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).