Border syndrome – The absurdities and tragedies of Albanian migrants’ tales impress Kapka Kassabova

Here’s an ethnic joke I heard in Greece: an American, a Frenchman, a Greek and an Albanian stand at the top of the Eiffel Tower and drop items they have too much of. The American drops a wad of dollars; the Frenchman a bottle of champagne. The Greek looks at the Albanian, who says: “I know what you’re thinking.” Kapllani’s laconic memoir is as cringingly funny as this joke, but it also shows the suffering of Albanians who crossed into Greece in the 1990s. Kapllani’s own story is that of an educated boy trying to make sense of the nonsense that was communist Albania, and a young man’s desperate search for a better life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. It is sketched with a light hand and a heavy heart.

The title gives away one of his fixations: “border syndrome”, an unspecific mental condition that afflicts millions. What they have in common is the accident of birth in places that first-rate countries consider second-rate; the compulsion to leave; and the possession of “bad” passports that make border crossings feel like interrogations. Holders of “cool” EU passports may be surprised to find that borders can still loom so ominously in our big European family – which is one more reason to read Kapllani’s haunting vignettes of fellow Albanians.

Much has been said about migration, borders and exile. One of this book’s pleasures is the author’s honesty, but one of its shocks is that it exposes an everyman’s struggle for dignity in a wealthy, multicultural EU. We think of walls and borders as something either in the past or in the Middle East. Kapllani brings borders closer to home and ruffles our notions of 21st-century Europe and the price some pay to live in it.

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