GREEKS IN ASMARA:
GUARDIANS OF CONTINUITY, AGENTS OF CHANGE
By Marina Petronoti
Published in the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, Vol 26/1 - Year 2000
MARINA PETRONOTI, Social Anthropologist, is Senior Researcher at the National Centre for Social Research, Athens. She is researching immigration flows to Greece with emphasis on the impact immigrants' presence has on collective representations about cultural heterogeneity as well as their social and symbolic interaction with the indigenous population.
From the article:
. . . . this community was by no means socially or economically homogeneous. Despite its members' efforts to present it as stable, solid, and attached to traditional values, they often disagreed on vital issues and were stratified in terms of geographical origin (those who came from Egypt or mainland Greece were thought of as superior to islanders), occupational status (self-employed/employees), status of social acquaintances and friends, material wealth, and consumption practices. Such variations reflected on the size of their houses, the location of their shops (most of which were on a road connecting the outskirts with the commercial center of Asmara), their education (some had only secondary school education while others transformed their wealth to educational capital by sending their sons to universities in Chartoum or Cairo). Furthermore, those who run their own business travelled abroad, increased their "knowledge of the world," were elected as members of the community board (Papamichail 1950) and occasionally made generous donations to the town (e.g., a small hospital).
The intimate bond between Greeks' welfare and the guarantees given by colonial powers manifest themselves in the fact that they left Asmara as soon as Ethiopians invaded Eritrea (Prokopiou 1931). In 1972 and 1987, respectively, the Greek community had about 300 and 60 members, 12 while today it has about 10 (mainly aged men). 13 In addition to the insecurity they felt, small firm owners could not overcome the impact of nationalization on their plans and activities. Having lost their property, economic and political protection, and the right to export money, they had no incentive to remain in the country and left for Greece (only a handful went to Italy). Photographs of their houses, the items they brought with them (silver, ivory, pieces of furniture) together with the ways in which they speak of the past ("I never made my bed myself," "we went hunting for days and had servants who did everything for us," "we lived like kings," "our children went to the Greek and Italian school, we had a driver, and avoided the dirt on streets, we had beautiful clothes from Milano, opera, and cinema at a time Athens had nothing"), depict the luxuries and comfort they enjoyed as well as the symbolic distance they put between "here" and "there." The issue of settlement is further associated with the territorial base of social status and advancement. Topos, according to them, implies spacial concentration, i.e. the fact that several parts of Asmara were exclusively inhabited by Eritreans and others by Europeans (Nadel 1944: 85). Although exceptional in their decision not to leave Eritrea, those who stayed highlight this issue by saying: "I knew nobody in Greece, this was my home." Certainly, their decision was also based on the hope that the Eritrean government would eventually return their nationalized property to them.
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