Sunday, July 12, 2015

The fragility of common homes

I recall a conversation with the then Archbishop in Skopje that proceeded on wholly civilised lines until a gear shifted and we found ourselves talking about Greece and the ongoing dispute about Macedonia's name. 'There are a million of us in Greece (Slavic speaking Macedonians) that is why they fear us,' he declared, eyes stalked, composure gone.

At the same time, an American friend holidaying on Patmos, tried sending me a postcard to my flat in Skopje. At the post office, the card was flung back at her: 'We do not send anything there!'

In the same period, buying a train ticket in Thessaloniki instead of asking for a ticket to Skopje, I said 'Macedonia' (the train only stopped once in the country on its way to Budapest). I obviously, realising my mistake, went pale but the ticket seller smiled and said, 'Do not worry! I am one of the few who do not care'!

I was reminded of these reactions reading Mark Mazower's 'Salonica, City of Ghosts, Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950'. This is an exemplary history of a city that managed to be a parable of toleration, one that is wholly realistic. For the whole period of its life in the Ottoman empire, its communities jostled along in imperfect relationship in which there was nothing utopian except it's flawed working!

And then along came competing national identities that allowed no space for multiple identities. You had to choose and searing conflict became inevitable.

In his evocative conclusion, he notes how nationalist histories are 'all about false continuities and convenient silences, the fictions necessary to tell the story of the rendezvous of a chosen people with the land marked out for them by destiny.' Whereas, in truth, the vast majority of Thessaloniki's population is barely three or four generations old in the city and before 1912, when the city was absorbed into Greece, the majority of the population was not Greek but Muslim and Jewish. The first were mostly transferred in the post- First World War 'exchange' with Turkey and that saw a major influx into the city of displaced Greeks from Asia. The second were deported and murdered by the Germans in 1943.

As I read, I could not but help think about Greece's present emergency and the crisis it brings to the European Union. For here too amongst the arcana of economic plans and financial deals (that most people appear not to understand including many of the people who are apparently meant to be addressing their challenges), is a conflict about identity; and, the failure of the Union to forge a sense of a common home, where in however flawed a manner, the preservation of the home triumphs over the separating identities of its members.

When the chips are down, we are apparently more Finn than European (exchange nationality at will)...

Mazower's book closes by noticing that all three communities in Salonica had given thanks to God for bringing them to or conferring upon them the city but his last sentence is, "Yet is it not said that where God is, there is everything?"

This reminded me that the EU's architects were essentially Christian Democrats who did believe that there was an identity that could bind beyond nation - a shared value set that was universal. It is a continuing dream, sorely being tested presently; and, yet it is a persistent one, that manifests imperfectly in history and is then dismantled. To re-emerge again one hopes, but how quickly do we forget!

Meanwhile, its care and nurture is no small task and I wonder whether the current guardians are up to the task - or even recognise its importance in a world distended by national and economic priorities. The pressing present crowding out any long term vision.

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