Friday, March 29, 2013

My Name is Mihalis – Testimony about Outsiderhood in Greece

Translation from Greek – Original source, – 10/29/12

My name is Mihalis. I was born in Athens, in 1980. My parents lived in Pangrati at the time. Once I was born we moved to Patisia. My parents are from Nigeria. My father came to Greece for College, in the 1970s. My mother joined him some time later. I don't remember much from my childhood. It was fine with my schoolmates in elementary school. It was only during soccer-related brawls that they insulted me because of my color. I was the only black student in the school. I also remember this scene: One day, after a fight, they put me in the middle and kept cursing me. Then one boy, his name was Ilias, rushed to my defense. Since then we became buddies. At home we first spoke Nigerian and English. But this interfered with my school performance until a teacher instructed my parents to speak Greek to me. With time Greek became the language we used at home. Greek and hip hop. I exclusively speak Greek since I was nine years old. I am fluent in English. I understand Nigerian but no longer speak it. I got my passion for music because of all these different language sounds I was exposed to. In high school I developed a passion for street art, hip hop and Dream "N" Base. I spent a great deal of time organizing parties and exchanging music with my friends. At that time I became very religious. And with religion came existential conflict. Because religion advocated peace and hip hop spoke about revolution. Religion was a wish, hip hop was action. Hip hop and street art served as outlets for me. At that time I started writing poetry. I wrote about racism too. All of a sudden I became conscious about something I had repressed: the color of my skin; being black. I am proud to be black. To be black however, is to keep facing a wall in front of you. It means to spend a great deal of energy to convince people around you that you are not only good for selling CDs [many immigrants from Africa are CD vendors] or play basketball; to convince them that you can become a lawyer, a doctor, a writer, anything you wish. To be black means to live with the reality of your color, to breath it [color becomes an inherent part of you]. People do not allow you to forget it [color marks you as different in the eyes of the people; you are not allowed to pass unnoticed]. You shock them the most, however, when you speak to them in Greek without an accent. This shocks them. Anyway... It was one summer in the island of Syros when my life was turned upside down. I had just finished high school and wanted to study Fine Arts. I started taking private lessons in drawing. That summer I went to Syros to practice in my tutor's workshop. I was strolling one evening when a police car stopped in front of me. Two policemen asked for my papers. The only document I had with me was my birth certificate; I thought this was enough since I was born in Greece. I was taken to the police station where I was informed that the papers were not complete. One policeman told me that I would be deported. Where? I asked? To the border and then to the country you came from. I did not come to Greece, I was born in Greece I said. I got no answer. “Deportation,” “borders,” I felt like the whole thing was unreal (that it was like being in a film). Things turned upside down, I was scared to death. I stayed in prison for three days, sleeping on the ground in a tiny, dark cell with two Pakistani nationals who spoke neither English nor Greek. During these three days everything turned upside down within me. I was released after friends and lawyers intervened. Many questions torture me since then. Who was I? I understood then why I was not called to serve the army (army service is mandatory for all Greek males). "My friend you are a foreigner," I told myself. I didn't want to believe it though. I thought the police had made a mistake. [These thoughts] were a defense mechanism so that I will not collapse. The papers, the papers, the papers. When the words "papers" and "allodapos/someone from another place/foreigner" entered my life I saw my situation clearly. I went to the City Hall and asked if they could issue an ID for me since I was born here. They curtly said no. Then the whole bureaucratic process takes over: waiting in lines, going back and forth between one office and the next, the unending waiting. By the time the permit is issued it is already expired. Then the same process starts all over again, the endless waiting. With this your life goes to waste. Your best years are wasted chasing this permit. You cannot travel anywhere. I abandoned my dream to attend College because of this situation. In 2002 I was invited in France to represent Greece in a street art performance. I could not go because I had no papers. I wanted to start my own business but I could not because I had no papers. Greek is my language… Gradually you feel a gap between yourself and your friends. They move on and about freely. But anyone who has no papers cannot make plans for the future. Talking about a life that degenerates. You are twenty years old and cannot make plans for the future. As a result you are worn out imperceptible, you feel small, you turn inward (become anti-social). You have to watch out not to become a misanthropist; not to see everyone around you as an enemy. Then there are all these questions [you ask yourself]: Who are you? You were born here, you sing the Greek national anthem, you recited poems in school during Greek independence celebrations. Still, you are considered a foreigner. You have never been to Nigeria. Greek is your language. So, what are you? If this does not drive you insane, what will? You have to fight tooth and nail not to allow this reality to wipe you out. What do I do these days? I spend time listening to music and with the street art theater. I now work at "Cosmopolitanism," a cultural center that organizes many events with immigrant artists. [You are asking] about my papers? It has been two years that I have been waiting. About the future? The future, my friend, is my dreams. My dreams are my shield and my freedom…

Translation Yiorgos Anagnostou (March 2013)

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