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Diaspora and Religion

The historical origins of the community of Tsalka are deeply connected to the Orthodox religion and different migrations. I have argued that the religious identity of the Greeks of Tsalka became salient during the Ottoman Empire as a form of social organisation. Moving to Georgia made religion a link to the Russian and Georgian societies. After the formation of the Greek state and the gradual Sovietisation of the Georgian society, religion became part of the local culture in Tsalka rooting further the community to its land. In this part of the essay, I will study the connection of religion to diaspora in Tsalka.

Diaspora emerged in the 1990s as a category through which “hegemonic, discriminatory and culturally homogenizing” (Vertovec 2000, 5) definitions and understandings of the nation state could be tested. Older perceptions of the concept which connected it to roots and a nostalgic bond to the homeland were re-examined within specific historical conditions, resulting in more context-specific periodisation of diaspora formations (Cohen 1997). At the same time, the association of diasporas to “hybridity, multiple identities and affiliations with people, causes and traditions outside the nation-state” (Vertovec 2000, 5) cultivated the conditions for new research agendas which considered diasporas more as a form of consciousness than a specific group or place (Clifford 1997; Vertovec 1999).

Here, I will follow Effie Voutira’s definition, which captures both the institutionalised aspect of diasporas, but also its contribution to personal and collective identity politics and the ambiguities generated. Voutira, who for a long time studied different Greek communities in the former Soviet Union, argues that the production of diasporas involves two parallel and interwoven processes:

  • 1. The formation of communities in dispersal that remain connected and attached through transnational kin networks, and which inform and support decision making concerning past, present and future transmigration to, from or close to what is perceived to be their “own people”, and
  • 2. The creation of particular corporate groups, cultural associations that are the main actors in the new arenas of diaspora politics whereby the national centre has traditionally played a significant role in setting them (Voutira 2006, 383)

The above definition connects diasporas to transnationalism, something that I will further explore in relation to Olga’s trip. It also links diasporas to organised mobilisation, something Olga has been part of. The improvement of transportation and communication technologies and the increased contacts among migrant communities and their place of origin, whether a national territory, a city or a village (Datta 2013), produced a space of “actual ongoing exchanges of information, money, or resources, as well as regular travel and communication” among immigrants and their places of origin. Thus, what Vertovec refers to as “globalised ethnic communities” (Vertovec 2000, 12), were shaped.

In contrast to the study of diaporas, religion has minimal, if not marginal position within social sciences (Hann and Goltz 2010, 1-83). Steven Vertovec, writing about diasporas, has underlined that “religion has been the focus of relatively little attention within this growing field” (2000, 1). This was not irrelevant to the fact that the separation of the secular and religious spheres was considered fundamental for European modernity (Asad 1999). One of the first approaches to the relation of religion to diasporas was through the idea of travel and pilgrimage (Eickelman and Piscatori 1990; Clifford 1997). This approach underlined the salience of travel in the transmission and rootedness of religions beyond religious homelands.

However, as Ninian Smart (1999, 424) maintains in her study of Hinduism, not all aspects of religion can travel and take roots in new contexts. More importantly, not all travellers interpret their journeys to holy lands or sites in the same way. This is significant for Olga’s trip which, although it is not a religious journey, has religious aspects, as family reunion through this trip takes spiritual nuances. As Jeanne Kormina (2010, 267-289) has stated in her account of her ethnographic trip with post-socialist Russian tourists/pilgrims, these journeys are more than a religious quest: they are a quest for the authenticity of identities which, due to regional, political and economic changes of the last decades, were put into question. This is an important point for this paper. Although Olga and her family are not pilgrims in the traditional sense but their quest is rather of a personal and emotional nature, the journey that they undertake can also be seen as a search for authenticity. Authenticity here should be understood as a proof of their Greekness, or in other words a reinforcement of these subjects’ ethnic identity, to use a notion employed in diaspora and migration studies.

For the Greeks of Tsalka, the question of authenticity, their authentic Greekness, was produced from the gradual identification of language with Greek identity. As Kormina underlines (2010, 277), “this appeal to Orthodoxy on a basis of national identity is a way to avoid history or at least the traumas of real history”; for Kormina’s informants, the traumas of the communist era. Similarly, I argue that through her appeal to religion, Olga contested the rigidity and bounded-ness of national history, which privileged language over religion as a marker of Greekness (Popov 2007, 219-247; Sideri 2012). Nevertheless, in comparison to the case of Russian Orthodox pilgrims presented by Kormina, the case of Tsalka is not so straightforward.

