I went a few weeks ago to the Albanian embassy in Brussels. I took a seat in the reception hall and was waiting for my turn. Albanians like to talk. Two young women were smoothly switching from Albanian to French. A mother was lecturing her two kids in French. An old couple was speaking in a northern Albanian dialect. Two girls were speaking Greek. In fact, I thought they were Greek until they were called and suddenly started to speak Albanian. Another couple was speaking English. The woman was Albanian whereas I couldn’t identify the man’s origin. Someone else was talking on the phone in Italian. When I received a phone call, I spoke in Dutch.
If someone had said 25 years ago that Albanians in Brussels would be switching between six languages, that person would have been declared crazy. Yet, here I am among Albanians playing with six languages and nobody even found it noteworthy, except, maybe, for myself.
The languages that we speak are connected to identities. And by learning new languages we take on other cultural elements and sensitivities that come with each language.
A bit of everything
The fact that we choose to speak in language X or Y or switch among these languages tells us something about identity. Why do two young Albanian women speak Greek to each other at the Albanian embassy in Brussels?
I talked to one of the women. She was born in Albania but her parents migrated to Greece when she was eight years old. She went to school in Greece and for the past two years she has lived and worked in Brussels. ‘I’m not even thinking about which language I speak. I speak the language that rolls spontaneously’, she tells me. ‘With my sister it’s Greek, with my parents Albanian and my colleagues and I speak French’.
I had to ask what she felt was her identity. “In Albania they consider me the Greek, in Greece they now joke with the Belgian, and here I am the Greek of Albanian origin. I am a bit of the three”, she said with a smile on her face.
Her answer did not surprise me. Approximately six years ago I had done field and theoretical research on identity. Out of this research we concluded that more young adults, in particular the ones living in cities like Brussels, define their identities as a composition of several influences. In fact we have seen the rise of new words to describe these plural and hybrid identities, such as Afro-Flemish, Belgo-Turk to Maroxellois. Another conclusion was that young adults tend to focus less on national identity and more on their city identity or on being European or a world citizen.
From Eurovision to World Cup
The concept of a nation is constantly forced upon us everywhere in our contemporary environment: in schools, in the workplace, through the media and politics but also in entertainment and sports, from Eurovision to the World Cup. However, there are more and more young people who do not relate to the idea of a nationality. They feel more connected to their neighbourhood or city. For those who have had the chance to travel, they may also feel connected to Europe as a whole or to North and Sub-Saharan Africa, in the case of youths of African origin, for example.
In addition to the plurality of identity, another conclusion of my research was that identities are dynamic. We are living in very fast times. What I understood from discussions with and feedback from youth is that they have broken with fixed identities and would like to also do away with national identity. Both of these forms of identity do not fit the present reality. They are right although the majority thinks differently because they have always lived according to the dominant discourse, that of national identity.
A few years ago I talked about identity to a group of Albanians in Hasselt during an integration class. They asked if I felt Albanian or Belgian. I said that "I feel especially Bruxellois and the rest follows." It took me an hour to explain why I felt Bruxellois, and why it was possible for me to also feel and be Albanian, Belgian and European. I have often had the same discussion with Flemish people during my lectures throughout Flanders, sometimes even in small villages. This is not to say that the idea of nation has no role to play anymore. But it is high time that we look beyond the concept and borders of nations. We know that nations are a historical construction, which up to the present time has led to divisions and conflicts. There are more and more people in our society who define their identity on a smaller scale within those nations, at the level of cities and even neighbourhoods where they live their daily lives. If we want to make our cities better we should not look down on these urban identities, nor exclude them, but rather embrace them. Embracing them will help us to engage citizens at the local level and make it more pleasant to live together and make changes.
Solidarity as foundation
The same is true for identification beyond national boundaries. That the project of the European Union is failing has much to do with the failure of politicians because they still think and act at the level of nations and their self-interest. To identify ourselves in a smaller and wider context than that of a country means developing solidarity and unity with people in our neighbourhoods, but also people of a different language, culture, religion, colour and country. Solidarity is the key word here. Solidarity must be the foundation for these identities and not exclusion nor superiority, as is now the case. Such identification also means that we no longer poison our societies with the discourse of nationalism. Instead of nationalism, we make space for the real problems and challenges of the people everywhere in Europe and the rest of the world.
We saw early last year that this was possible in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that has was torn apart and is still enslaved by nationalist politicians. In the beginning of 2014, thousands of people from everywhere in the country demonstrated in the streets and organized democratic assemblies (plenums) to show their displeasure about the corruption and social misery in their country. These protests and plenums, where people of every origin and religion came together, had the support of approximately 90% of the people in all three parts of the country. It was a powerful signal by citizens who no longer wanted to be divided by the discourse of nationalism, but wanted solutions to their everyday problems. This is an example, which received little attention in the European media, but given the situation and the history of the country, was a symbol of hope.
Beyond the nationThursday, 22 October 2015 13:21
More and more people are developing a neighbourhood or city identity in combination with a cultural identity that goes beyond the borders of a nation. These are the plural identities of the future.