Voices of the Via Egnatia

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Hiking the Via Egnatia from Durres, Albania, to Thessaloniki, Greece, this project captures impressions, images, soundscapes and interviews along the historical route across the Balkan Peninsula.

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Coping with a large and sudden influx of migrants can pose various challenges for receiving countries and local communities alike. Discriminatory attitudes are, perhaps as a result of the ‘sudden’ arrival of migrants, discernible in many European member states, as well as in Switzerland. Proof for such a sentiment is, for instance, the approval of the Ausschaffungsinitiative (deportation initiative) (2). What is the perception of immigrants regarding the collective approval of this political initiative, and do migrants (still) feel welcome in Switzerland in particular, and in Western Europe in general? By extension, how do individuals in the Balkans perceive the migratory policies of Western Europe in general, and particularly in Switzerland? The following project seeks to answer these questions in two successive stages.

Central to the first stage of the project is the Balkan region itself. The goal of this initial phase is to introduce individuals in Switzerland to the rich cultural traditions, the people, and history of the Balkan region. It is for this reason that my partner and I have chosen to hike the Via Egnatia. The Via Egnatia, built sometime between 146 and 120 BCE, was initially known as the via militaris, as it served the purpose of connecting the Roman Empire with Byzantium. The Egnatia, however, turned into a via publicus, and thus served the purpose of trade, travel, and tourism. With the onset of the mid-fifth century and subsequent collapse of the Roman Empire, the Egnatia suffered invasions and fell into disrepair. In the 15th century, the rising Ottoman Empire later used, and relied heavily on this same artery to move its army, goods, and cultural traditions westwards. As a result, one is able to see markets, amphitheaters, charitable kitchens, hammams, mosques, and churches that variously date back to the Byzantine, Roman and/or the Ottoman Empire. As such, the Egnatia served as an artery that initially connected Rome with Byzantium and subsequently Istanbul with the West. Yet the route evolved into a road of much more importance. The Via Egnatia was a highway by which goods, ideas, and cultural practices travelled back and forth between the East and the West. The Egnatia is, in other words, a cultural heritage that preserved the common history of the Balkan region.

My partner and I will hike the Egnatia between July 19 and August 17, 2016. We start our trek in Durres, Albania, and make our way to Thessaloniki, Greece, to learn more about the everyday life of individuals along this route, and to understand how they perceive the Egnatia, the Balkans in general, and crucially, how they perceive the ‘West’ from afar. Do they have relatives who moved to Switzerland, or else the European Union? How do they feel about the local outmigration, and does it affect them personally?

Migrants who moved to, and made their home in Switzerland, are the focus in stage two of the project. What were the factors that lead to their decision to ‘up and move’ their entire life, to leave their family and their friends behind? What were their dreams and hopes before leaving for Western Europe, and did their family approve of their decision to leave? How do their family and friends view Western Europe, and Switzerland in particular from afar? One of the major objectives is thus to broach the question of migration from a human perspective.

Upon completing the project, we hand the visual and oral data (3) to a Swiss theater, which turns the data into a play. Additional outputs will include articles in cultural magazines. The project is financed by the Landis and Gyr foundation in Switzerland. (4)

(1) Image from Viaegnatiafoundation.eu

(2) The Ausschaffungsinitiative (deportation initiative) calls for the expulsion of foreign nationals who reside in Switzerland legally, though have been convicted for one or more of the following offenses: offense against life and limb, abuse of the Swiss welfare system, drug trafficking, and burglary. The law refers to crimes committed by foreigners. For more detailed information on the initiative, pleaser refer to: https://www.admin.ch/ch/d/pore/vi/vis357t.html#

(3) All of the participants have the choice to speak anonymously.

(4) For more information on the foundation, please visit: http://www.lg-stiftung.ch/page/de/home.