When the children arrived, Olga decided that they should do their duty (“kanoun to chreos”), in other words, pay respects to the family grave where their father lay in the paternal village. The village was not very far from the city of Tsalka. As almost an adopted daughter, I was invited to go with them. This practice of visiting the family grave was not something unfamiliar to me. As I had lost my father almost a year before my fieldwork, I knew that a visit to my hometown’s cemetery was always expected by my mother and I also felt it as a personal need. But what is chreos, according to Olga, and what kind of practices did it involve? Did different practices alienate these Greeks from the Greek Orthodox—national community? And did they also form new connections, and if so, of what sort?

The visit to the patrilocal cemetery and family grave reintegrated the two emigrant subjects, Olga’s children that is, within their family, their kin their community and by extension, within their country of origin (Georgia). In other words, this trip to the family grave emplaced these two young members within different multi-scalar communities (the family, the village and the nation) reinstating coherence and solidarity and reaffirming what Durkheim had observed: “the idea of society is the soul of religion” (quoted from Bellah 1973, 191). For many years, dominant conceptualisations represented community as a bounded vessel of a particular culture. Methodological nationalism (Wimmer and Glick-Schiller 2002) essentialised cultures and territorialised them within specific boundaries, physical and symbolic, not only in the West, but also within the Soviet ideology. In this framework, the nation was often described in reductionist terms. Social scientists tried to define the essence of “the nation” as a concept through the identification of its specific cultural features, one of which was religion. This approach was different from an earlier one, where religion was used to categorise distinct communities in pre-modern times, as discussed above. For example, as Gellner (1983, Agelopoulos 2000) observed, cultures did not obtain any political salience in the pre-modern period. This does not mean that there was no cultural or ethnic differentiation, but that these categories were not politically instrumentalised. This explains why in imperial politics religion was used as a cultural idiom. Example par excellence is the Ottoman millet system, which Olga’s family originated from. This started to change with the advent of nationalisms and the formation of nation states in the nineteenth century, when religion became part of national identity.

When the trip to the family grave started, I had the first surprise. On our first stop, Olga and her son went out to a small bazaar where animals were sold. As I could see from the car window, they were bargaining for a sheep. Olga’s daughter informed me that the sheep was a young male animal. We continued our short journey to the village church. We first visited the family grave with the engraved photograph of the children’s dead father. There was a small wooden bench and wooden table next to the grave, in order for family and friends to eat and drink with the dead. The son guided the sheep so that they both performed the tour of the church three times. Then, the family had arranged for an old Muslim man to join them. The boy and the sheep followed the old man behind the church and away from the women. After a while, the young son returned. The sheep had been sacrificed, the skin had been removed and and then, its meat was cut into smaller pieces.

The whole process, the kurban (the sacrifice) was presented to me as “our custom”, in other words, a custom of Olga’s local imagined community, that of the Greeks of Tsalka. At the same time, Olga’s practices challenge the perception of Orthodoxy as a pure religion, because the act of sacrificing a sheep generally speaking is also connected to Islam. As Charles Stewart and Rosalind Shaw (1994, 1) have underlined in their definition of syncretism, the latter is often tied to inauthenticity and contamination of an imagined pure tradition. The family’s kurban explicitly shows the historical co-existence of Olga’s community with Muslim communities. Moreover, syncretism is often associated to “other” religions or “other” communities, which contrasts with the dogmatic purity of world religions. This is not a legitimate division.

Especially in the case of Orthodoxy, its acclaimed purity and undisrupted continuity was turned to an identity which separated it from its Christian counterparts, like Catholicism and Protestantism. Orthodoxy accused the other Christian traditions of having betrayed the purity of Logos. At the same time, this purity was often translated as stagnation by Western approaches to Orthodoxy that propagated orientalist understandings of the Eastern Church. Such approaches resulted in the Othering of Orthodox Christianity and its communities of believers (Hann and Glotz 2010, 1-4). However, Olga’s kurban challenges these perceptions and underlines the colonial legacy of Christianity. This colonial history was depicted in the previous sections of this chapter, which detail the history of diasporas like the Greeks of Tsalka and their settlement in a multi-ethnic, multilingual and multicultural imperial landscape. This history is tied to the tradition of cultural fusion that often takes part in the formation of diasporas. As a result, plurality seems compatible with the diasporic tradition.

However, kurban is also a marker not only of a diaspora but also of national imagined community. The practice of kurban becomes a sign of the local and almost domestic (in-group) religious practices, strengthening the solidarity of the Greek community of Tsalka. At the same time, it marks the boundary that separates the community from the Others, in the Barthian sense (Wimmer 2008, 970-976), where the boundary and not the content produces differentiated communities. Kurban connected Olga to Tsalka and its diasporic tradition of connections to Otherness. Yet Kurban also creates friction when it is tested against national hegemonic definitions of cultures and the position of religious practices within them. That is why Olga’s stress on religion was expressed through the expression “our religion”. In the same way, she referred to “our language” when she spoke about the Turkish idiom of Tsalka, or to “our people” when she referred to the Greeks of Tsalka. This anonymity produces locality and identity as an intimate space of belonging. In this way, the plurality and difference that seemed to correlate to the diasporic history of Olga’s community is interpreted as homogeneity for Olga and the Greeks of Tsalka. The identity of the Greeks of Tsalka is circumscribed in spatial and cultural terms, but it is not given formal recognition as a category of identification.

Olga’s ties to her land follow the Soviet tradition of inclusion. The Soviet regime of practising atheism and territorialised nationalism (Brubaker 2004) did not extinguish religion. Rather, it made religion part of territorialised national or ethnic cultures. Ethnic cultures, in their turn, were connected to a strict hierarchy of privileges and affirmative policies of the Soviet welfare system (Martin 2001). In this way, inclusion in an ethnically bounded locality, like Tsalka, was considered pivotal for the inclusion in the national and supra-national spheres of political membership of the Soviet socio-political system. Nevertheless, the emergence of post-Soviet nation states reshaped what constituted national identity and how the latter should be defined, not only within national borders but also within a transnational horizon of contacts.

In post-Soviet territories, like Georgia, the gradual repositioning of religion as a constitutive element of nationally predominant cultures, for example, the titular Georgian culture, marginalised or at least caused discontent to other ethnic groups. The latter often expressed a feeling of nostalgia about the Soviet past (Pelkmans 2006, 2010). However, as Couroucli has claimed (2010, 234) in her study of Muslim pilgrimage to Orthodox shrines in Istanbul, this nostalgia is not about the past, but about the longing to belong to the “new reality of the reimagined community”. Olga’s appeal to the local is now recontextualised. The local circulates beyond borders and is tested within a new economy of meanings and symbols. Olga needed to be included in this economy both symbolically and literally, so that her children could emigrate to Greece. At the same time, when I asked colleagues at the university in Tbilisi about kurban, they marked it as “something done in Tsalka” and maybe other rural areas with a Muslim population. They stressed that it had nothing to do with Georgian Orthodoxy. Re-imagining the nation is far from a homogenous process, especially in the context of the still-fragile post-Soviet narratives of national belonging. However, several months after this brief discussion, I witnessed the same practice at the heart of modern Tbilisi near Saint George cathedral. The connection of kurban to the provinciality of the Greeks of Tsalka might insinuate a social/class distinction that should be further studied within the emerging national landscape in Georgia.

At the same time, the domestication of kurban as something local and distinctive for Tsalka is also connected to gender. “In migrant religions”, Schiffauer (2006, 2) argues, “concern about the family often leads to an emphasis on domestic values”. This intensive compartmentalisation of behavioural patterns among the male and female members, which is often linked to a quite conservative lifestyle, emphasises women’s chastity and men’s role as guardians. However, this patriarchal depiction is contested in different ethnographic contexts, like in the case of Olga’s family: after the death of Olga’s husband she had become the head of the family. Moreover, Sciffauer’s depiction concerns more the first generation of immigrant communities. These patterns gradually shift in order to follow behavioural structures of the dominant society. Consequently, conflict among different generations or between genders is unavoidable.

As Anthias and Davis (1989) point out, women—and especially older women—can be guardians and mediators of tradition, bridging the gap between different generations. As Schiffauer observes (2006, 2), “[i]n a situation characterised by strong centrifugal forces, they [women] increasingly become the integrating and often moral power in the family”. One can see this applied in the case of Olga, where death, economic and political plight and the dispersion of the family augmented the pressure for coherence and continuity. As a result, Olga embodied both communal tradition and family memory in times of distress and dislocation, reproducing the local geographically and symbolically both within and beyond national borders. Her emancipation as head of the family and as an active member of the community of Tsalka did not loosen her ties with the land. Instead, it strengthened them within a new transnational lifestyle.

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