A Short Border Handbook
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A Short Border Handbook

A Journey Through the Immigrant's Labyrinth

Gazmend Kapllani, Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife

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eBook - ePub

A Short Border Handbook

A Journey Through the Immigrant's Labyrinth

Gazmend Kapllani, Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife

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About This Book

A Short Border Handbook is a cogent and comical journey into the depths of dictatorship, migration, and borders from an Albanian who grew up in Enver Hoxha's Stalinist madhouse, longing for the West, only to find yet more visible and invisible borders on his arrival.

After spending his childhood in Stalinist Albania during the Cold War, and fantasizing about life across the border, the unnamed protagonist (based closely on the author) flees to Greece, the only country in the Balkans that belonged to the "Western bloc"?only to get banged up in a detention center. As he and his fellow immigrants try to make sense of the new world, they find jobs and plan their future lives in Greece, imagining success that is always beyond their grasp. The sheer absurdity of both their plans and their new lives is overwhelming. In a narrative both ironic and emotional, Kapllani interweaves the story of his experience with meditations upon "border syndrome"?a mental state, as much as a geographical experience?to create a brilliantly observed, amusing, and perceptive debut. And an ever timely one at that.

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Reaching, never mind crossing, the borders of a country under a totalitarian regime like Albania was, until 1991, the equivalent of a miracle—or a mortal sin. Exit visas were few and far between; those who got them were the lucky ones. The rest of us, most of us, that is, looked on the ones who got them as a breed apart, something along the lines of extraterrestrials. We were condemned to speculate endlessly about what lay on the other side of the borders. Either that or we would torture ourselves with the simple conclusion that life went on as normal, even on the other side.
Dismissing the possibility that there was life beyond the borders proved quite an effective survival strategy, spiritually as well as physically. At some point, in the subconscious of many of us, the world-beyond-the-borders became more than the continuation in time and space of some common world.
As the years went by, and Albania’s isolation became absolute, the world-beyond-the-borders gradually assumed the status of a separate planet. For some people that planet was paradise, for others it was a place of terror. But for all that, another planet.
Why are you telling us all this?
You could ask the immigrant, Why are you telling us all this? The truth is, as an immigrant, especially a first-generation immigrant, your first instinct is to stay silent. Fear; caution; the violent escape, that violent first encounter with the unknown country; that feeling of being uninvited; resentment; longing for and rejection of home, and guilt and rage at the same time, all take root in the immigrant. An immigrant is a confused creature, highly insecure, and that is why he fears confession. All it takes is one gesture from the other side, one sign of denial, or indifference, of the “What’s it to me where you come from and what you’ve been through?” kind, for the immigrant to feel ridiculous, vulnerable, and freakish. That’s why he doesn’t take risks. Instead, he digests his experiences in isolation and before long is convinced that they are of absolutely no interest to anyone. In the final analysis, he thinks: I wasn’t made for telling stories, but to fight tooth and nail for my survival. It’s not that people can’t understand; they just don’t want to.
The alternative, baring all and confessing, is risky. Telling his life story, the painful and contradictory journey of an immigrant. But, if he keeps it all bottled up inside, he is in danger of becoming neurotic and resentful. The most he can hope for is that they will understand, first him, and then all those who cannot speak, who don’t know how to speak, who don’t have the courage to speak and who bury their narratives deep inside themselves instead. You cannot understand an immigrant if you haven’t heard his story first.


The regime did everything in its power to block all images from the other side of the border by means of controls, arrests, and punishments. I can still remember—I was in the second year of primary school at the time—the day the school’s Party secretary walked into our classroom and, among other things, asked us in a ponderous voice (which, with monumental exertion, she tried to soften) if our parents watched anything apart from Albanian state television. With the naiveté of a child wanting to impress his classmates, I stuck my hand up and duly announced that my parents enjoyed watching a channel called Savra. There was no such thing; Savra was the name of a village near our town, Lushnjë. But I didn’t know that. My father, alert to the dangers involved, dealt with my unfettered childish curiosity by feeding it with certain pseudonyms and code words for the foreign television stations he watched on the quiet. Ultimately, not even that could save him. That evening, he was summoned to the headmaster’s office and asked to account for this unknown television station. You could lose your job over something like that—and that was the least of it. He risked being accused of “reactionary activities” and of harboring “petit bourgeois sympathies” and risked being tried for disseminating antistate propaganda. After that, he could end up in one of those terrifying jails for political prisoners, or else be sent to one of those villages outside Lushnjë that were full of exiles. Savra was the best known. The truth was that there were options at their disposal for finishing someone off. My father had to explain himself, and explain why, first of all, he did not restrict his viewing to Albanian state television, and why he moved around in wealthy capitalist-imperialist-revisionist-Titoist-monarcho-fascist etc., etc. circles. Secondly, he was required to account for his choice of pseudonym. Why Savra? Did this imply indirect yet unambiguous sympathy for the enemies of the state exiled in that village? He answered flatly that he did not watch foreign television, adding that if they didn’t believe him, they were welcome to come and inspect the antenna on his roof.
On the subject of antennas, all citizens were required by the regime to purchase special ones, which had to be installed in such a way as if to renounce any desire to receive images from the world-beyond-the-borders. The truth was that my father had two antennas: one on the roof, for appearances’ sake, and another, illegal one, the one referred to inside the family as “the antlers.” It was an indoor antenna, used mainly for picking up Italian channels. This double antenna was the perfect symbol for the divided individual living in a totalitarian state. One side of you functioned to appease the terrifying gaze of the regime; the other, more congenial side tried to escape its all-powerful watch by cunning.
Fortunately the episode with the antenna did not have further repercussions. I was treated to a stinging slap from my father, sealing my hatred for the Party secretary, and although still a child, I began to realize that I had to stop being one, especially when it came to dealing with Party secretaries. I was so furious with her that I secretly prayed that some terrible fate would befall her, as that, and only that, would assuage my wrath, and only then in part. I wished—fantasized even—about her slipping, falling, and breaking her leg—both legs; that she would fall ill and die a slow, painful death; that a brick would land on her head, killing her on the spot. The fantasy that brought me absolute satisfaction, however, was seeing her lying on the ground, squashed under the wheels of a cart (one of those from the farmers’ cooperative, on filthy wheels pulled by emaciated horses that you used to see driving around town).
Time passed and with it my sadistic fantasies. I found out, much later, that my prayers had been answered in part, but not quite in the way I’d imagined: the Party secretary developed a peculiar illness, which made her look permanently cheerful. It was unbelievable considering she was one of the most stony-faced people on the planet. At school she was known as “the statue.” Now each time there was a Party convention, she would collapse in fits of laughter, shrieking away, and the more she shrieked, the more idiotic she looked. News of her nervous laughter reached the Party Committee, which ruled that in the interests of ideology, the Party, and the revolution she should go into early retirement. As they pointed out, she was not simply unsuitable but was harming the revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat through her infirmity. That was the last she was heard of.
Leaving your country means breaking with it.
A true emigrant is an incorrigible, egotistical narcissist. He thinks he’s too good for his native land, and does not deserve the poverty, the lack of prospects, the violence, the corruption, the filth, the hypocrisy, or the lack of love. For all these reasons, for him, exile is above all a choice.
Leaving is a choice, a choice to break with the country of his birth. This break follows him for the rest of his life. It will be the source of his sense of guilt and of freedom, rejection and denial, daydreaming and nostalgia, forgetting and melancholy, mood swings and schizophrenia. Only if he makes a success of life abroad, only then can he make peace with his own country again. If he doesn’t make it, he will be left hanging, at odds with the world and with the universe. He will make a great show of how much he loves his country of origin for one reason alone—to annoy people in his new country, the country he believed would offer him a better future, but which, in his opinion, has denied him one. In the final analysis, he has rejected his own country in favor of this new one; he has had more faith in this new one than in his own. Shouldn’t that in itself be enough for them to hold their doors wide open for me? he asks himself.


