In his historical novel, Alexander Billinis shows us that we are all pieces of the Aegean mosaic.
Meet Alexander Billinis
American-born attorney, author, and expert on Byzantine Europe, Alexander Billinis has called several countries home. Born in Salt Lake City, UT to a Greek-American mother with roots in Patras, and a father from Hydra, Alex spent his summers on Hydra. His paternal grandfather hailed from Vatika, between Monemvasia and Neapolis, which figure prominently in his latest book. His lifelong interest in Byzantine History has influenced him greatly.
Alex attended Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, earning a degree in East European Studies. He also earned advanced degrees in international business and law.
“I was always pulled towards Europe, and studied there several times, in Belgium, Germany, Bulgaria, and Hungary. When I worked as a banker, I had an opportunity to run a department in Athens, and took it. I got to know Greece as a local, from the inside, with all of the difficulties and the delights of Greek citizenship: a horrid bureaucracy, a crony business culture, and a stint in the army, as well as the food, fellowship, the history, in such intimate proximity. Greece is no longer foreign to me — it’s my country, and as our Nobel Laureate Giorgos Seferis once wrote, ‘Greece wounds me.’
His Chicago-born son and wife joined him in Greece after he finished his military service. Two years later, it was on to London, where his daughter was born. The family later moved to his wife Vilma’s Serbian hometown, Sombor.
He began writing in the 1990s, inspired by the Macedonian Issue, mostly journalistic/opinion and nonfiction pieces. He stopped for a while as he pursued a career in banking, and his law degree.
“As a banker in Greece, and a witness to the unfurling of the Greek financial crisis, I started writing again.”
In Serbia, Alex began writing full time. He’s written articles on travel, history, finance, and politics for a number of publications — US, Greek, Serbian, and Australian. His first book, The Eagle Has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe, was published in 2011. The family returned to Chicago in June 2013.
Inspiration for Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale
While living in Serbia, he pondered the overlapping mosaic in their border town, which had remnants of the Byzantine, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian influences of the region, then began to consider identity as a complicated mosaic rather than something “black and white.”
A trip to Istanbul/Constantinople set the wheels in motion.
“My wife and I stared at the mosaics, liberated from 500 years of plaster, covered when Agia Sophia was a mosque. I said, ‘You see, the truth comes out!’ It got me thinking that underneath the Turkish—and the Greek—national identity was a mosaic waiting to be revealed.”
Documentary and anecdotal evidence, beginning in his own family, shaped the tale described in Hidden Mosaics. His paternal great-great grandfather was the child of a mixed Muslim-Christian marriage, which resulted in a conversion to Orthodoxy during the War of Independence. He also drew on visits to Izmir/Smyrna, where he happened upon a Turk of Cretan Muslim descent, who spoke to him in Greek. He says the two protagonists are fictional, however, much of the story is true.
He believes that the mosaic is part of everyone’s identity, whether acknowledged, or yet unrevealed.
“My research has indicated that clandestine conversions by local Greek Muslims to avoid massacre or expulsion occurred quite often in the Peloponnese, so that many of us do have ancestors with a mixed identity. It doesn’t make us any less Greek, but it does make us more aware that we’re all connected.”
Osman, the son of a decorated Turkish military officer, is raised on his father’s prejudices against Greeks, as well as his pro-Turkish doctrine. Osman doesn’t think much of it, except that when he sees a Greek, he feels like they look at him with disdain.
One day, Osman visits his favorite cafe, with the best view in Izmir. It also happens to be the place where the tour guides take their parties. On this day, Osman was waiting for his best friend Cem, who had just completed his PhD in the US. Osman calls out to his friend, but Cem proceeds to hug someone else — a carbon copy of Osman, who happens to be Greek. Thinking it’s a joke, Cem tries to figure out what’s going on. The real Osman appears, to be confronted by his “twin.” The Greek, from the Peloponnese, was visiting Izmir for the first time. Osman and his “twin”, exchange names. Ioannis tells Osman that if he’s ever in Greece to look him up.
Seeing a virtual double of himself rocks Osman to the core, and he becomes obsessed with learning about this man, and exploring any possible roots in Greece. His father discourages him, but his wife is supportive of this quest.
In a stroke of luck, he’s sent on a business trip to Greece. While in Athens, he discovers his wife’s own mixed ancestry. He takes some extra time to travel to the Peloponnese to find his “twin”. There, he gets a similar reaction as did his friend. Osman explores the area, speaks to the locals, and in a strange twist of fate, finds a disturbing photo of his father during the 1974 Invasion of Cyprus. His worlds collide and explode as he unveils long hidden secrets, and his own destiny.
Review of Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale
A mosaic is an image created when a collection of pieces of colored glass, stone, or other materials is assembled together. Alexander Billinis takes a little-known history, adds long-held prejudices, culture, human connections and feelings, and a quest for self-discovery, and creates a colorful mosaic that crosses cultures and religions, spans countries. He shows us that in a region of the world with a long, complicated history of war and conquest, that people’s personal stories, their roots, go deeper, extend farther than they imagine. Alex reminds us that we are all intertwined, all connected in ways we do not know. Regardless of politics, religion, and culture, we all belong to the mosaic.
It’s a quick, but fascinating read. It will make you wonder how deep, and how widespread your family roots are.
Alexander Billinis’ books are vailable on Amazon
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; First edition (November 11, 2015)
Other books by Alexander Billinis: