TIRANA expels a disturbing Greek priest from Albania in June. Athens answers in a Balkan way: Within days it sends back to Albania some 18,000 refugees.
Ali Haxhimihali has a Christian version for his name - Vasil. He is 55 years old, unemployed, and has to survive. The best way is to emigrate and work in neighboring Greece. If you are a Muslim Albanian seeking a Greek visa, you'd better change your religion, or at least your name.
Two or three centuries ago Albanians went through a reverse process. Under the pressure of the Ottoman conquest, most of the original Christian population converted. Some of them went further - they kept two religions. When it was time to pay taxes to Turkey they appeared to be Muslim. When called to the Turkish Army recruiting office they became Christian. Ali's forebears may have been double-religious Albanians: The first part of his last name, Haxhi, is a name given to all Muslims who visit the sacred
city of Mecca. The last part, Mihali, is Albanian for Michael.
When you see people able to keep peaceably two religions within themselves you don't find it hard to understand how Muslims, Orthodox, and Catholics have lived quite well with each other for a long time in Albania. And in other parts of the Balkans.
Politics changes that. Politicians make it tough. They might ban religion as did communists in Albania in the late 1960s. Or they might ask people to change their name.
Ali sits in the main room in his Tirana apartment. It is his son's wedding day. On Ali's left is the bride, the bridegroom, and his wife. On his right is a man named Stassi who laughs non-stop. A Greek! He is pronari, the boss. Ali works for him in Athens.
"An excellent man," says Ali. "He pays me 5000 Drahmi a day [$20, a month's salary in Albania but half what a Greek would make]. We have become friends." Stassi shakes his head in easy agreement.
"If not for him and the money I earned," says Ali, "I wouldn't have been able to organize this wedding. I have brought a lot of money for the family. And I am going to get more."
I listen to Ali, look at Stassi, and try to guess if the latter knows anything about his employee's problems. I can hardly refrain my professional curiosity in asking him. But soon I realize that there is no need. They have solved everything in their own way.
Ali doesn't mind that his alias is registered somewhere as "one of the 600,000 ethnic Greeks in southern Albania." Stassi drinks, not minding that his brew is imported from Macedonia. Of course, both know that a few days ago a Greek priest was proclaimed persona non grata by the Albanian government. They know of the immediate expulsion of more than 18,000 Albanians from Greece. But that doesn't seem to affect their friendship. They worry only about the practical side of the problem and pray that the poli ticians find an answer and let them enjoy life in peace.
The unofficial number of Albanians working in Greece is said to be 300,000. These workers add much hard currency to Albania's bankrupt economy. They are unaware of that. Taking for granted that they are underpaid as emigrants, they never figure out how much Greece profits by their cheap labor.
When they return home they will tell stories of life in the neighboring country. Stories of their Greek friends, people stories. They sing Greek songs and laugh at the funny way their Greek friends pronounce the few Albanian words they have learned.
They don't complicate their lives with such unimportant things as names, religious differences, or ethnic diversity.
They seem to like living - in peace.
I leave Ali with Stassi - in peace.