Those antennas will always be connected in my mind with two more people who made a lasting impression on me during my childhood: Uncle Jani and comrade Mete. I had known Uncle Jani almost all my life because we lived in the same block. His flat was upstairs from us, on the fourth floor. He was quite well known around town, mainly because he waged an undeclared war on all enemies of the state and the revolution, the enemy without, certainly, but especially the enemy within. From the conversations of the grown-ups at home and at friends’ homes, I learned that Uncle Jani had an enormous logbook, which he kept hidden somewhere in his flat, detailing the works and days of all suspect residents of our town. Woe betide anyone whose name appeared on the list; it meant certain ruin for them and their relatives. Rumors about Uncle Jani’s list grew until it acquired mythical status within the community. Some said that it was just a simple notebook; others maintained it was a huge tome containing information relating not only to suspect persons in this town but in the neighboring one, too. Uncle Jani was so committed to hunting down the enemy within that it was said that even his daughter-in-law’s name appeared on the list. They all lived under the same roof. One night, he overheard her talking in her sleep, murmuring, “I don’t give a shit about the Party conference….”
Irrespective of how long or how short Uncle Jani’s list really was, the fact was that nobody in our block suffered at his hands, except Keme’s son, that is. Rolling home drunk one night, he had the misfortune of falling across Uncle Jani, who fixed him with a stern gaze. Keme’s son, who worked as a porter, returned Uncle Jani’s look with these words: “They say that drunkards lose all sense of smell—even so, I couldn’t fail to sniff out a filthy informer like you!” before collapsing into fits of laughter. He lost his job because of it, but everyone said he’d got off very lightly and that Uncle Jani had proved that he did have a human side, because if he’d really wanted to, he could have had Keme’s son exiled or even thrown into prison.
Uncle Jani was not the only one targeting the enemy within. There were others in town doing the very same thing. We knew about some of them, but not all. Comrade Mete, for example, we did not know about. We only found out about him much later, under the most tragic circumstances. Comrade Mete’s particular skill and passion was tracking down the enemy within through the precise study of the lie of their television antennas. He left no rooftop in the town uninspected at least three or four times, operating under cover of night to make sure the direction of all antennas conformed to Party regulations. In fact he had compiled a long list of names next to which was recorded the direction of the lie of their antennas. If Comrade Mete discovered an aberration anywhere, the authorities were alerted instantly and the guilty party could find himself digging trenches for years on end. Comrade Mete’s legendary list was discovered late one night on the roof of our block. Unfortunately the owner of the list was five floors away from it, lying on the ground at the entrance to the building, having executed the most spectacular fall from the roof, all the way down to the ground below, which was still damp from the recent rain. Comrade Mete’s fall was accompanied by a terrible scream that sent a jolt through everyone in our building, waking everyone in the surrounding blocks as well. Comrade Mete died on impact. A tragic, premature death, but a hero’s death; he was killed in the line of duty, fighting for socialism and in the class struggle. What caused his fall, however, was never established, and speculation concerning the mysterious circumstances surrounding his demise continued to fuel the imaginations of the people of our town.
The Immigrant in the Realm of the Imperative
You have to get a job. Any job. You have to survive. You have to find somewhere to live—doesn’t matter what it’s like as long as it looks vaguely like a home. You have to learn the language, even if you can’t understand a single word of it and you get your “good nights” and your “good evenings” all mixed up. You have to learn to speak more softly, and not shout, because it scares people. You’re not back home in the village now, you know. You have to keep out of the way of those Black Marias because you turned up in this country without an invitation, making quite an entrance with that woebegone expression of yours and that primitive haircut. People round here haven’t seen anything like that for decades, especially not combined with those clothes, so obviously charity clothes—or maybe you stole them? You have to learn how to walk properly because you’ve got used to walking too fast, like you’ve got the Devil on your back. You’ve got to learn the Highway Code, the sections that apply to pedestrians of course, and you’ve got to stop looking at all those gorgeous local girls like that, the way Quasimodo looks at Esmeralda in Notre Dame de Paris. You have to, have to, have to…without end or expiry date. Day after day, night after night, week after week, month after month, year after year. Not for you the privilege of wanting—you are condemned to live by the mercilessly cruel claims of “have to.” Because you have to make it. Above all, make it.
This is the immigrant’s oath.
Just as doctors are supposed to live by the Hippocratic oath, an immigrant lives by “I have to succeed.” This oath is his only real country from now on. He has to make it, not simply because people back home expect something from him; that’s the least of it. He has to make it because he cannot go back a failure. The thought of failure makes him tremble like a child afraid of the dark. He has to make it, but how? And this is where the common path of immigrants diverges and they split off into successes and failures, the accepted and the rejected, the lucky and the unlucky. Because immigrants, whatever their superficial similarities, differ from each other in exactly the way that everybody in this world differs from everybody else.


There were two basic versions of how comrade Mete met his death. The first version circulated in hushed tones and low voices from house to house and café to café. The story went that comrade Mete, in addition to his weakness for television antennas, was victim of another obsession, much, much stranger than the first. A committed voyeur, he lived to watch couples in the throes of lovemaking, longed for glimpses of women hitching up their skirts to reveal their naked backsides when visiting the toilet or getting into the bath. That fateful night, it was rumored, he was spying on the female judge who lived in the top floor flat in our building, while she was having her bath, and he was completely mesmerized by her ample backside. Co...

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