostat projection which estimates that, in 2050, 32.1 percent of the Greek population will be over 65, compared with 16.6 percent in 2000. And this projection was made in 2007, before the crisis hit Greece’s population.”
What that means is there will be an increasing vacuum for migrants. What the US looks like today, Greece, however slowly, will look like tomorrow. And with that it will be possible to be a Nigerian Greek just as it is to be a Greek-American.
And speaking of Nigerian Greeks. It’s no wonder that America, that hodge-podge of immigrants and one of the biggest Western countries to allow birthright citizenship, described Giannis as the Greek Freak, not the Nigerian. In a country that is rich with diversity, albeit with its share of problems, Giannis’ identity is derived from his culture over his race. When he got drafted by the NBA, his rags-to-riches story was not lost on an American audience either. His parents poor Nigerian immigrants to Athens did what many still do to make a living—they hawk spin-off leather bags and counterfeit sunglasses. He too had to work the streets sometimes missing games as a result. Now his image has made Greece proud as it has put his face behind the blue-and-white banner. Greece is proud of him (as it always tends to claim credit for jettisoning a native son or daughter on the world stage). The Greek Freak shares the same identity with many of the same immigrants that the right-wing Golden Dawn decries as “subhuman” and terrorizes on the streets of Patissia. Some do not consider him Greek at all.
Is the Greek Freak really Greek or not?