I have resumed reading Anastasia Karakasidou’s book Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood: Passages to Nationhood in Greek Macedonia, 1870-1990, which is described in this earlier post, and what is fascinating me at the moment is the concept of ethnicity not as an immutable aspect of identity (as we tend to think of it) but as a garment chosen to suit an occasion or a preferred lifestyle. Here is the quote that struck me (I remind the reader that she is writing about a village in Greek Macedonia, part of the Ottoman Empire until the Balkan War of 1912):

Nearly everyone in the Guvezna area spoke Turkish during the late Ottoman era. Yet by the mid-eighteenth-century Greek had become the language of the marketplace throughout the Balkans. As Stoianovich* puts it, “Balkan merchants, regardless of their ethnic origin, generally spoke Greek and assumed Greek names.”

*Trajan Stoianovich, “The Conquering Balkan Orthodox Merchant,” The Journal of Economic History, vol. XX, No. 2, June 1960, p. 291

She later adds: “The bakal (Turkish: ‘grocer’), on the other hand, was generally known as a Greek, regardless of what language he spoke.” This reminded me of the situation in Central Asia before the Bolshevik occupation, where urban merchants of any ethnic background spoke Persian (the variety now known as “Tajik”) in the course of their professional activities and were known as “Sarts”; the term disappeared once the inhabitants of the region were forced to choose a “nationality” for their Soviet identity cards. The same thing happened to the term “Macedonian” in the old sense once the Greeks and Bulgarians began violently competing for the territory and enforcing their new ideas of nationality once it had been divided up; as Karakasidou says, “The imposition of new national categories meand that Slavic-speakers were now either Greeks or Bulgarians. In Guvezna, being a ‘Macedonian’ was simply not an option.” Thus the triumph of the nation state means the end of older, more complex identities (and the greater tolerance for difference that accompanied them).

A very different form of chosen ethnicity is exhibited by the Abayudaya (a clearer orthography would be abaYudaya, the aba- being a prefix meaning ‘people’) of Uganda, who in the years immediately following World War I chose to become Jews; despite their devoted adherence to ritual laws and courageous resistence to government pressure, the state of Israel has refused to recognize them; the New York Times ran a story on the situation this week.

Addendum. A striking illustration of the elective nature of ethnicity is given in this sentence from Karakasidou (quoting Duncan Perry’s The Politics of Terror): “Cases of families divided are extant in which, because one brother was educated in a Bulgarian school, another in a Greek school, and a third in a Serbian school, each adopted a different nationality.” Such divisions of families were not uncommon in Central Asia at the time of forced division into “Tajik,” “Uzbek,” and other Soviet-created nationalities, and presumably in similar situations elsewhere (e.g., Rwanda and Burundi). Note also the discussion of “Ted Yannas” in the Addendum to the earlier post linked at the start of this one.


  1. Coming from South Africa, I find ethnicity fascinating and a little scary. I remember reading … um … Benedict Anderson? … on the construction of ethnicity, and finding it helpful to think of ethnicity as a symbolic construct, but not “just” a symbolic construct.

  2. Yes, it’s a very tricky concept: you can’t ignore it, but you can’t pin it down. Sort of like race.

  3. One episode of the tv series Lovejoy features a jeweler(?) in London who wears a long beard and Jewish mannerisms because “it’s expected.”

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