Threatened by Greek Neo-Nazi Group, Writer Continues a Life of Crossing Borders

Photo by Stephanie MitchellPhoto by Stephanie Mitchell
Chronicle of Higher Education
November 3, 2014
By Lawrence Biemiller

Borders have "an almost metaphysical dimension" for Gazmend Kapllani, thanks to his having become a refugee not once but twice.

The first time he was 24 years old, and as a student leader of antiregime protests he had to flee the chaotic collapse of the dictatorship in his native Albania in 1991. "I was chased for almost one month by the Communist secret services," he says. "The situation was very dangerous because they were settling scores with their enemies. It was a situation of revenge."

But in his haste to get out of Albania, he hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about what would happen when he did. He reached Greece, where he did not speak the language and expected to remain for no more than a few weeks, only to find that borders again played a determining role: Having crossed one, he became an immigrant, with limited rights and an uncertain place in society.

He stayed in Greece, working odd jobs at first and then studying philosophy—"What else would you study in the country of Plato and Aristotle?"—and earning a Ph.D. He became a well-known writer and a columnist for a left-leaning newspaper, but he never stopped thinking about borders.

In his first novel, Mr. Kapllani says, "my main character suffers from border syndrome—borders had a terrifying presence in his life." The volume, A Short Border Handbook,is "a mixture of fiction and reality with many autobiographical elements." The book, he says, is a mélange that is unmistakably the work of someone who was "born in a region like the Balkans, where the whole 20th century was a century of borders," and who grew up reading banned books in Italian and French. "Almost all books worth reading were banned in Albania," he remembers.

As a journalist in Greece, he took up causes like human rights for immigrants and minorities. "I struggled very hard for a more fair society, a more open society." These were not always popular causes. He was harassed by "uncontrolled groups within the police," he says, and in 2003 "I was taken from my house by two policemen in plainclothes, and I went through a procedure of intimidation which was meant to make me shut up my mouth."

"I had problems renewing my residence permits," he continues. "Finally the secretary general of Amnesty International got involved, and after three months of protests my residency permit was renewed." But Mr. Kapllani’s troubles didn’t end there. The Golden Dawn, a nascent extremist party with anti-immigrant views, made him a target of repeated tirades, and at a 2009 book event in a public square in Athens he was attacked and his life was threatened.

Greece is not alone in experiencing a surge in far-right political groups. Their popularity has grown in countries including France and Hungary as well, where academics have also been subject to bullying.

Mr. Kapllani tried to fight back. "I was part of the media," he says. "I tried to sensitize people, but no one wanted to listen. I went to the Athens city council and told them the neo-Nazis were organizing a systematic campaign of violence against immigrants and human-rights activists. I was met with indifference and hostility."

In 2012 he accepted a Radcliffe fellowship at Harvard University, right around the time that Golden Dawn candidates won election to the Greek Parliament. "I was very lucky," he says. "The situation in Greece was becoming more and more violent because of Golden Dawn. It is not safe for me to go back there." An invitation to read at Emerson College led to an offer to teach creative writing there—an offer that support from the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund allowed him to accept.

"I have full classes," he says. "For me it’s a very, very exciting experience—it empowers me as a writer." Writing in English is his next challenge: "I have been in love always with the languages of others—I owe my own spiritual survival to the languages of others."

Does he see himself moving back to either Albania or Greece? Not for the time being. "I’m at an age where I don’t ask myself whether I want to go back somewhere," Mr. Kapllani says. "I’m still thirsty to explore new things."

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2014